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Home » All Resources » Articles on Church Body of Christ » Eugene Cho, Death by Ministry
Is pastoral ministry a dangerous profession? Eugene Cho shares the facts.

Several years ago, I spent several hours per week doing research (and meeting with other pastors) about pastoral health and vitality for my denomination. I chose to spend some time doing that for selfish reasons. I was and am still learning how to take better care of myself in ministry while completely acknowledging that sometimes, it's not supposed to feel right. We all know that work...well...is supposed to be laborious. And those in ministry know that ministry in itself is difficult. There's no way to get around it, but...

More Questions Than Answers?

Frankly, there seem to be more questions than answers. But the Bible commands us to be "prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). To be honest, there was a time when I was not prepared to answer these questions, either. However, after 50 years of pondering them, I have discovered some things that satisfy me. In the hope that others may be helped, too, I have compiled a great many insights and answers in my recent book, If God, Why Evil? It attempts to respond to all of these questions and more in a simple, biblical, and reasonable way. Below is an abbreviated compilation that I hope preachers will find of great benefit and use in their sermons.

What I learned was pretty shocking and heartbreaking, but one of the conclusions I came to was that as ministry leaders, pastors, and other pursuers of God's work, it helps to understand some of the challenges ahead and to be proactive rather than reactive.

I can focus an entry purely on the joys and blessings of pastoral ministry and feel confident I can write a compelling piece. But these statistics (and stories that many of us are aware of) and our personal stories are hard to ignore.

Here's a summary of what I learned:

There are varying reports from different sources, but I believe most will agree that the ministerial profession (life as pastors) is now considered one of the most dangerous or unhealthiest professions. It's usually rated last or second to last. Read this comment from a local Northwest minister, Mark:

"At the first church I served, we had an insurance agent who was a member of the congregation. When I went to see him about some auto insurance needs, he said ‘Hey, wanna see something that will scare you to death?'...He pulled out a form that had various professions rated for their risk of giving life insurance policies to...Anyway, to make a lengthening story shorter, he showed me that clergy members were in the same category as deep sea welders and loggers as the second highest risk group to give life insurance policies to. We were behind crab fishermen but ahead of munitions workers.

"It was a little disturbing to know that statistically I was gonna die due to my profession before someone who builds explosives. This was back in 1994; the statistics may be better (or worse) now."

If you don't believe the above comment, read some of these statistics:

Forty-eight percent of them think their work is hazardous to their family's well-being. Another 45.5% will experience burnout or depression that will make them leave their jobs. And 70% say their self-esteem is lower now than when they started their position. They have the second highest divorce rate among professions. Who are "they"? They are pastors.

Here are some more overwhelming statistics:

  • 80% of pastors say they have insufficient time with spouse and that ministry has a negative effect on their family.
  • 40% report a serious conflict with a parishioner once a month.
  • 33% say that being in ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
  • 75% report they've had a significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry.
  • 58% of pastors indicate that their spouse needs to work either part-time or full-time to supplement the family income.
  • 56% of pastors' wives say they have no close friends.
  • Pastors who work fewer than 50 hours per week are 35% more likely to be terminated.
  • 40% of pastors considered leaving the pastorate in the past three months.
  • Feeling dizzy? Take a breath. Here are some more statistics:
  • 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
  • 50% of pastors' marriages will end in divorce.
  • 80% of pastors and 84% of their spouses feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastors.
  • 50% of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
  • 80% of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.
  • 70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
  • Almost 40% polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.
  • 70% said the only time they spend studying the Word is when they are preparing their sermons. [Compiled by Darrin Patrick]

While I love being a pastor and even more, being called to be a pastor, I want folks to know how incredibly difficult it is at times to handle the complexities and stress of being a minister. Finally, at the age of 39, I feel more at peace with how to create boundaries, love my church, better care for my wife and children, support my fellow staff, handle criticism, etc., but there are times I feel clueless and overwhelmed.

I've been having occasional visitors from a blog started by and for pastors' wives [couldn't find one for pastors' husbands]. Some of their comments have been difficult to read because they hit so close to home. I will not post a link to their blog here, but here are two comments:

"Oh, and the financial part is tough. We live on poverty level. I don't know how we are going to pay all the bills sometimes, much less buy groceries. The Lord always comes through, though, and on a really tough week, someone in the church will anonymously give us a gift. We have no in-between at our church. It's either people trying to help us out (it's all there what we make each week—in black and white), or it's people that have this attitude: ‘Pastors are supposed to suffer and sacrifice. It's part of the job.' Has anyone else noticed that mentality? I don't know where it comes from, and it is one of my biggest pet peeves. Pastors aren't supposed to drive nice cars, have nice houses, or buy new clothes. And we are always supposed to be worried about making ends meet—I wonder if it is just half of my church that thinks that way."

Here's the second comment:

"Today my son approached my husband and randomly said, ‘I guess you're going back to church now.' And he wasn't going anywhere! During seminary, he would walk around the house saying, ‘Bye bye, Daddy. Bye bye, Daddy!' So sad, but very true. It's definitely a calling, isn't it? I told my husband the other day: ‘In my classes that I took to prepare me to be a minister's wife, they told me over and over again, ‘it is the loneliest job in the world,' but I never realized it until we were in the role...'"

While I feel solid support from my staff, my elder board, and the church as a whole, I know that many of my peers do not feel this way.

Simply, pastors are often underpaid, underappreciated, and at times, undermined.

There is strain on their marriages and families. Two other incredibly real factors that add complexities to the ministerial calling are: 1) the cultural complexity and dynamic of the 21st century and 2) the nebulous but real nature of the spiritual realm and battle. The reality is that being a pastor is not just merely a job, nor should it be one. Ministry is a calling. It's both amazing and incredibly difficult. While it isn't my desire to overdramatize the significance of ministry, I do believe that the Evil One seeks to impede and harm the work that is to take place through ministers and pastors.

As for the "cultural complexity of the 21st century," I think this quote captures my sentiment:

"My viewpoint tends to be more organizational, so my take on being a pastor is that it is an impossible job. Here you are asked to be the lead preacher and teacher, available for counseling sessions, leading a staff of people that can span such responsibilities as missions and janitorial, serving as the public face for your organization in the community, networking with other leaders at Christian conferences and denominational gatherings. That's a lot of hats! ...Let's finally consider the financial issues. I don't believe pastors are paid very well, so that's obviously a downer. And if you are paid well, and sometimes even if you aren't, that has its own issues, for congregants can quite easily feel they own you, since they're paying your way. In what other organization is the person at the top in such an awkward financial relationship with his or her co-workers and clients?"

My point is very simple:

Please care, pray, and love your pastors (and church staff) in your churches.

Seriously, give them a nice pay raise, more time off, regular opportunities to get away for even a day retreat to pray, buy them some dinner certificates, honor their spouses, love their children, pray for them, and regularly share your appreciation and affirmation.

Now, I know that this can easily be intended to perpetuate the victim language or mentality, but it's a two-way street. Churches must seek to honor and care for their pastors and staff and build healthy structures to ensure such care. Similarly, pastors and their families must make choices to be holistically healthy! We must rest, Sabbath, enjoy God, love the Scriptures not simply for the sake of sermon preparations, be in deep friendships and community, exercise, work on our jump shot, continue to be a reader and learner, love and honor our spouses, nurture our children, laugh and have fun, eat healthy and drink good refreshments [use your imagination here], examine and repent of any possible addictions, and [add your contribution here].

We need to lean on God, stop our self-sufficiency, and repent of the idolatry to please all those around us. Easier said than done, but it needs to begin somewhere. Why not now?

Some good news:

Despite the intense nature of pastoral ministry, it is also immensely fulfilling. Huh? It makes total sense to me. According to a recent survey, the top five professions are clergy, physical therapists, firefighters, education administrators, and painters/sculptors:

Clergy ranked by far the most satisfied and the most generally happy of 198 occupations. Eighty-seven percent of clergy said they were "very satisfied" with their work, compared with an average of 47 percent for all workers. Sixty-seven percent reported being "very happy," compared with an average of 33 percent for all workers. Jackson Carroll, Williams professor emeritus of religion and society at Duke Divinity School, found similarly high satisfaction when he studied Protestant and Catholic clergy, despite relatively modest salaries and long hours.

"They look at their occupation as a calling," Carroll said. "A pastor does get called on to enter into some of the deepest moments of a person's life, celebrating a birth and sitting with people at times of illness or death. There's a lot of fulfillment." [read the entire article]

So while pastoral ministry is at times exhausting, draining, depressing, and overwhelming, it's also meaningful and fulfilling.

May God grant you grace, courage, and strength.

God bless you pastors. God bless your spouses and your children. May you bless your flock and may you be blessed by them. And together, may you bless the Lord as you seek to bless His creation.


Eugene Cho

Eugene Cho is the co-founder (with his wife) and executive director of One Day's Wages—"a movement of People, Stories, and Actions to alleviate extreme global poverty." He is also the founding and lead pastor of Quest Church and the founder and executive director of Q Cafe—a non-profit community cafe and music venue in Seattle. Eugene is considered one of the prominent bloggers on issues of justice, faith, ministry, and utilizing social media for good. You can follow him via his blog or Twitter.

I hear what you are saying. I have been pastoring part or full time for more than 35 years. Some of your stats may need reviewing, though, and how could you have been pondering these questions for 50 years, when you later sa you are 39 years old? I assume this was a typo, but at first I thought you were an old man, and then saw your picture and your age. Anyway, I wont hold it against you, and I know what you are talking about. Keep the faith... we will reap the rewards if we do not give up. [delete comment]
Michael Redmond
March 21, 2011
I find interesting all the comments about how pastors are supposed to suffer or, at least, expect to suffer. I thought suffering was something all Christians should expect - "take up your cross..." I wonder how many of those comments came from non-clergy, especially those who have an issue with pastors being in a "special class." [delete comment]
Paul Morton
March 20, 2011
"They have the second highest divorce rate among professions." Where did you get this statistic? I can locate no research that has reported this. [delete comment]
Josh Guess
March 17, 2011
Is it possible all these dire statistics are the results of a widespread misunderstanding of the pastor's role in the church rather than the suffering promised from living a life devoted to God? [delete comment]
Robert Yount
March 16, 2011
I have been in ministry for 40 years. "Pay the man Shirley" [delete comment]
Margaret Liggins
March 15, 2011
Andrea My heart actually fell when I read your comment. I am not a pastor, nor the wife of one, not even clergy, but somehow, I feel your pain. My words to you: Don't let the enemy take from you that which the Holy Spirit empowered you with. You know that the enemies job is to kill, steal and destroy. You're letting him do that to you. Pick yourself up and get back in the race. Scared to go among 'church people'. That is just what you are suppose to do and make the Churched people. God did not give you fear. The enemy has placed this in your mind. Rebuke that! Do what God has called you to do and that is to expound on His Word - to tell the people what thus sayeth the Lord. "There is much need for prayer and the true doctrine of Christ in the Bible....." That's your job. Stop wallowing in self pity and ask the Lord Jesus for strength and forgivness, yes, and get back to work. [delete comment]
Norman Mayfield
March 15, 2011
As I recall Spurgeon suffered from sever depression. John calvin suffered from a variety of illnesses, M.Luther also. "unto you it is given not only to believe on Christ but also to suffer for Him. Phil 1:29 Christ left us an example...If the world hates me it will also hate you... [delete comment]
Anonymous Baptist Minister
March 14, 2011
If it weren't for people, ministry wouldn't be that bad. "People" can include those on staff as well as those in the pew. Ministry is certainly tough, but even though it is somewhat cliche, Jesus died for that knucklehead who's giving you grief as much as he did for you! That helps give me some perspective. I discuss these types of issues on my blogspot blog. Just search for my "name" in blogs. [delete comment]
Dr. Kerry Smith
March 14, 2011
I am beginning my 25th year of pastoral ministry..The 25 years have led me through 4 separate churches. I too have been lied about, spit on-literally, attempted forced termination, threatened, had my office has been bugged, video taped and invited out behind the church after a service for someone to get even with me-physically. In addition, I have suffered 3 heart attacks, a brain tumor, panic disorder, nerve problems, 2 knee replacements elevated blood pressure and blood sugar...and only by the grace of God..do I continue. Through all of the issues that deal with being a pastor..occasionally it is real good. Like when someone finds Christ as their Savior, receives healing,restoration or finds peace. I am confident I will eventually die..due to the stress of pastoring...but when that happens.. I WIN!! Thanks God [delete comment]
Peter Thomas of North Springfield Baptist Church
March 14, 2011
"I want folks to know how incredibly difficult it is at times to handle the complexities and stress of being a minister." I completely agree! I compare the challenges of ministry to juggling with live chickens. So many different things to keep in the air at once. All kinds of pressures which most folks doing most jobs do not face. “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God.” (2 Corinthians 3:5) After 25 years in ministry I have posted my reflections online at www.pbthomas.com/jugglingwithchickens/ [delete comment]
Jo-ann Mlakar
March 14, 2011
I thought that this was such an excellent presentation of how ministry can be very challenging that I made copies of it for the leadership of the church. My purpose in distributing it was to encourage the leadership to pray for other pastors in our immediate area who are struggling. I have felt very blessed to be in a fellowship where the leadership has always been very supportive & even protective of me, (pastor) going above & beyond to facilitate my spiritual emotional & physical health. So I was SURPRISED when one of the leadership told me that the article made her angry, that pastors who struggle with these issues have no business being in ministry. What I saw was a total lack of compassion, from someone who is usually very compassionate. It makes me realize that even in churches where the specific issues mentioned are not currently an issue, they can be. [delete comment]
Rev. Thomas Chacko
March 14, 2011
What the author said could be true in many cases because I have been seing this trend in many of my collegues lives. Thank God I haven't experienced the same though I have been involved in ministry of one kind or the other all my life. Now being an ordained minister and serving a congregation for about 14 years, though at times there were times i was discouraged due to somethings happening in the church, especially in my previous church where I stayed only two years(Thank God in our denomination we can ask for a transfer) generally people are very nice( and having come from another country, we haven't felt discrimination. My wife (of 32 years) works outside. But one thing I make sure is that she is not involved in the church ministry or affairs except singing in the choir. We live within our means, educate our children, don't even care to eat outside and we have no complaints. The church gave me raise consecutive years and I gave it back to the church. Church people are nice and loving, but we do not have much of friends, like many pastors. I wouldn't do anything else in my life. There is joy, there is contentment there are challenges. It's all part of the territory. Thanks be to God [delete comment]
In your article published at Churchleaders.com you also listed: "Clergy ranked by far the most satisfied and the most generally happy of 198 occupations. Eighty-seven percent of clergy said they were “very satisfied” with their work, compared with an average 47 percent for all workers. Sixty-seven percent reported being “very happy,” compared with an average 33 percent for all workers." Is it just me, or are the statistics confusing?! [delete comment]
Todd - I know what you are saying... but consider this. I minister in an elder led Bible church. I guess you would say I'm the lead elder. We make every effort to do everything by the Book while staying open to the leading of the Spirit. Our purpose is to feed the flock, protect them, and equip them for ministry. Though that surely lessens the problems, it does not keep power hungry people from disrupting and distracting, nor does it keep wolves from sneaking in to devour the flock, nor does it protect from people that have their own agenda. The call to ministry is a call to die to self to serve the Lord, regardless of how your church functions. There will always be tares until we meet Him in the air. [delete comment]
I have experienced all of the above and then some. 20 years ago I lost my wife to cancer and 2 years later I remarried a wonderful women who would take me and the church on and my three kids. First thing she did was say what will you do once you retire. I had never thought of it. Get a hobby was her response. And she did not let up. Gail was not with me as I went to seminary like my late wife but she understood nasty church people. She might be little but she is unbelievable. She puts up with nothing from church snobs and if they dish it out she dishes it right back. She has been a Executive director of secular charities and has taught me so much and given me so much courage. Last year I faced cancer and know that without her in my life I would have simply given up. I have a couple of great hobbies and lots of friens outside the church and my life does not revolve around my job any longer. It is amazing feeling. I hightly recommend a life outside of the job. [delete comment]
I can identify with each of the struggles you mention in your article, especially the loneliness. Just as one negative comment can sometimes hurt for a long time, I have been warmed by the strength of one positive comment. About 4 years ago, as I was at the bedside of a dying parishioner, with some of his family and friends at his side, as I was getting ready to leave, one of those visitors, stepped aside to speak to me more privately. He said, "It was nice to meet you. And thank you for being a pastor." I looked at him in stunned silence and he noticed. He said, "It's not easy - what you do - thank you for being a Pastor." A few days later, after the funeral, this same man made a point to find me. He laid his hand on my arm and said again, "Remember - I meant what I said - Thank you for being a pastor." I have never heard those words before or since but I have been strengthened and comforted often during the last four years of ministry by this simple statement said with meaning and depth. [delete comment]
Myron Heckman
March 14, 2011
This article is helpful in reminding us of the real suffering some of our colleagues and their spouses go through. Virtually all pastors and wives have been through it at some point, and to varying degrees – it is excruciating. Thanks for that. May God redeem the scars that are left. We have to have careful not to fall into self-pity or a victim identity, which saps ambition and taking responsibility for what we can do. We are called to endure hardships as good soldiers (II Timothy 2:3-4). In the statistics, I find at least these three unlikely - 50% of pastors' marriages will end in divorce. 70% of pastors constantly fight depression. Almost 40% polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry. I’m sure the actual numbers are higher than we’d like to admit, but when the data contradict common sense, doubt the data. Especially when they are contradicted with this quote: “Clergy ranked by far the most satisfied and the most generally happy of 198 occupations. Eighty-seven percent of clergy said they were "very satisfied" with their work, compared with an average of 47 percent for all workers. Sixty-seven percent reported being "very happy," compared with an average of 33 percent for all workers.” [delete comment]
Paul Curry of Adrian Baptist
March 14, 2011
Food for thought: I have been a pastor now for over 10yrs and yes I can identify with all the struggles. I have had to struggle with the fact that the money could possibly not be there to pay me. I have been forced terminated. And yes,even in my current pastorate my wife has to be the "bread winner". However, I am seeing a shift among the minds of people towards ministers. People are coming to us left and right now wanting to know how to be frugal. People in our area are being layed off or receiving cut back in their hrs. of work. People are looking unto me and my wife to teach them these values of contentment and being frugal. As ministers we must constantly remind ourselves it is about opportunities to minister and not so much about the haves and have nots. When we struggle and desire to be like the Jones, be mindful of those who are persecuted for their faith. Why could we possibly complain about our lack of material things when they are dying for the cause of Christ? [delete comment]
Todd Vaters
March 14, 2011
This is sad but what it doesn't address is how much of the problem is created by drifting from a Biblical definition of the Church and ministry. Doing God's work man's way will always lead to burnout. Also, in many chuches Pastors are in a 'special' class, above and beyond any Biblical designation. This feeds the comfort cravings of congregants and the ego of Pastors in an unhealthy cylce. Giving a Pastor a raise is great but it won't address root issues. Pastors must turn the tide by teaching and modeling the Biblical purpose of pastoring... equiping the saints for ministry. [delete comment]
Aandrea Jones
March 14, 2011
Hi I am healing from what you are talking about. Death by ministry is a brillant and true article. I was married to an assistant pastor and was suffered depression, feeling severely inadequate, ridicule, outcast, slandered,and harshly labeled and misjudged. I also served as a prphetess in the minister and was not respected in the call because of past hurtful things that I had overcame before salvation. There is much need for prayer and the true doctrine of Christ in the Bible to be re-introduced and re-visited in the The Church Era. I am divorced, not a part of a ministry and am lost and scaared to go among so called church people, in this world,as to link up and to attempt to do the Lord's work with such people again. [delete comment]

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