Avoid the Pitfalls that Derail Ministries

What Can Go Wrong in Early Ministry?

Up to 50% of the graduates from a well-known seminary were leaving ministry in the first 5 years according to a researcher I spoke with a few year ago. Currently, most research I have seen indicates anywhere from 1% to 40% in attrition rates.

What do researchers find making the first five years of ministry such a critical period?

Howard Friend of Alban Institute cites “failure to form a basic trust-based partnership with the congregation during the early months of the pastorate” as a reason for early clergy attrition. [1]

He states that some clergy simply “do not attend to the art of relationship building, of establishing basic rapport and pastoral conversation”. He also noted that some pastors struggle with strong ego-development or self-esteem, which I refer to as secure identity (having a strong sense of identity that is also rooted in Christ.)

The pitfalls are not doctrinal, theological, or sacramental.

No, ‘people’ issues lead to attrition.

What Can Go Wrong Later in a Pastoral Career (Without Development of Strong Emotional Intelligence)?

Roy Oswald has worked with thousands of pastors as a consultant and trainer. Over the years, he identified things that go wrong in ministerial careers.[2] Here are seven:

• A pastor is so averse to conflict that whenever anyone offers a criticism of his ministry he tries to avoid that person as much as possible, rather than meeting with them to work out their differences.

• A pastor has a good theology of grace but is unable to embody that grace with congregants, remaining mainly aloof, critical, and dismissive of them.

• A pastor loses her temper frequently with congregants so that people try to avoid her, not wanting to be on the receiving end of her anger.

• A pastor is so depressed that he is barely able to do what is minimally expected of him, putting in at most thirty hours per week.

• A pastor is a micro-manager of staff and volunteers but is unaware of the emotional effect that has on people, who always end up feeling they are being treated like immature children.

• A pastor is so introverted that he appears unable to make connections in significant ways with congregants; members rarely come to know the real person hiding behind the clerical collar.

• A pastor takes credit for everything positive happening within the congregation but rarely acknowledges the efforts of others and is unaware of how this impacts others emotionally.

Oswald observes that each of the pitfalls mentioned could have been remedied by the development of greater emotional intelligence.

Obviously, sexual misconduct derails some clergy careers. However, apart from that, regardless of how you cut it, the greatest source of danger comes down to difficulties leading, connecting and communicating with people.

All those things rely on the components of emotional intelligence.

So I challenge you to learn more about managing your own emotions, identifying and negotiating the expectations of others, handling interpersonal conflict masterfully, and communicating skillfully.

You will become a better leader and in the process avoid major pitfalls in the pastoral career.


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[1] Howard Friend. The failure to form basic partnership: resolving a dilemma of new pastorates. Retrieved from : http://www.pbs.org/thecongregation/indepth/resolvingdilemma.html

[2] Roy Oswald. What can go wrong without emotional intelligence. Retrieved from: http://journals.sfu.ca/rpfs/index.php/rpfs/article/viewFile/429/416

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