Scale it Down: How Boards of Small Churches Can Prevent Pastor Burnout

Pastoring in a small church means a pastor wears more hats and fulfills a more diverse range of duties than in churches with larger staffs. From spiritual guidance to gardening, often the pastor is the sole staff member. The hours can be longer, the tasks can be more relational, and administrative responsibilities are squeezed in between ministerial duties. 

Boards of smaller ministries may need to provide additional support to help their pastor stay spiritually strong. To help monitor the emotional health of the pastor, Brent Allen, executive pastor of ministries for Pathway Church, suggests that the board assign a board member or designate a person to serve as a mentor or friend to the pastor. “The board and the pastor agree to allow a wise and compassionate person to speak into his or her life,” Allen says. “This gives the designated person permission to ask, ‘how are things spiritually?’ or ‘how are things in your home?’” 

It’s also important to enlist other ministry members to get involved to help lighten the pastor’s load. “The answer to the one-man or -woman show is releasing people to use their spiritual gifts,” says John Opalewski, founder and owner of Converge Coaching. “That happens best when there is a clear vision from the board and the pastor, an easy to follow strategy, and identifiable core values.”

Here are three ways to get that done, Opalweski says:  

1. Set limits. Small churches try to do too much, and their pastors spread themselves too thin. Opalewski advises church boards to focus on just a few goals and work the plan to achieve those goals with excellence. “Just accept the fact that you aren’t going to be able to do everything.”

Allen agrees. “There needs to be clear expectations on both sides about what’s attainable and how to accomplish the goals. When both sides build that relationship capital there will be more opportunity to dig down and solve the ministry’s issues.”

2. Work together. Opalewski says to start by identifying the ministry’s core values, then think of them as rumble strips along the highway. “When you stray off course, the rumble strips shake the car. Your reflex is to course-correct. That’s what core values do for an organization,” he says.

The pastor and leadership can disagree with each other, but it’s the group’s responsibility to always leave the room in unity. “If discussions get out of hand, stop and have a time of prayer,” Allen says. “Appreciate each other’s gifts and talents and work to find the common ground.”

3. Outsource where it makes sense. You may be unaware that you can outsource administrative duties. Look for a ministry-minded “virtual assistant” who can schedule appointments, answer phone calls, post social media messages, event planning, and perform other organizational tasks. A virtual assistant is not physically present in your office and generally works for a set number of hours a week. For a one-pastor church, Opalewski says that it’s more affordable than you may think. 

To help identify what could be outsourced, look for those time-consuming areas most in need of protecting, like payroll, says Allen. Outsourcing payroll saves a lot of time and grief and can help with tax compliance issues. Look for a payroll provider that understands ministry-specific issues like pastor pay and housing allowance deductions.

Opalewski says that if the pastor flourishes, then the ministry flourishes. “The board shouldn’t worry if it can’t supply the full infrastructure needed,” he says. “But you definitely should do what you can.”

There’s a lot of work that goes into interpersonal communication between the board and the pastor. You don’t get it by accident. Make sure, at all costs, that you’re working toward healthy interactions. “To foster healthy relationships,” Opalewski says, “I would say just love each other.” 

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