Running their Race: Why Pastors Stay: Part 3 of 3

By: William D. Shiell

Part 3: What Seminaries, Denominations, and Churches Can Do

Pastors carry the heaviest burdens of any profession. They hold confidential needs, church struggles, family challenges, public relationships, and financial stress in their hearts. It’s no wonder that nearly 40% are thinking about leaving the ministry. But remarkably, and miraculously, over 60% are planning to stay. They are called to this work and have a community of support around them. In the face of opposition, they seek greater spiritual formation and deeper relationships. The larger Church can support church leaders by doing what Hebrews 12:1-2 says to do. They can “help throw off everything that hinders” pastors from running their race. In other words, they can lift the burdens that prevent formation and friendship.

In January, Northern surveyed pastoral leaders and asked a simple question: “Why are so many staying in ministry?” Nearly 400 responded to that question. In my previous posts, I described their characteristics and their requests. Several organizations, including the local church, serve pastoral leaders, from seminaries to denominational networks and other nonprofit groups. For those who care about “helping the helpers,” we can listen deeply to what these called and gifted shepherds want, stop doing what’s burdensome, and empower these prophets to greater ministry. To borrow biblical analogies, every pastor needs a Priscilla, a Jethro, and Aaron and Hur. Priscilla helped train and name the calling in Apollos. Jethro told Moses, “You can’t do this alone.” Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ arms during the battle against the Amalekites (Exodus 17). All three roles are important to play for pastors.

1 ) Name, Train, and Nurture Calling

The Bible is full of people who helped nurture the call of pastors lives. Even after they have decided to follow God’s call, pastors need people to remind them why they are gifted. Priscilla discipled Apollos in Ephesus. Eli helped interpret Samuel’s call for him (1 Samuel 2). Zipporah saved Moses’ life on the way back to Egypt (Exodus 4). Everyone needs someone to speak words of life into them. So we can say to pastors we know, “This is what I see in you that is helping me in my walk with Christ.”

One pastor told me that each day she gets up and reminds herself why she is “God’s little helper” today. So we can help the helper remember what she’s done for God.

That means theological education needs to be just as focused on formation and community as on skills mastery. This kind of wisdom goes against the concern, “They never taught me this in seminary.” I’ve said this many times as a pastor. However, one thing that seminaries uniquely teach is lifelong habits of shepherding people and forming deep friendships. By bringing pastoral leaders to connect for and with each other, seminaries and denominations can convene formative groups for the long haul.

2) Share the Burden

Jethro told Moses that he needed to delegate to others so that Moses could do what only Moses could do—visionary shepherding. Churches and denominations can remind pastors that their role of preaching, teaching, and caring are so vitally important. Pastors need time and margin to know “when to speak and when to listen.”

Co-vocational pastors especially are deeply passionate about evangelism. They are concerned about those who have drifted away during the online/virtual phase of church attendance. But they will need time and space to develop these relationships.

So churches and denominations can be intentional to lift the burden of debt, administration, and benefits. One pastor told me that a member of his personnel committee asked her and the other pastors, “We want our health insurance to be less burdensome. How can we do that?” By talking with pastors, churches can stand in the gap for pastors who are carrying a heavy financial load.

Denominations and churches also need to reflect carefully on the differences among absolutes, convictions, and preferences. Pastors are deeply frustrated that church preferences have quickly been escalated to doctrinal absolutes. Know the importance but difference between each one, and react accordingly. Give pastors space to disagree with each other and with the church. Healthy tension is often the catalyst for innovation. Toxic tension leads to burnout and resentment.

3.) Hold their Arms

Aaron and Hur held Moses’s arms during the battle with the Amalekites. If pastors are going to be freed to fulfill their calling, churches will need to step into volunteer where needed the most. As one pastor said,

COVID depleted our volunteer base. Children’s ministry is the hardest hit. Many of our people, especially younger folks, seem to prefer our online service. Figuring out what our new normal looks like will be huge.

Churches need to be more intentional about ministry mobilization, care and calling of volunteers, and equipping of the saints for the work of ministry. Personally, Kelly and I have become even more involved in our local church during COVID-19, and we are taking on more responsibilities this year. When the church calls, say yes. Cancel the good things on your calendar in order to have time to give your best to the local church.

Form leadership learning communities in your congregation to develop new skills, think theologically and support your staff through these times.

Throwing Off What Hinders

To accelerate resilience, Northern is planning several key initiatives. This summer, we will launch the Center for Theological Integrity. Designed to “help the helpers,” this center will provide needed resourcing, training, formation, and support for pastoral leaders worldwide. In addition, the Center will develop spiritual formation tools, provide mentoring, and assist pastors and churches in aligning with each other on the mission.

To help our current students, Dr. Beth Felker Jones is launching a Doctor of Ministry in Doctrine and Practice. This degree program will provide needed theological reflection and community support for pastors to run the race marked out for them.

To learn more about the new Center email  To learn about our new degree program contact

February 17, 2022

William D. Shiell

President, Professor of Pastoral Theology and Preaching

ABOUT William

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