Strategies for Resilience in Co-Vocational Ministry

As healthcare workers, teachers, pastors, and others in ministry, we all share in the joys and challenges of our work. In this article, we delve into the challenges we face and explore strategies for building resilience, particularly for those of us who work co-vocationally (defined here as paid leadership in a church and paid work in one or more other contexts).

Co-Vocational Ministry Challenges

Recent Canadian research reveals that people in co-vocational ministry are experiencing:

  • Ministry workload
  • Stakeholder expectations
  • Isolation
  • Personal challenges

First, ministry workload is challenging due to time demands, relational conflicts, and the various emotional and spiritual needs of pastors and their congregants. Co-vocational ministry workloads require pastors to fill diverse and complex roles and navigate relationships and change in more than one setting.

Stakeholder expectations emerge from numerous sources. Society at large, denominational communities, families, and congregations may have competing or even unrealistic expectations. Many pastors have high expectations of themselves partially due to the sacred nature of ministry.

Isolation is a challenging aspect of ministry for co-vocational pastors, involving their geographic location, relocations and shifting communities, schedules, decreased energy, and theological and cultural differences. Isolation can also arise when their role presents relational distance and complicates friendships in their ministry context. Competition among churches and ministry peers can, too often, further isolate pastors.

Lastly, let's not forget that personal challenges are an integral part of our lives, regardless of our roles. Loss, illness, family difficulties, financial struggles, and other trials can create significant hurdles independent of our ministry factors. It's important to recognize these challenges and understand that they can impact our resilience in co-vocational ministry. In some cases, the pastoral position presents additional pressures to conceal or handle personal challenges with more grace than would otherwise be expected.

Supportive Resources

It is easy to wonder how co-vocational pastors manage. However, they often bounce back from the challenges they face and remain resilient. How do they do it? There are four broad categories of supportive resources that pastors utilize:

  • Spiritual
  • Relational
  • Personal
  • Organizational

Unsurprisingly, spiritual resources are significant to pastors, especially remembrance of calling to ministry, theological meaning-making, and relationship with God. Overarching beliefs influence the meaning pastors make of the challenges and suffering they encounter. Especially prominent among those beliefs is a sense of calling to co-vocational ministry and the belief that this is a partnership between them and God. These perspectives join with resources such as prayer, scripture, worship, sermons, spiritual books, retreats, small groups, and journaling to reinforce resilience.

Relational support is another central resource. Important relationships occur with spouses and family, friends, peers, mentors, supervisors, congregation members, and professionals. Spouses often share a joint sense of calling to co-vocational ministry and share the load, acting as a sounding board, problem-solving, and encouraging balance and boundaries.  Friends, especially those outside of the local church, are important confidants and support in both joy and challenges. Friendships with those inside of the church may be complicated by the dual role and require more thoughtful navigation. Nevertheless, a supportive congregation is incredibly helpful in cultivating pastoral resilience.

Relationships with peers who understand co-vocational ministry are key. The unique empathy and commiseration in those relationships offer important support and create opportunities to share relevant ideas and resources. Mentors offer wise guidance and care. Supervisory support from denominational leaders, local lay leaders, or others contributes to resilience. Professional support, such as professional counsellors or spiritual directors, best meets certain emotional and mental needs.

A range of personal tools can also promote resilience. Prioritizing balanced time for ministry, family, and personal well-being helps. The ability to say 'no' to unreasonable or unwelcome expectations and boundaries can be challenging but is crucial to protect an appropriate distribution of time and energy. Some people find that consulting with a mentor, advisory team and/or prayer team can help with this. Diet, exercise, routines, and rest are similarly critical.

Longer-term strategies are also important.

Self-awareness, processing of one’s emotional wounds, understanding of one’s unique gifting, and grace for one's imperfections and need for growth are all crucial resources. Lifelong learning through formal education or professional development helps pastors as it enables flexibility, self-reflection, and growth. Cultivating alignment in each of your workplaces, including with one’s denomination, congregation, or team, encourages resilience as it decreases friction and conflict. While not strictly necessary, certain attributes like extroversion, optimism, realism, flexibility, adaptability, compassion, and diplomacy can be helpful in adapting to adversity and being resilient.

In addition, certain organizational practices support pastoral resilience. While co-vocational pastors may have less influence over these factors, helpful organizational practices include co-vocational specific training, financial provision, role flexibility, rigorous pre-service discernment and preparation, early ministry support, skill-specific training and support, and healthy relational opportunities. 

The interplay of challenges and supports ebbs and flows, and with it, so might resilience. The consequences of this can be devastating, making prioritizing resilience a high priority.

Learn more about how Briercrest is helping co-vocational ministry leaders at Co-Vocational Canada: Rethinking Sacred Work.

Originally published as How Do Pastors Bounce Back from Challenges? Revisions by Ellen Duffield.

Margaret Clarke

Margaret Clarke is the Counselling Department Head and Assistant Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Briercrest Seminary. She earned her PhD at the University of Saskatchewan (Educational Administration, 2021) and MA at Briercrest Seminary (Marriage and Family Counselling, 2005). In addition to Margaret’s professional experience as a therapist, researcher, and professor, she is married to Tim, who serves in vocational ministry, and together they have over 20 years’ experience in local church ministry.

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