Prince Raney Rivers: What makes pastors thrive?

How do we keep on serving amidst the challenges? By being true to ourselves and loving the church.

I’ve served three churches in eleven years. God willing, I hope to enjoy at least twenty-five more years. As a recent “Call & Response post pointed out, the threat of burnout in pastoral work is real. Maybe you’ve heard the story about the pastor who retired after fifty years. Asked if he had ever thought about quitting, he said, “Every Monday morning.” 

Four colleagues and I recently visited two pastors to have a conversation on ministry. One pastor candidly shared his challenges. He kept asking if we really wanted to hear what he had to say. He has served in ministry for more than two decades. He has published, taught, and led flourishing churches. Yet he has concluded that the work does not get easier the longer we do it. Not exactly what I wanted to hear.

The visit left me wondering how we do what we do. What enables a pastor to serve fifty years in the same church go back into the study every Tuesday? What makes it possible for pastors to endure extraordinary challenges and cling to the hope of the gospel? What makes pastors thrive?

When I entered the ministry, I went to visit my childhood pastor to ask his advice. This is a man whose study is filled with journals he’s kept for decades. I expected him to send me away with a note pad filled with wisdom for the journey.  Instead, without any hesitation, he said, “Be true to yourself.”

I asked myself, “Is that all?” 

I realize now that was all I needed to hear. I can’t tell you how much this simple phrase has blessed me over the years. Ministry often entails trying to be all things to all people. But there comes a point where you really do have to draw the line and be authentic. The more I’ve practiced that, the more I have enjoyed the gift of being accepted for who I am. 

Another source of strength has been the opportunity to maintain strong relationships outside of the local church. My family and friends have been life-giving sources of support for me over the years. It is always difficult for me to figure out the right amount of time and attention to give the different segments of my life. I have not regretted one vacation (since I started taking them). Before kids came along, my wife and I and several other couples made it a point to get together once or twice a year. Perhaps Jesus should have said, “What does it profit us to save the world and lose our home?”

One of my prayers is for the grace to love the church unconditionally. I don’t like it when pastors who despise their congregations tell the rest of us how much they hate the people to whom they preach. It only fills their ministry with drudgery. A wise pastor once counseled me to “Love the people because God loves the people.” 

More than a few pastors have encouraged me to keep growing and to explore new ways to keep the church growing. They suggest that every few years we need to refocus our personal vision to avoid getting stuck in personal and congregational routines. I guess that’s why I said ‘yes’ to the invitation to write for “Faith and Leadership.”

Finally, I’m finding it increasingly important, in a world of ever increasing distractions, to be mission-driven. A friend of mine says that wherever you are, you made an appointment to be there.

As I was leaving church the other day, I asked a retired member how she was doing.  She sighed and told me how exhausted she was. And do you know what’s wearing her out? Church work! While she may need to acknowledge some boundary issues, it is clear that churches can easily become an unhealthy place for clergy and laity alike all in the name of success. 

Jesus said that he came to give us live and life more abundantly. How do you think we can find that life while working for the church?

Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC.