Clergy Contentment: An Inside Job

Years ago, a familiar voice on the other end of the phone said, “Hi Martin. It’s Larry. I’m in Nashville for a few days at a conference, and I wondered if we could have lunch together.” Larry, a clergy friend, serves as senior pastor at a large church in the south. At the time of his call, I worked at denominational headquarters of my old church. The next day we met at a Mexican restaurant in West Nashville. We talked a long time about our work, our families, and the politics raging in our denomination.

The time quickly passed and I assumed our visit was nearly over. But then, in a rare moment of transparency and honestly, Larry shared something that caught me completely off guard. He said, “For the past several years, I’ve been struggling with a strong spirit of discontentment.” That revelation surprised me. From my limited perspective Larry lived a charmed life. A handsome, intelligent, and outgoing man, he served a large and highly respected church in his home state. Because of his strong leadership and speaking skills, he often spoke at important events, sat on significant boards, and served as a major leader in his state’s denominational life. And yet, in spite of all his ministerial success, Larry told me he rarely felt satisfied and had no inner peace. Concerned he might have clinical depression, he went to see a psychiatrist. However, the doctor told him he did not suffer from clinical depression and did not need antidepressant medication. Still Larry struggled daily with restlessness and discontentment.

Larry told me that at first, he assumed the problem was his church. He thought, if only I could get a bigger and better church, then I would be content. But Larry got a bigger and better church, and it didn’t help. As soon as the initial excitement wore off, Larry felt just as discontented as before. Since the problem wasn’t his church, Larry figured the problem must be his career. He thought he must be in the wrong profession. So, he went to a top-flight career counselor, took a battery of aptitude tests, and engaged in numerous vocational interviews. But in the end, he realized the problem wasn’t his career. In fact, he discovered he was extremely well suited for pastoral work. After extensive evaluation Larry’s career counselor told him, “I can’t think of a better vocation for you than serving as a minister.”

Larry finally said to me: “It’s taken several years and numerous counseling sessions, but I’ve learned something extremely important. I’ve finally figured out that the problem is not my church or my vocation—but me. I’ve learned that my restlessness and discontentment are not an external problem but an internal problem. I’ve learned that happiness is an inside job.”

Like my friend Larry, I once believed that perceived success in ministry—including church size, salary and status—was the key to pastoral contentment. So, I worked hard to be successful. I went to a big church and then a bigger one. I got on the clergy speaking circuit. I earned a doctoral degree. I published a lot of articles and books. I accepted a highly visible national denominational job. At one point I even served as senior pastor at a megachurch. However, career “success” did not bring the fulfillment and happiness that it promised. Although I enjoyed my work, climbing the ecclesiastical ladder added no measurable increase to my personal or professional happiness and sometimes detracted from it.

Take, for example, my tenure at the megachurch. It was the largest church of my denomination in my state and one of the largest in the nation. It represented the pinnacle of my career—an extremely high-status and high-salary job. The church enjoyed exceptional facilities, a massive staff, a huge membership, and impressive ministries and programs. The job even came with a company car. I had “arrived” in my profession. Ironically, I did not like the job. The shift from a pastoral role to a CEO role proved a difficult fit. The daily complexities of leading a huge organization exhausted me. The sky-high expectations to be an ideal preacher, leader and pastor felt impossible to fulfill. Conflict, inevitable in all congregations, grows exponentially with size, and took away much of the joy of ministry. Finally, the relentless criticism that comes from being in such a public and high-profile job took a toll on me. It didn’t take long in that setting for me to realize that I enjoyed smaller, less status and less paying pastorates far more than the megachurch. I vividly learned through that experience that ministry “success” factors like status, size, staff and salary have virtually no bearing on life satisfaction and well-being.

Larry’s and my experience are not unique. Through the years I’ve known many clergy who learned, often the hard way, that external ministerial circumstances like church size and status are not the keys to pastoral contentment. For example, a few years ago, I met a newly retired minister named Richard with an interesting story to tell.

At age twenty-five, when Richard graduated from seminary, his bishop appointed him to a small rural church with a small salary. However, he and his wife loved the congregation, the people loved them in return, and it proved a wonderful pastoral experience. This story continued for the next twenty years. Richard served several other churches, all small congregations with small salaries. But he loved his work and felt grateful to be a pastor. However, when he turned forty-five, he began to pay close attention to the back section of his state denominational journal. That’s where they listed all the pastor salaries in his conference, from the highest to the lowest. Richard noticed that his salary fell slightly below the midpoint range. So, he began to look at those above him. The more he looked, the worse he felt. He saw one man who made a higher salary and thought to himself: I’ve been in ministry longer than he has. Why does he have a better appointment? He saw another name and thought, I’m a better preacher than he is, so why do I make less money? This went on for five years. Every year when the new journal came out, Richard turned to the back section, compared where he was on the salary and status scale, and became more and more bitter.

By now Richard was fifty. All the gratitude and joy he had known earlier in his ministry disappeared. He became a jealous, bitter, joyless, resentful man. One night, when his wife and son left for an overnight trip, Richard had a profound spiritual experience. For the first time in several years, he looked in the mirror and saw what he had become, and he didn’t like what he saw. That night, during his evening prayer, he confessed his bitterness and resentment and begged God to forgive him. He then walked to his desk, picked up his conference journal, tore out the salary section, and burned it in the wood-burning stove in his living room.

Richard then made a promise to God that he would once again be grateful for his pastoral appointment. And he made good on that promise. From that day forward, for the next fifteen years before his retirement, Richard constantly thanked God for the great privilege of proclaiming the Gospel, administering the sacraments, caring for people, and leading his congregation—regardless of the church’s size. He decided to quit complaining about what he didn’t have, and he began expressing gratitude for what he did have, and it made a huge difference. He told me, “Even with the struggles—and I’ve had plenty—the past fifteen years have been the best years of my life.”

Although the circumstances of our pastoral experiences have been different, Larry, me and Richard have all learned an important lesson. We’ve each learned that pastoral contentment does not come from external circumstances like the size and status of our church. Which raises the important and obvious question—if ministerial “success” doesn’t make clergy happy, what does? The answer is simple. The factors that make pastors happy are the same factors that make everybody happy. And those factors have almost nothing to do with external circumstances like affluence, accomplishments or appearance, which have appropriately been called “the three A’s of American values.” Instead, personal contentment and well-being is overwhelmingly, in the words of my friend Richard, “an inside job.”

Over the past several years, in preparation for my book, Searching For Happiness: How Generosity, Faith, and Other Spiritual Habits Can Lead To a Full Life, I’ve done extensive research on what makes people happy. Not because happiness is the ultimate goal of Christianity. It does not rate up there with the prophet’s call for justice, the Great Commandment, or advancement of the kingdom of God. But the quest for authentic contentment—which every heart longs for and every person seeks—including clergy—leads us to significant Christian themes, including relationships, generosity, service, forgiveness, gratitude, and faith.

In recent decades, leading experts in the field of happiness research, which is called “positive psychology,” have learned that contentment is indeed an inside job. Through intensive research, psychologists have learned that external circumstances like career success, income, net worth, health, popularity, fame, beautiful homes, education levels, IQ, and personal appearance only account for about 10% of a person’s happiness. The major contributors to happiness are fairly evenly split between genetics, which we cannot control, and attitudes and behaviors, which we can. For an overview of these intriguing findings, I highly recommend Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s excellent book, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

In a nutshell, positive psychologists have discovered at least ten factors—all of which are under our control—that lead to authentic happiness. What I find especially compelling is that all ten of those happiness traits are taught in the Bible. They are also confirmed by experience. So, when it comes to overall life contentment—science, experience, and Scripture are in complete agreement. The following ten attitudes and behaviors make people content:

    • Contented people know that external circumstances don’t determine happiness.
    • Contented people use trials as growth opportunities.
    • Contented people cultivate optimism.
    • Contented people focus on the present.
    • Contented people practice forgiveness.
    • Contented people practice generosity.
    • Contented people nurture relationships.
    • Contented people express gratitude.
    • Contented people care for their bodies.
    • Contented people care for their souls.

The implications for clergy are clear. Pastors who want to experience contentment need to quit focusing on external factors like membership, attendance, budget, facilities, staff size, and salary. Instead, they need to focus on internal factors like practicing generosity, expressing gratitude, and nurturing relationships.

After several decades in pastoral ministry, I have finally learned that career “success” has virtually no impact on pastoral contentment. The size of my congregation, the amount of my salary, the number of people employed on our church staff, and my status in the Conference do not promote a sense of well-being in my life. They never have and they never will. Instead, love of God and neighbor, serving others, building relationships, caring for my body, nurturing my soul, and constantly expressing gratitude are the building blocks of a contented life.

These days, the things that bring me personal joy include playing with my two-year-old granddaughter, having lunch with a friend, spending a quiet evening with my wife, connecting with my clergy support group, reading an engaging book, serving others, keeping a gratitude journal, practicing generosity with my time, money and love, and being part of a community of faith. Some of the things that bring me professional joy include preaching a helpful sermon, anointing and praying for the sick, baptizing infants, burying the dead, leading worship, offering Holy Communion, building long term relationships among the congregation, welcoming new people into the faith community, and providing the best leadership I possibly can for my church. At this stage in life, my misguided youthful ambitions concerning ministerial “success” have faded. Instead, I’ve learned that happiness truly is “an inside job.”

A few months ago, I went on a clergy retreat. During one of the sessions, our presenter asked each participant to write down on paper a brief statement of our self-identity. I wrote:

“I am a …

    • husband
    • father
    • grandfather
    • friend
    • pastor
    • author, and
    • beloved child of God.”

And it is more than enough.