Pastors And Churches Are Struggling


Many laymen may not know that the institution of the church is undergoing serious difficulty at this time. Many local churches are barely surviving with approximately 3,000-4,000 of them closing the* doors every year. Pollster George Barna compares the church to the “Titanic.” He said, “It is large, elegant, and sinking fast.” (2)

Attendance at weekly religious activities in the United States has continued to slip from 49 percent in 1991 to 37 percent today. (3)
Furthermore, 80 percent of church growth results from transfers of memberships. (4) In other words, relatively few new commitments to Christ appear to be occurring. These statistics tell us that evangelism is largely stagnant, and yet, 96 percent of adults say they still believe in God. (5) Something is wrong with this picture. Obviously, the majority of Americans are dabbling in religious expression that has no substance.

This is an alarming situation. As the Christian church in North America continues to decline and its influence weakens, the nation is falling further into immorality and wickedness. Superstition attracts millions to astrology, psychic readers and ESP. Others are concocting home-made theologies based on everything from New Age nonsense to Eastern mysticism in a search for meaning and security. A large proportion of today’s younger generation has no memory of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of Scripture. This is what happens in a culture when the church loses its effectiveness and zeal. We must do everything we can to support this basic institution which God has ordained and blessed.

Of great concern, of course, is the state of the clergy itself. Thousands of spiritual leaders are barely hanging on from day to day.
Our surveys indicated that 80 percent of pastors and 84 percent of their spouses are discouraged or are dealing with depression. (6) More than 40 percent of pastors and 47 percent of their spouses report that they are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules and unrealistic expectations. (7) We estimate that approximately 1,500 pastors leave their assignments each month, due to moral failure, spiritual burnout or contention within their local congregations. (8)

Why are pastors struggling? There are many causes. The Fuller Institute of Church Growth found in 1991 that 80 percent of the clergy feel their families have been negatively impacted by the church, and 33 percent consider the ministry to be an outright hazard to their families. (9) Financial burdens are common as well. The majority of pastors are heavily in debt, due to college and seminary expenses. These and other problems often lead to serious marital conflict and family dysfunction. Unfortunately, the embarrassment or gossip within the church leads some couples to avoid needed counseling services.

Let’s not overstate the case. Many North American pastors are handling their ministerial duties admirably, but the task is not easy. I learned that from my father, a minister, when we were living in a parsonage. The assignment is even tougher for pastors today. This is why Focus on the Family is doing everything it can to support this vitally important role. Vice President H.B. London heads a large department called Pastoral Ministries, whose responsibility is to support and encourage those in full-time Christian ministry. Rev. London was a pastor for 31 years before coming to Focus, and his passion today is to lighten the heavy burden of the clergy. He and I agree that this is an assignment given to us by the Lord.

Not only should our ministry seek to assist the church, but scripture teaches that it is the responsibility of believers everywhere. The Apostle Paul wrote this instruction to the Thessalonian church, “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work” (I Thess. 5:12, 13, NIV).

The writer to the Hebrews said something similar to the church, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17, NIV).

Those instructions by the biblical writers are very clear. We must love, support and undergird our spiritual leaders. A wonderful way to begin doing that, as we have suggested, is to participate in “Clergy Appreciation Month.” We are proposing that church members plan events on Sundays in October. The idea is to come together as a unified body, showing love for your pastors, church staffs, and their families. It is also important that laymen pray fervently for the leadership of the church during this time.

Finally, H.B. has offered four suggestions to the church body that we believe will enhance the effectiveness of spiritual leaders. First, let your pastors dream. Ask them what the Lord is saying about your local congregation, your community, and the Great Commission as we approach the 21st century. Second, live at peace within your local church. Nothing discourages a pastor more than contention in the congregation. It is also displeasing to the Lord. Throughout the scriptures, we have been admonished to put away discord and bitterness. Third, encourage your pastors. The role of leaders is particularly difficult today because of widespread apathy and distraction. Get behind them in enthusiasm and support. And fourth, let your pastor lead. Encourage them to speak boldly about what the Lord has been saying to the heart of the leader.

I know this monthly letter is rather unusual, but it is long overdue. There is nothing more important than the welfare of the church. It is not only critical to the work of the gospel, but it is vital to the stability of families. Let’s get behind our spiritual leaders and let them know that we are standing behind them.

To assist with this task, we have produced a variety of helpful materials. There is a brochure describing “Clergy Appreciation Month,” a wonderful Focus on the Family magazine for ministers called Pastor’s Family, and a variety of other items. My wife, Shirley, has also asked me to mention the “Adopt a Pastor” program, which can be useful in supporting and praying for your minister throughout the year. All of these materials and others are described on the enclosed page.

I hope you have a meaningful time with your families as you approach the end of the summer. If we can be of help to you in any way, drop us a line. That’s why we’re here.

Once more, thank you so much for praying for me in June. The Lord had mercy on me.

Your Friend in Christ

James Dobson, Ph.D


1 “The Church for the Twenty-First Century,” address by Leith Anderson, pastor of Wooddale Church, Eden Prairie, MN., at Denver Seminary. Printed in Focal Point, a publication of Denver Seminary and Becoming an Agent of Revival, published by Promise Keepers

2 George Barna, “The Second Coming of the Church,” (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1997), p. 8

3 OmniPoll of 1,004 American adults for Barna Research Group, Ltd., January 1996

4 News Release on the Effectiveness of the Church dated December 20, 1991, by Barna Research Council

5 Princeton Religion Research Center, “Religion in America,” 1996 Report

6 Compilation of surveys from Focus on the Family Pastors Gatherings

7 Ibid

8 Ibid

9 Fuller Institute of Church Growth, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA, 1991