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The slippery slope of sacrifice

"No pain, no gain in ministry" seems to be an unstated motto for many clergy. But when does sacrifice become unhealthy and detrimental?



You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. Psalm 51:15-17 (NIV)

"No pain, no gain in ministry" seems to be an unstated motto for many clergy. There appears to be a tacit assumption operating among many pastors, lay members, and denominational leaders that doing real ministry requires sacrifice, and real sacrifice equals real suffering. How do you know if you are working hard enough as a pastor? Count the pain. If you sacrifice enough, your ministry will flourish. After all, Jesus and most of the disciples died for their ministries.

Sacrifice seems to be a fraught theological concept. Consider the variety of biblical passages that reference sacrifice and the nuanced, sometimes vexing, ways it is presented. As the psalmic epigraph suggests, some kinds of sacrifice are positive, even important, but other forms are clearly not good. The challenge is understanding what sacrifices are "required" for proper living.

Sacrifice has emerged as one of the most complex topics in our research on pastoral wellbeing. We have found that some expressions of sacrifice seem to lead to very high levels of wellbeing. There seems to be something essential about these forms of sacrifice for flourishing. But our research is also clear that there are other expressions of sacrifice related to diminished wellbeing. We think that these forms of sacrifice are harbingers of precipitous declines into poor ministry effectiveness, mental and physical health problems, and burnout. In practice, the difference between "good" and "detrimental" forms of sacrifice is murky, and therefore pastors can quickly tip from the realm of positive sacrifices into the negative zone.

We define sacrifice as giving one's personal resources--time, thoughts, emotions, physical energies, social support, financial resources, etc.--in service of someone or something other than oneself. Sacrifice comprises taking resources that we might enjoy ourselves and, instead, using them for the welfare and wellbeing of other people, organizations, or causes (i.e., global peace, protecting at-risk children, and saving human trafficking). Essential to sacrifice is giving up or giving away something from which we might benefit another person or cause.

Most pastors are adamant about the importance of sacrifice in their calling and ministry work. Many pastors appeal to biblical accounts of the lives of Jesus, the Apostles, and Paul, among others, as examples that sacrifice is essential to a life in ministry or the very essence of ministry. For example, pastors claim that sacrifice leads to positive ministry outcomes like greater excellence in ministry, fuller engagement in pastoral work, greater humility as a spiritual leader, and also to important personal outcomes like greater piety, stronger devotion to God, and greater selflessness across the important domains of their lives. Theology often informs pastors' views on the importance of sacrifice, and my purpose here is not to challenge or critique these theological foundations. Rather, I want to share insights from our Flourishing in Ministry research project about the complex relationship between self-sacrifice and pastoral wellbeing.

We have studied the experience of work as a life's calling among four professions: clergy, physicians, humanitarian and social service professionals, and educators; others have studied callings among zookeepers. We have found that sacrificing for one's work is essential to experiencing work as a life's calling. Just like for pastors, sacrifice was essential for zookeepers because a "calling cannot inspire profound meaning without simultaneously requiring profound sacrifice...[There is ] a fundamental tension inherent in deeply meaningful work: deep meaning does not come without real responsibility."

From a psychological perspective, there might be several reasons that sacrifice is essential for finding and living out a life's calling. Sacrifices can be ennobling obligations when the demands or constraints they place on us lead to others' positive outcomes. Demands and constraints help us redirect our personal and life resources towards outcomes that we know are more valuable than simply benefiting ourselves. Sacrifices ennoble us when they show us that denying ourselves can be a path to worthy, important, admirable outcomes. Sacrifices can help confirm and validate the importance and meaningfulness of our work. Sacrifices entail the surrender of self or the giving up of something prized or desired for the sake of something considered as having an even higher value. As such, sacrifices can foster a sense of meaningfulness and confirm that one's calling is real--not something made up on one's own, but rather it has an objective reality.

Finally, sacrifices can serve as evidence that a calling is not self-serving, that it really is in service of something or someone other than oneself. Sacrifices confirm that one's vocation is important or worthwhile in some larger sense than just its positive impact on ourselves. Sacrifice is a testament that, through our work, we really are serving a higher purpose.

However, with all this goodness, our research is also clear that there is a potential dark side sacrifice. People enacting a calling can sacrifice so much that their wellbeing and competency are diminished. All of the benefits of sacrifice begin to fade, and detrimental effects appear when someone sacrifices too much. Each person is finite: we have limited time, energy, capacity for thought, emotional capability, and the like. When we have given past our limit, there is too little left for ourselves. When we are tapped-out, we cannot heal, rejuvenate, or renew ourselves. When we are weakened and vulnerable, even relatively minor challenges can overwhelm us. Detrimental sacrifices--perhaps the term "deleterious obligations" is preferable--not only threaten pastors' wellbeing, but they may also threaten the value, meaning, or even ability to enact their call.

The challenge is recognizing when we have tipped from "good" sacrifice into the zone of deleterious ones. Setting "boundaries" is too simplistic because a life in ministry comes with few clear places to draw those boundaries. Out in the real world of ministry, the borderline between good and deleterious sacrifice is very fuzzy, and clear standards guiding choices are hard to come by.

Our research suggests that friendships with other pastors may be among the most important factors in helping pastors successfully navigate this borderline. Colleagues know what real ministry is like. They can validate the stresses and strains that are a part of ministry life, and they can offer helpful counsel that is specifically tailored to a particular pastor's situation.

They can offer helpful encouragement for dealing with challenges and crises and provide good advice about effectively working through downturns.

While individual clergy obviously play an important role in creating these friendships, there is much that denominational leaders can do to foster clergy friendships. Matchmaking rarely makes for good friendships; rather, friendships usually emerge more organically when we "bump into" someone and find mutual affinity. We often suggest that when clergy are gathered together, they spend less time in meetings and more time in fellowship. Our research has also found that the best pastor friendships often transcend denominational boundaries, and innovative denominations might find ways to encourage these boundary-spanning friendships.

Even as we write about the importance of pastoral friendships, we know that we have collapsed a complex, dynamic relationship into a few sound-bite sentences. And, even without great clergy friends, pastors can benefit from the help of spouses, non-pastor friends, and others who can help them be aware of when they are spreading themselves too thin. Along with being self-aware, the insights we can gain from others who know us well can help us engage in the kinds of sacrifice that help us flourish.


Matt Bloom, PhD


Note: the data mentioned in this piece refer to the Flourishing in Ministry ongoing study on clergy wellbeing, whose results are discussed in Professor Bloom's latest book "Flourishing in Ministry: How to Cultivate Clergy Wellbeing." The book is available on Amazon.

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