4 ways to overcome boredom in the parish

July 5th, 2016

After the collapse of the U.S. housing market in 2008, Americans learned a new vocabulary to describe “unemployment”. Economists and television commentators began using terms like migratory employment (people who move from job to job), entry-level employment (minimum wage), and sector employment (geographic or skills-related jobs). There was also much discussion about the large number of Americans who were chronically-unemployed (or had given up looking for work) and those who were prematurely-unemployed (retired earlier than expected). Likewise, many Americans began to describe their situation as under-employed.

This latter category, the under-employed, was not necessarily a new phenomenon, but even now it has served as a snapshot of certain realities for many families — those who are working jobs that are below one’s skills or educational-level, for example, or in jobs that hold no promise for advancement or economic growth. In short, under-employment produces feelings of hopelessness, frustration, or, in some circumstances, boredom.

And boredom is a killer. Especially in the parish.

A few years ago, when I was serving as a mentor to candidates for ordination, I discovered that boredom was one of the primary worries among newly-ordained clergy. Many newly-appointed clergy would describe their first appointments as “unchallenging” or “slow” or “unexciting.” Some also noted how their passion, fresh from seminary, had been snuffed out by low-energy congregations or entrenched attitudes that essentially wanted to remain unchanged or unfazed by the communities around them. A few pastors noted how quickly they had acquiesced into these attitudes or had lost their drive, choosing instead a ministry that offered few challenges or resistances.

But boredom is not simply a by-product of the under-employed. Boredom can seep into any ministry if ministry is driven by chronic problems in the parish, by dull routines, or by ministry discussions (with parishioners or colleagues) that reoccur without any movement toward resolution or change. There are pastors of small parishes who are bored stiff. There are also pastors in mega-churches who have fallen into the boredom trap, who, even in their hustle-and-bustle, have grown bored of ministry and no longer see the possibilities or the challenges of their place and time.

Boredom in the parish at any level — whether related to size, scope, salary or demand — can lead to other outcomes. Boredom can lead to any number of indiscretions in the parish, or can be a factor when pastors look for more thrilling exploits inside or outside of their respective settings. 

Most any pastor, if he or she is honest, will admit that parish ministry is not exciting all of the time. There are seasons, in fact, when ministry can be dry, or unfulfilling, too stressful or even too challenging. There can be seasons when pastors are pressed so hard, and so much, that boredom can seem like a relief from these overbearing demands. In these times, it is easy to linger in the shadows of boredom instead of stepping out, once again, into the harsh light of influence and leadership.

While I am not an expert on overcoming boredom, there are some attitudes and practices that have served me well over the past thirty-five years in parish ministry. These have, at various junctures, lifted me out of listlessness, apathy or boredom. I offer them as possibilities to meet the challenges of our fallow seasons and to put a new spark in our eye or a spring in our step.


One of the defining forces of boredom is lack of vision. New vision emerges through creativity, through seeing problems or ministry through new lenses or from new vantage points. Pastors need to be creative people; creativity is what sparks excitement and passion for God’s work. Here, the arts can help. So can other activities like gardening, woodworking or fishing. I know that when I begin to feel the first hints of boredom, I take to the keyboard or to the canvas. I write or paint in order to stir my creative juices. These creative activities never fail to provoke new insights, new angles and approaches that I feel compelled to try in ministry. Not all of these work out, of course, but pressing those creative buttons transforms boredom into productivity that I can see and appreciate in its own right.


One of my first mentors, a newly-minted retiree named Jefferson Davis, insisted that listening was a key factor in pastoral longevity. “Visit with people,” he told me. “Go into the homes, invite others to lunch, ask good questions. And if you listen before you speak, you will learn a great deal more about what to preach, what to teach and how to lead.” I have not always followed Jeff’s advice, but I have never forgotten it. Listening and building solid relationships in the parish is vital to overcoming boredom. It’s difficult to be bored when you are enjoying the company of good friends (and maybe good food to boot). Boredom most often goes hand-in-hand with isolation or loneliness. Being with people — and listening to their stories — can provoke new excitement and direction.


One thing I’ve learned over the years is this: If I am feeling boredom in the parish, there is a good chance that many parishioners are feeling bored as well. Boredom can only be overcome by issuing new challenges to ourselves and to our people. Human beings need to be stressed in order to grow.  Few good things happen when we are sitting back, relaxing and twiddling our thumbs while going through the motions of a ministry which we have already mastered. Every parish (large or small) needs new initiatives, new visions, new edges that can press us to use our gifts for God and others.  These initiatives don’t have to be legion; in fact, one or two will suffice. But it is safe to say that, in most instances, unless pastors challenge themselves and take the initiative, others are not likely to lead. Pastors must always be looking for new directions, new leadings of the Spirit, new ministry or mission that can challenge the church to grow in time, talent and treasure.


One of the quickest paths to boredom (for pastor and parish) is losing one’s serve. When we lose sight of our service to others and the new possibilities for service in our communities, we begin a slow descent into boredom. In time, we may wake up to discover that we are simply serving ourselves. And that’s no fun! The Christian faith, in its essence, is about loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. This is service defined. When we lose sight of this core, we lose our edge and become myopic, or communities unto ourselves. Pastors who want to shake off the shackles of boredom would do well to find new avenues of service, new ways to challenge the church. We are called to be servants, not sitters. And when we are serving well, there’s no way to be bored. In fact, no one could ever describe a busy servant as boring, either. 

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