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Michael Horton on Ministry Burnout

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In recent months, several highly respected pastors have put their ministry on hold or pushed the “eject” button entirely (see video conversation with Francis Chan and article at Christianity Today).  In fact, a number of books have appeared in recent years drawing attention to the growing epidemic of ministry fatigue—and even burnout.  According to several different studies, 1000 to 1500 pastors leave the ministry every month in America, due to moral failure, burnout, or internal strife.

The Gospel and Burnout
I know I’m going to step on some toes in saying this, but it’s “tough love.”  If I am wrong or overstating things, take it with a grain of salt.  I believe that many pastors in the West today focus inordinately on self-improvement.  In many cases, they burn out because they are victims of their own preaching and ministry priorities.

In the 2009 Willow Creek Community Church study, Reveal, the ministerial staff was shocked to learn that the most actively involved members were the most burned out and felt like they were stalling or losing ground in the Christian life.  They even said that they probably need deeper teaching and worship than they were getting through the church’s public ministry.  However, the pastors concluded from all of this that as people mature in their personal relationship with Jesus, they need the church less.  It’s the church’s job to make them “self-feeders.”  In fact, the analogy was offered of an exercise coach at the gym who helps people design a personalized workout plan.  In this way, though, the church becomes a platform for the service of members before it is a platform for God’s service to sinners through the very means that Christ instituted in the Great Commission: Word and Sacrament.  The church becomes “Martha,” scolding her sister Mary for lollygagging at Jesus’ feet to be taught while she is busy doing all of the chores for people.  Yet Jesus told Martha that her sister had actually “chosen the better part.”  That is because we are not self-feeders and we need to hear God tell us who he is and what he has done, is doing, and will do, before we can be swept along into his wake.

What I’m saying is that I think that eventually pastors will burn out themselves, just as their most dedicated and active parishioners do, when they fall victim to their own over-realized eschatologies, theologies of glory, and works-righteousness.  Pastors need the gospel, too.  No less than their sheep can shepherds assume the gospel or take it for granted.  Only when they are served with God’s good gifts can they serve others.  Sanctification is not a sprint, but a marathon, and we are never “100% for Jesus.”  But even in our weakness we point away from ourselves to Christ and move forward.  Scripture does indeed hold officers to a higher standard of public character, but if Romans 7 describes the Apostle Paul (as I am convinced it does), then ministers too are “simultaneously justified and sinful.”

As ironic as it may seem, a lot of counsel I’ve seen out there—in print and on-line—is to do more.  First, there is typically a warning that people (mostly in the local congregation) have placed too many expectations on the minister.  He is expected to be a CEO, best friend, godly hero, quarterback, entertainer, therapist—oh, and to deliver inspiring talks, pray, make home and hospital visits, marry, bury, and counsel.  So first, pastors must have the courage to push back a little on the expectations.  But this counsel is often followed by a catalogue of new expectations.  Included is good, practical advice that holds true for any stressful vocation: a balanced diet and exercise, good sleep, good communication and intimacy in marriage and the family, and so forth.  Yet a lot of Christian resources offer a list that brims with imperatives to manage their stress better: pray more, read their Bible more, go on retreats, join a small prayer group, and read more counseling/professional literature on time management, relationships, and stress.

But pastors give the same advice to their parishioners, piling on the imperatives without indicatives each week and then become anxious or even resentful when they are expected to be and do all sorts of things that have nothing to do with their commission as instituted by Christ.  If you preach—and really believe—that you are an extension of Christ’s incarnation, completing his redeeming and reconciling work in the world, consummating his kingdom, then you may eventually be one of the casualties.  Take your place with your parishioners under the Word, both the law and the gospel, and you will find what you need each week for yourself as well as for your flock.

In the pulpit, the temptation is great to browbeat your congregation with exhortations to become the kind of church that can usher in the kingdom of God.  The agenda may be different, but this broad tendency seems as evident in conservative evangelical as in mainline Protestantism.  The pastors may be concerned that the church needs to be more dutiful in personal spiritual disciplines or more zealous in social engagement—or both, but after a month of Sundays a parishioner might have to struggle to recall any new insight into the character and work of the Triune God in history.  When it’s all about “What You Can Do for God,” and a dearth of “What God Has Done for Us,” congregational burnout is inevitable.

The gospel is not, “Pull yourself together.”  According to Hebrews 12:28, “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” not building it—even as church officers.  Along with those we serve, we are always first and foremost recipients of God’s gifts and only then can we be active distributors to others through our witness, service, and our many different callings in the world.

There may be guiding wisdom, but there is no saving power in principles for better living, managing stress, building a church, and becoming a more committed disciple.  The gospel is enough even to save pastors.  In my book Christless Christianity, I appealed to sociological studies to substantiate my argument that a lot of what we hear today—across the spectrum, from conservative to liberal—are different versions of what Christian Smith labeled “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”  This is killing pastors as much as their congregations today.

In The Stress Solution, psychologists Lyle H. Miller and Alma Dell Smith identify several phases in professional life: (1) The Honeymoon; (2) The Awakening (realizing unrealistic expectations); (3) Brownout (growing fatigue and irritability, often blaming others and becoming cynical); (4) Full Scale Burnout (a devastating sense of failure and depression).  This downward spiral is often followed by (5) The Phoenix Phenomenon, as one arises from the ashes over time to regain a sense of purpose and life goals.  When pastors take us along their journey through this personal odyssey, they are not being vulnerable and transparent; they are subjecting the church to their own ups and downs.  The point is not to hide their wounds, but to keep the public ministry about Christ and to trust the godly leadership that Christ has appointed for their care as well as that of others.

The factors that contribute to predictable patterns like this are doubtless as applicable to ministers as to anyone else.  However, we are not without biblical insight on these matters.  For one, our theology tells us—or should tell us—that, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1).  He has not only created the world, but he sustains it.  He alone has redeemed it and inserted into this passing evil age the powers of the age to come by raising Jesus from the dead and giving us the Spirit as the down-payment on our glorification.  “Salvation is of the LORD” (Jonah 2:9).  Further, our theology tells us that the kingdom that only Christ could bring into this world is among us, but awaits his return for its consummation.  For now, the kingdom is hidden under the cross and suffering, as the gospel is proclaimed to the ends of the earth and pilgrims are fed and led to the City of God.  When Christ returns, he will make his kingdom visible to all, glorious and unshakable.  Only then will constant struggle give way to everlasting rest, eating and drinking with God and his saints forever.  So there is enough here to curb our “honeymoon” illusions before disillusionment sets in.  Finally, we are saved by grace—and so too are the sheep to whom we minister God’s grace in Christ.

Tomorrow, I'll draw attention to some more factors that are leading to pastoral burnout and offer what I hope is an answer that will give hope to pastors and congregations on the edge.

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