Yesterday I started talking about some of the problems associated with pastoral burnout. Today I want to conclude with some of the causes and a solution to the problem.
The Church and Burnout
We can suffer enormous stress and even burnout for all sorts of reasons—even with the best theology. Nevertheless, there are several widespread errors in our ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) that contribute to stress and burnout.
The Apostle Complex
It may not be a fully-developed messiah complex, but many pastors have an apostle complex. Movements like the Church of Christ (Disciples), Calvary Chapel, and a host of other non-denominational denominations began as a radical announcement that formal structures were unbiblical and the Spirit was now unleashing every member for ministry. And within a few years, each successive “movement of the Spirit” usually becomes more hierarchical (indeed, papal) than any denomination it might have had in mind. Pastor-So-And-So becomes the final court of appeals. Questions are met with warnings like, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed.”
We see in the New Testament a clear line between the extraordinary ministry of apostles and the ordinary ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline that was entrusted to the officers who were ordained by the laying on of hands by the council of elders (presbytery, as Paul calls it). The apostles laid the foundation, with Christ as the cornerstone, and now ordinary ministers are building on it. The apostles were called directly by God in the flesh, as eyewitnesses to Christ, while the ministers are called indirectly through the church. This distinction lies at the heart of the church’s health, because it recognizes the difference between the constitution of the church and the growth of the church. The Spirit does not call any minister directly, privately, or immediately today; the inward call is confirmed by the external call: namely, the examination, ordination, and an actual letter of call from a local church or presbytery. We can’t make things up on the fly, as if we were apostles and were answerable only to the Holy Spirit; we have to submit to our fellow elders. Ministers cannot disqualify themselves from ministry; nor can vigilante hordes try them in the court of public opinion. Ministers are accountable to Christ through the elders and will ordinarily remain in office, transfer, or resign through the mutual admonition and wisdom of their fellow presbyters.
None of us is the founder of a church (not even its founding pastor). It is not our church or our ministry, as too much loose talk often implies. It is Christ’s church, constituted by the apostolic canon and regulated by the elders in local and broader assemblies. It sure takes the wind out of the sails of would-be apostles, but it also relieves a lot of the stress that is simply the hang-over after the exhilaration of being “the man.”
The revivalistic practice of advertising the appearance of a famous evangelist at your church or in your town crept into even Reformed and Presbyterian (as well as Anglican and Lutheran) churches in America. Soon, not just the sermon text but the name of the minister or the visiting preacher appeared on the marquis outside the building. Successful ministers were expected to draw big crowds through innovative marketing techniques and to entertain them when they arrived.
Successful pastors in America today are expected to be marketers, entrepreneurs, entertainers, and therapists. The faithful ministry of the Word and sacraments week-in and week-out, visiting members in their homes regularly, the sick and elderly, and instructing the youth are far less a part of the self-image of today’s pastor than in other periods of church history.
Having been reared in evangelicalism, one of the things that struck me about more traditional Reformed churches was that while there is a high view of the office, ministers themselves are “expendable.” Ministers come and go, the ministry stays. The covenant is a succession of God’s faithfulness “to a thousand generations.”
Furthermore, men are not called directly by the Spirit to their office, but are prepared, tested, and ordained by assemblies of the church. The Spirit calls men to the ministry inwardly, to be sure, but through the outward call of the church. In American revivalism, however, the minister took precedence over the ministry itself. Having disclaimed hierarchy, a de facto system of episcopacy sets in anyway. Instead of ministers and elders being accountable to each other in local and broader assemblies, some bishops are “more equal” than others!
We see this even in the rather public ways in which famous ministers today talk about their stress and burn-out or personal sins. In a way, this still puts the man in the spotlight rather than the ministry. And why should such matters be debated on blogs and in newspapers rather than behind closed doors with those whom God has entrusted as faithful guardians? Why do pastors talk so much about themselves these days? Might it be better if we ministers were to bear the Word to the public and to bear our souls to fellow elders in private.
“New Measures”: Perpetual Innovation
Another source of burn-out is the constant threat of obsolescence. You can’t just preach, teach, baptize, commune, visit, marry, bury, and discipline (which is exhausting enough!); you have to do a thousand things Jesus didn’t command just to keep your ministry (again, your ministry) on the cutting edge. Martin Luther and John Calvin personally taught catechism to the youth, but many pastors today say they’re too busy (and most are) for that sort of thing. Is it any wonder that younger believers find so little personal connection to the wider communion of saints when they don’t even know their pastor and have gone from nursery to children’s church to youth group to campus ministry without ever having really belonged to the visible church?
The amazing American revivalist, Charles Finney, was one of the most consistent in applying his theology to practice. Rejecting the doctrines of original sin, election, the substitutionary atonement, justification through faith alone, and the supernatural gift of the new birth, Finney taught as thorough a doctrine of salvation by works as any Pelagian in history. Consequently, regeneration is nothing more than the result of the right techniques of moral persuasion and the church is a “society of moral reformers.” In Head and Heart, historian Garry Wills observes,
The camp meeting set the pattern for credentialing Evangelical ministers. They were validated by the crowd’s response. Organizational credentialing, doctrinal purity, personal education were useless here—in fact, some educated ministers had to make a pretense of ignorance. The minister was ordained from below, by the converts he made. This was an even more democratic procedure than electoral politics, where a candidate stood for office and spent some time campaigning. This was a spontaneous and instant proclamation that the Spirit accomplished. The do-it-yourself religion called for a make-it-yourself ministry (emphasis added).
Wills repeats Richard Hofstadter’s conclusion that “the star system was not born in Hollywood but on the sawdust trail of the revivalists.” It was a gospel suited to the “self-made” individual of frontier America, and a ministry model suited to the audience. Finney was constantly re-inventing church: “new measures,” he called them. Revivals would soon die out unless there were ever-new “excitements sufficient to induce repentance.” However, it is far more fulfilling to minister in a context where you actually see people grow from baptism to profession of faith to mature discipleship than it is to be hounded by the constant demand for “new measures.”
In the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement, many now are wading in the streams of the solid gospel teaching recovered in the Reformation. Yet the ocean that feeds these important streams still laps at the shore in the distance. Finney’s way of “getting saved” may be anathema, but his way of “doing church” remains dominant even among many “New Calvinists.”
From Means of Grace to Methods of Transformation
The shift from God and his gospel to us and our transforming works involved also a shift from God’s saving action through his ordained means of grace (Word and sacrament) to our methods of conversion and revival.
In the history of American Protestantism, there have been Reformed pastors and theologians who have recognized that their confession is wider and deeper than a few fundamentals. Writing against the “new measures” employed by his contemporary, Charles Finney, John Williamson Nevin pointed out the contrast between “the system of the bench” (precursor to the altar call) and “the system of the catechism”:
The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion.
These two systems, Nevin concluded, “involve at the bottom two different theories of religion.” Nevin realized that Reformation theology—particularly, the Reformed theology of the covenant of grace—generates distinct ecclesiology emphases and concrete practices. Of course, the same is true of other traditions. There is a direct correlation, then, between a theology of self-salvation and the church chiefly as a center of human rather than divine activism.
One of my good friends, a pastor, committed suicide, after building stress. A big part of that stress, as he expressed it to me, was that the parishioners at the new church he had taken did not want him to spend so much of his time and energy in the ministry of the Word and in prayer. Many of the elders were CEOs of major companies and they saw him as the CEO of the church and themselves as the shareholders or company board. One day, he got a new sign on his door. The old “Pastor’s Study” sign was falling apart and the new one read, “Pastor’s Office.” That little change, he said, told it all. No doubt recalling his Lord’s repeated command, “Feed my sheep,” Peter encouraged the establishment of the office of deacons for the administration of temporal welfare so that he and other ministers could devote themselves fully “to the ministry of the Word and to prayer.”
Many studies on ministry note that victims of burnout often have few trusted confidants to whom they are mutually accountable. Yet Christ did not institute a circle of friends for this purpose, but a system of checks and balances where officers appointed to this task care for the lives of shepherds.
Even if these checks and balances keep the pastor from being a lone ranger at the local level, it matters little unless there is a broader system of accountability and appeal. Besides the congregation, local churches are connected to the broader assembly of churches in other times and places. This is expressed in the interdependence of local, regional, national, and even international representative assemblies. Here, as in Acts 15, the pastors and the elders together deliberate and interpret God’s Word on important matters that are meant to be binding on all the churches.
In reaction against the tyrannical abuses of hierarchical church governments (whether papal or bureaucratic), many evangelicals have embraced a democratic egalitarianism that is more familiar to Americans but would have been totally unrecognizable to the apostles.
Let’s face it. We live in a world that, ironically, revels in its being “connected” while the natural and spiritual connections between family members, extended families, and the family of God in its local and extended relations becomes disconnected and disembodied. How much time to we spend “connecting” or “networking” with people via phone, e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter versus sitting around the dinner table at home or around the Lord’s Table at church? We are embodied souls—created for fellowship with other embodied souls. God assumed our flesh, bore our sins in his own body, rose again in the flesh, and formed a family around himself. Significantly, in the Internet Age, this church is called “the body of Christ.”
As our churches become more “wired,” more “connected,” and more “real,” they actually become more electronic, more fragmented into niche markets, and more virtual. We need desperately to recover the gospel-driven church, Christ’s ordained means of grace, and the kind of genuine connectionalism that involves actual presence. I hold no illusions that such reforms would eliminate stress and burnout. I feel enough of it to keep me on my knees and to warn me of my own temptations. However, today’s energetic and enthusiastic rising comets are likely to be tomorrow’s dying stars until we change our faith and practice.