White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Michael Horton on Ministry Burnout

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.

A. S. Byatt on facebook, the new god of our age

In a recent interview with The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins at this year’s Edinburgh international book festival, acclaimed novelist and literary critic A. S. Byatt offered some noteworthy insights into our age.  You really have to hear it in her own words (see link), but it provokes some solemn reflection.  I’ll share a few of mine.

Especially poignant is her description of the vanishing of a Christian consciousness—even vaguely conceived.  Though a professed atheist, Byatt observes that other gods have rushed in to fill the void: including psychoanalysis, the press, and social media like Facebook and Twitter.  In all of these cases, she says, we no longer have God and the biblical narrative to tell us who we are, so we are not even sure that we exist until we see ourselves in the mirror of these media.  There is a kind of anxiety in contemporary life, as we struggle to define ourselves.  She says that “religion has gone away and all we are left with is ourselves.”  But even then, we’re not sure who “we” are, because there is no narrative—or what she calls a map—for our identity.  “Christianity used to provide us with the map, now the press does.”  As “the new god,” Facebook, she thinks, operates as a mirror to reflect back to us who we think we are.  This suggests, to my mind at least, that together, the web of these alternative gods—a new Parthenon of sorts—has made us more dependent on it for piecing together some sense of why we’re here, who we are, and what our lives mean.  A final point worth observing is that these new gods keep us busy and unreflective.  It reminds me of the old man in the “Wizard of Oz,” who keeps everybody under his thumb by distracting them from the fact that he is standing behind a curtain pushing pyrotechnic buttons and pulling smoke-billowing levers. Only when the little dog Toto cunningly pulls back the curtain is the charade finally discovered.

Psalm 37 comes to mind, where God’s people are encouraged to “fret not” over “evildoers” too much. “For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.”  Why?  Because God is the Lord and he never forsakes his saints.  “Trust in the LORD, and do good, dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.  Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  Of course, this is not a blank check: you follow God and he’ll give you that Porsche you’ve been after.  Rather, to delight yourself in the Lord is to direct your desires to the most solid joys and lasting treasures.  In the frenetic pace of everyday life as well as difficulty, “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.” “In just a little while,” it is promised, the Lord will intervene in world history—both in judgment and in grace.  “The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever. The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice.”  While the gods of the market tell us to stay busy, distracted from discovering their utter poverty of aid, the Lord of the earth encourages us to be still and to know that he is God.  He will set all things straight.  The world is not ours to save or judge.  God will act and our lives now are evidence of that fact.  United to Jesus Christ as the first-fruits of the new creation, we are witnessing the passing of this evil age.  The real world is not the one that is produced for us in Hollywood or New York, but the New Jerusalem that is coming down from heaven.

It is this story that has the power to kill our dead-end characters and write us into the unfolding drama that ends with the new beginning of everlasting rest from sin and death.  Only this story can stand up to the “nowhere man” of our vanishing characters and pointless plots.  It’s the drama of God becoming flesh, just when the new gods have promised us salvation from fleshly embodiment, of his victory through a bloody death and bodily resurrection in an age of “redeemers” that keep us passive and dependent, forgiveness and justification before God, when his rivals offer vain promises of therapeutic well-being, of a communion of pilgrims meeting regularly together in an era of anonymous and bodiless “Internet communities.”  It is a story that, instead of driving us deeper into ourselves in an anxious search for meaning, drives us out—“looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith,” and out to our neighbors in love.

In this powerful narrative, even toppled gods have their place as servants rather than lords.  Here, there is still a place for cell phones, e-mail, and perhaps even Facebook or Twitter.  Yet they are not where we go as Christians to find out who we are or to tell people who we are.  For that, we will always go back to the Word, back to our baptism, back to the Lord’s Table.  And there we behold not ourselves in a mirror, but our Savior and all of the co-heirs that he has made our brothers and sisters in him.

CNN on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

CNN online recently featured an article on Kenda Creasy Dean’s new book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telliing the American Church (Oxford University Press, 2010). Dean is a professor at Princeton Seminary who participated with Christian Smith and others in the National Study of Youth and Religion. The CNN article discusses the theme of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a phrase used liberally by WHI hosts for the past few years and coined by Christian Smith to describe the religious and spiritual lives of today’s teenagers. Dean discusses this problem at length in her new book, and argues that teens have received this “fake” view of Christianity from their parents. She writes, “The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe, namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people…” She goes on to say that “if churches practice MTD in the name of Christianity, then getting teenagers to church more often is not the solution (conceivably it could make things worse). A more faithful church is the solution….Maybe the issue is simply that the emperor has no clothes.”

Michael Horton recently interviewed Kenda Creasy Dean for the White Horse Inn, and that interview will air in early October.

Click Here for the CNN article titled, “More Teens Becoming Fake Christians.”

Senior Pastor Glenn Beck?

It used to be said that Rick Warren was “America’s pastor.” Before that, of course, Billy Graham was the pastor of presidents. Now, it’s Glenn Beck.

Regardless of your political views, you have to admire how Glenn Beck–a one-time drunk, washed up comedian–has transformed himself beyond a mere conservative commentator into a public persona writ large on the American evangelical landscape. A lesser person would assume that Beck had seen where the money and influence was to be had and beat feet to get there.

Professor Russell Moore of The Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, spent his Sabbath afternoon writing a brilliant reflection on Beck’s God and Country rally in Washington, D.C. this weekend. You must read it and then start working your way through these articles from Modern Reformation on civil religion and the two kingdoms.

1992: Christ and Culture

1993: Beyond Culture Wars

1994: God and Politics

2000: Why Two Kingdoms

2004: The Christian Voter’s Guide

WHI-1012 | An Interview with Graeme Goldsworthy

According to Australian theologian Graeme Goldsworthy, author of Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, and According to Plan, the gospel of Christ is the central story of the entire Bible. But if this is the case, how then do we interpret various Old and New Testament texts in light of that fact? On this program, Michael Horton talks with Graeme about this question and other related issues addressed in his many books on this theme.


Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures
Dennis Johnson
The Glory of the Coming Lord
Edmund P. Clowney
Preaching Christ
Edmund P. Clowney


Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics
Graeme Goldsworthy
According to Plan
Graeme Goldsworthy
The Goldsworthy Trilogy
Graeme Goldsworthy


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Doug Powell

WHI-1011 | A Conversation on Global Evangelism

On this edition of the White Horse Inn, we’re featuring a panel discussion on global evangelism, sponsored by the Lausanne Movement for World Evangelization. This conversation recently took place on the campus of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, and features Skye Jethani, Michael Horton, Jim Belcher, Kay Warren, Jena Lee Nardella, Miles McPherson and Soong Chan Rah.


The Gospel-Driven Life
Michael Horton
Deep Church
Jim Belcher
Divine Commodity
Skye Jethani


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Congregationalist Casino Night

How bad is the rot in American Christianity? Is our heterodoxy, compromise, and worldliness a modern problem or does it perhaps go deeper, down into the DNA of a faith tradition formed more by revivalism than historic faith and practice? Over at Steadfast Lutherans, our friend and Modern Reformation contributor Mollie Z. Hemingway posted an article first published in the Lutheran magazine Witness back in 1916.  The author of the article surveys a number of ministers and practices across the nation and asks, “Is this Christianity?” Here’s a sample:

The Episcopal Churchman, commenting upon the tendency towards sensationalism in the Reformed sects, later suggested that the streets may yet be brilliant with everchanging electric signs flashing forth, “The Congregationalistic Casino,” “The Baptist Hall of Joy.” “The Gospel Free Lunch and Picture Show.”

Leaving off comment about “Reformed sects,” it is interesting to note that the article wasn’t too far off. Casino Night has descended at First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana. Here’s Pastor Jack Schaap playing emcee to the congregation:

Clark H. Pinnock – 1937-2010

Theologian Clark Pinnock died this past Sunday, August 15th.

Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition has a long review of Prof. Pinnock’s life and theological development.

White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation often turned to Pinnock as a tragic example of the turn in American theology. We’ve collected some of those resources below.

Discussion between Dr. Mike Horton and Dr. Clark Pinnock in 1990 on the “Megashift Debate” and published in the Jan/Feb 1993 issue of Modern Reformation.

Interview with Dr. Pinnock in the Nov/Dec 1998 Modern Reformation on the “Openness Model of God.”

Sept/Oct 1999 Modern Reformation entitled “God in Our Image: Why Some Evangelicals Are Challenging the Traditional View of God” discussing many issues of which Dr. Pinnock was at the leading edge.

WHI-1010 | American Spirituality

What is the nature of American spirituality, and how does it differ from classical Christian conceptions of God, revelation, and redemption? On this edition of White Horse Inn, Michael Horton walks through various popular views of American religion and contrasts them with the biblical gospel of free grace in Jesus Christ.


Christless Christianity
Michael Horton
Precious Moments in American Religion
Michael Horton
Become a Better You
Michael Horton


Christless Christianity
Michael Horton
Made in America
Michael Horton
The Gospel Driven Life
Michael Horton


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David Hlebo

WHI-1009 | Christ’s View of Scripture

Having established in previous programs that the New Testament documents are the most reliable texts of ancient history, the hosts in this program discuss the way Jesus throughout these texts speaks of the Old Testament Scriptures. Are these a collection of myths and fables with helpful moral lessons? Is one interpretation just as good as the next? Since Jesus Christ rose again from the dead, his view of Scripture may be worth considering above all others (originally broadcast April 29, 2007).


The Truthfulness of Scripture
Michael Horton
Why Inerrancy Still Matters
Kim Riddlebarger
Interpreting Scripture by Scripture
Michael Horton


Christ & The Bible
John Wenham
Inspiration & Authority of the Bible
B.B. Warfield
Sola Scriptura
R.C Sproul, et. al.


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