pastor burnout

Brent’s Story

It seemed like such a great idea.

FailureBrent and Mario (not their real names), both in their late twenties, had been friends for the past fifteen years. They both loved the Lord and desired to see the gospel spread in their part of the city. They had talked and prayed about the idea with their wives for a long time. So what if they didn’t have the funding or oversight of a denomination. So what if they had no church planting experience! They were best of friends. They had teaching and preaching gifts. They could plant a church together, no sweat.

So the two found space for rent in a well-traveled part of the city. They contacted other friends who promised to help get the church off the ground. They spread the word and started up a worship service. People came. It looked like this thing would take off. Mario and Brent split up the preaching. Mario, ever the entrepreneur, set his sights on strong, steady growth. Brent, the artistic one, valued strong relationships in the church. It seemed like a complementary team.

But soon, in Brent’s words, “things got strange” between him and Mario. Brent sensed a rift growing between him and his friend. Then one day about six months in, Mario announced, “This is how it’s going to be, Brent. I’m going to be the lead pastor. I’ve been to seminary and you haven’t. I know how to raise funds. You really need more training. So I’m going to get paid by the church and you’re not. I need your help as a volunteer but you’ll need to keep your day job.”

Brent was astonished. Mario had figured all this out without ever talking to Brent. He’d even put together an advisory team that agreed with Mario’s plan. Brent didn’t like it, but he didn’t want to fight his friend. Maybe Mario was right. Maybe Brent did need more training. So he took Mario’s advice and enrolled in a nearby seminary. He continued serving the church in a variety of ways.

Months went by, and Mario hired an associate pastor. Again, Brent had no idea this was happening. The two friends stopped talking altogether. Brent says, “It was painful. Something was way off.”

One day “Terry,” the associate pastor, gave Brent a call. “We need to talk,” he said. “Mario has been plagiarizing other people’s sermons. And it’s been going on for a long time.”

“No way!” Brent said. But Terry got together with Brent and showed him example after example of Mario’s plagiarism. Brent and Terry knew they needed to confront Mario. “It was the worst meeting I’ve ever experienced,” Brent says. Mario was hostile, angry, unwilling to admit his sin. Instead of repenting, he said he would just resign his post and leave the church. Brent and Terry met with the elders and told them what Mario had been doing and how he’d reacted. Hoping for damage control, the elders explained to the congregation that Mario was going to resign for “philosophical differences.” But people knew better. Something more serious had come between two good friends.

The little church was now two years old and without a lead pastor. Because Brent had been there from the beginning, he was asked to step up and lead the church. But one after another, disillusioned people left the church. Even the core group, Brent’s closest friends, decided it was time to go. Brent did his best for the next three years, but attendance and giving went steadily downhill. Outreach efforts went nowhere. The church was down to forty people. It felt like a house church meeting in a big building. Brent grew more and more exhausted. He was working, going to seminary, and trying to lift up a sinking ship all at the same time. Some days he came home so discouraged he wished he were dead. Fortunately his marriage and family were healthy, but his church was a goner.

Brent prayed, “Lord, I feel like a total failure. Is this really what you intend for this church? Do you want it to die—and crush me in the process? I thought this is what I was created to do. Was I wrong?”

How to encourage your pastor

Much is written about how vulnerable pastors are to criticism by church members. But apart from an annual reminder of Pastor Appreciation Month (what’s that, you say?), little is said about the incredible power church members have to encourage and sustain their pastors.

That’s why I want to share an email that a member of my church sent to me and my colleagues this morning. The subject line read “Praying for You,” and the message was,

Good Morning, Gentlemen.
As I was reading this morning, the last lines of 2 Thessalonians 1 immediately made me think of you…and so I prayed for each of you: “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of His calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by His power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” 
May you continue to see God being glorified before you so that you are more and more amazed at His love, power, goodness, grace and fall more in love with Him.
I am truly thankful for the ways you’ve impacted my life.
Thank you for following Him.
I have a “Keepers” folder in my email program. That email went into that folder so I can look at it again and again to fend off discouragement. It made my day…no, my week!
Church member, if you’re reading this, know that a brief email or text of appreciation and prayer can put spring back in the step of your pastor. Don’t underestimate the power of your encouraging words.

Easter is hard on pastors

Thom Rainer posted eleven reasons pastors struggle when Easter Sunday comes around.

  1. The day is often overwhelmingly busy.
  2. The pressure to “do stresswell” is increased.
  3. Finding a unique approach to the Easter story is not easy.
  4. Pastors see members they haven’t seen since last Easter.
  5. Pastors see “lostness” come in the door . . . and leave unchanged.
  6. Pastors get a glimpse of what the church could be . . . but typically isn’t.
  7. Pastors often judge their own sermons more critically on Easter.
  8. Pastors brag about Easter attendance.
  9. Attendance expectations may not be met.
  10. Monday morning letdown can follow Easter.
  11. Some pastors have no resurrection joy themselves.

I especially resonate with Reason #2–the pressure to “do well” on Easter Sunday is intense. More people are sitting in our pews on Resurrection Sunday. We think to ourselves, “If I do well, they’ll come back.” We feel compared to other pastors and worry that our performance won’t match up. Even our own faithful members are hoping for an extra-good display of our gifts, especially if they brought friends and family along.

It’s tempting to find our identity in the comments people give us after the service: “Great sermon, pastor! God really spoke through you today, pastor!” Our innate sense of self-importance, our vanity, the expectations of fellow fallen people, and the devil himself conspire to make Easter Sunday anything but a day of gladness and celebration for pastors.

Here are words from God that may help you get through the Easter weekend with joy: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, i will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1-3a, ESV).

If you’re reading this and you’re not a pastor, pray for your pastoral team this weekend. You may be unaware of the burdens they are carrying.

12 burdens pastors most frequently carry

Chuck Lawless, Professor of Evangelism and Missions, and Dean of the Graduate School at Southeastern Seminary, says pastors are most often weighed down by the following twelve things:

  1. Declining church growth
  2. Losing the support of friendsCarrying-Burden-e1377548159656
  3. Grieving a fall
  4. Sensing that the sermon went nowhere
  5. Losing vision
  6. Being lonely
  7. Dealing with unsupportive staff
  8. Remembering failures
  9. Dealing with death recurrently
  10. Facing personal jealousies
  11. Balancing family and ministry priorities
  12. Responding to criticism

Yep, twelve for twelve. I’ve experienced all of these things in my 30 years of pastoral ministry. Fortunately, not all at once.

The question is, how do we deal with these burdens?

I’m in the process of writing a book on that very topic. Tentatively titled Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership, I will share stories and practical, Biblical wisdom for pastors in the trenches. I’d love to hear from you. What have been your greatest struggles as a pastor? What have you learned about God, yourself, the church, and the ministry from those struggles? A personal story illustrating the risks, wounds, and rewards of ministry would be most helpful. Write me at meoupc@gmail.com. I’ll keep your information confidential and change names to protect privacy.

What pastors face today

The work of leading God’s people has always been, and by definition always will be, challenging. But today’s pastors face unique pressures. If you’re a church leader sinking under the weight of these pressures, Barnabas Ministries can help.

Barnabas Ministries is a network of people and resources that exists to “connect, encourage, inspire, and enable pastors” in their calling. Check out what they have to offer hpastoral-pressuresere.

On the Barnabas Ministries website is this helpful graphic taken from Pastors at Greater Risk by H. B. London. It gives you a sense of some of the daunting challenges pastors face today. To this list I would add:

– The celebrity culture in which we live, that denies the glory of the ordinary;

– The pastor’s own insecurities and need for approval;

– The financial problems plaguing our nation and members of the congregation;

– Opposition by Satan, who despises God, the church, church members and church leaders;

– And the increasing suspicion and hostility of the world, which is by nature allergic to God.

All these pressures, and more, demand that we be people who keep in step with the Spirit, fight the good fight of faith, have a set of close friends on whom we can rely, and live out of the Savior’s great love for us in the gospel.

Patience

I met with a fellow ministry leader today who reminded me of a beautiful word: patience.

Pastors are typically not very patient people. We want to see God moving in our congregations. We want to see lives change, prayers answered, the lost found, the saved sanctified. NOW!

I should know. I’m a pastor and I’m not a very patient person.

The thing is, God is an incurably patient God.

Sure, sometimes he acts quickly: shock and awe! But my experience has been that, more often than not, God is in neither the wind, nor the earthquake, nor the fire, but the low whisper that Elijah heard (1 Kings 19:9-12). That’s why God tells us not to despise the day of small things (Zechariah 4:10). Don’t be an impatient pastor. Just be faithful, rejoice when God grants small, incremental gains. Be a pastor who prays, and serves, and cares for your soul, and…waits.

Be patient.

Is this your story?

A pastor who will remain nameless sent me this text message:

Can’t tell you how many times I had to get in pulpit when felt like life was crashing around me and when family seemed to be falling apart. I hold on to the passage that in our weakness He is strong.

What lie about pastoral ministry have we bought into that convinces us our value is determined by how well we entertain in the pulpit, how fast our church is growing, how quickly we get our church out of debt, or how many Twitter followers we have?

When did we decide it’s a bad idea for pastors to have really close friends within their church or to be honest about their failures?

Why must a pastor also be a marketing genius, a fundraiser, a scholar, a motivational speaker, a CEO, a social media guru, and a politician to be considered “effective”?

The stress level on ministers of the gospel today is screaming that it’s time we redefine the work of a pastor. Biblically, here’s the definition:

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28, ESV).

 

 

 

 

Darren’s Story

Darren (not his real name) is a steady, humble, compassionate man. A great pastor. A faithful teacher of God’s Word.

in-depression-630x315But one day, he crashed.

Fresh out of seminary nearly thirty years ago, Darren accepted a call to a small church in an Appalachian community. He was the first full-time pastor the church had ever had. The average age of its two-dozen members was sixty-five. But Darren still carries warm memories of his time among them. He and his wife were married while he served in this little town. Their first child was born there too. But it was clear Darren’s gifts could be used in a wider sphere.

Darren moved his young family to a church in Alabama where he was the solo pastor for nearly ten years. They had a second child. The church held steady in membership. It was a happy experience. But a new opportunity presented itself in the spring of 2000. Darren accepted a call to a bigger church in another Southern suburb.

This church, Darren says, was “dysfunctional.” Darren’s predecessor had been asked to leave. He had replaced a man who was highly regarded—not as a great preacher or administrative leader but as a warm, loving pastor. Unfortunately, Darren’s predecessor was the very opposite. He just didn’t fit. So when Darren arrived, he knew he would need to take his time, build trust, and give the church some much-needed stability. And he did just that.

Things went well for several years. Darren led a reorganization of the elder board and faithfully taught the Bible. But Darren found it a tough church to pastor. People were all over the map theologically. Some voiced their opposition to Darren’s Bible teaching. Some of the people had bad attitudes toward church leaders. Members of the worship team wanted control. Previous elders had refused to confront sin in the church. Now, when the elders tried to put policies in place, some members didn’t like it. Disgruntled, a contingent left the church for greener grass. Several of Darren’s key supporters and friends also left because of job changes. Worse yet, Darren’s assistant pastor, who was a close friend, accepted a call to another church. These losses were hard on Darren and his wife.

Two other events pushed Darren over the edge. He had to put his beloved dog to sleep. But much more devastating, his mother was slowly declining into Alzheimer’s disease. Darren knew she could no longer care for herself, so he moved her out of her house many miles away into an assisted living facility near him. She hated her new home. It was far away from everything familiar. She grew increasingly adversarial, begging Darren over and over to take her back home. But there was no way.

Darren’s mom eventually passed in December, 2013. But her mental and emotional decline, on the heels of all the other losses Darren had experienced, took a terrible toll on him. He shut down emotionally and became almost non-functional. The day of the “crash,” Darren’s wife called the elders and said Darren would not be able to preach that weekend…and maybe not for a long while. He couldn’t get out of bed. He could hardly even speak. For weeks, doing anything at all required enormous energy. Night after night he couldn’t sleep. He says he was never suicidal, but he felt overcome with stress, sadness, and fear.

A caring, older couple invited Darren and his wife to move into their home for as long as they needed. Darren took the next two months off. He got counseling and got on an antidepressant. Slowly the darkness began to lift. He eventually felt like doing a bit of church work. The congregation was very understanding, he says. He was honest with them. He told them about his stress, his sadness, his tendency to isolate himself and not depend on the help of others. Being vulnerable and open actually drew him closer to his people. He grew more understanding of people’s pain. He says he learned the value of sighing.

But in the months following his return, Darren realized something had changed inside him. He no longer felt that he “fit” as a senior or solo pastor.

So earlier this year, Darren resigned.

Darren is now asking the questions he says he should have asked a long time ago: “What’s my gift mix? Where does God want me? What was I made for?” Darren is considering teaching, writing, and mentoring younger pastors.

I asked Darren what, if anything, might have prevented him from crashing in ministry. He says, “If I had grasped that God is for me, that would have helped.” Darren also says he’s realized that as a pastor he always felt isolated, like he was living on an island.

“I’m ready for something different now,” he says.

What to remember when you’re suffering

When we are hurting, it helps to pull out one of the preachers of old and hear him remind us that God ordains affliction for our good and his glory. Here’s what the “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), said about the benefits of suffering:

“God’s great design in all his works is the manifestation of his own glory. Any aim less than this were unworthy of himself. But how shall the glory of God be manifested to such fallen creatures as we are? Man’s eye is not single, he has ever a side glance towards his own honour, has too high an estimate of his own powers, and so is not qualified to behold the glory of the Lord. It is clear, then, that self must stand out of the way, that there may be room for God to be exalted; and this is the reason why he bringeth his people ofttimes into straits and difficulties, that, being made conscious of their own folly and weakness, they may be fitted to behold the majesty of God when he comes forth to work their deliverance. He whose life is one even and smooth path, will see but little of the glory of the Lord, for he has few occasions of self-emptying, and hence, but little fitness for being filled with the revelation of God. They who navigate little streams and shallow creeks, know but little of the God of tempests; but they who “do business in great waters,” these see his “wonders in the deep.” Among the huge Atlantic-waves of bereavement, poverty, temptation, and reproach, we learn the power of Jehovah, because we feel the littleness of man. Thank God, then, if you have been led by a rough road: it is this which has given you your experience of God’s greatness and lovingkindness. Your troubles have enriched you with a wealth of knowledge to be gained by no other means: your trials have been the cleft of the rock in which Jehovah has set you, as he did his servant Moses, that you might behold his glory as it passed by. Praise God that you have not been left to the darkness and ignorance which continued prosperity might have involved, but that in the great fight of affliction, you have been capacitated for the outshinings of his glory in his wonderful dealings with you.” (Morning and Evening, July 19)

How do you handle failure?

I’ve come across a new book that looks like a great read. It’s called Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure, by J. R. Briggs. According to Scot McKnight the book deals with “four basic areas downloadof failure for pastors:

1. Mighty fall: sexual, moral failures

2. Tragic event: cancer, shocking terminations, betrayals

3. Slow leak: wearing down of the soul. Constant drips of discouragement

4. Burned out: crisis to crisis wears a pastor down. The system overheats and it burns out.”

Add to these things the other pressures faced by ministers of the gospel (expectations of success and church growth, the allure of celebrity, the constant need to produce rich Bible messages, staff demands,
etc.), and you have a real recipe for debilitating guilt and shame.

Looks like a must read.