He had it all. Life as a professional golfer took him from one swanky country club to the next posh resort. He had big paychecks and a bright future. But as a Christian, he often wondered – “Is this all there is”? That question nagged at him for years. He had finally accomplished his dream, only to find that reaching the top was unfulfilling. His prayers grew more frequent and desperate, until one day he made a radical decision – to quit the pro golf tour and go to seminary.
He envisioned a more impactful life – leading a congregation, bringing many to Christ, seeing lives change and making a significant difference for the Lord. Now he’s arrived – at the pinnacle for an aspiring Christian leader. He’s the Senior Pastor of a large and (by most accounts) thriving church. But to his surprise, and to mine when he shared with me one day during a round of golf – that same question has now reemerged. “Is this all there is?”
Here’s what he told me…
Rather than achieving all he’d hoped, he now finds himself:
- “Preaching to Christians” – the same ones who’ve come nearly every Sunday for years
- Running an organization – stuck in “administrivia” and countless internal meetings
- Concerned about keeping the peace – answering criticisms and arbitrating differences of opinion
- Surrounded by leaders who like the way things are – or were
- Juggling constant demands on his time by members – like counseling, funerals, weddings and visitation
He left professional golf to see lives and a city changed. Yet that original vision has been clouded by the complexities of managing an institution with many moving parts. That’s what seminary taught him how to do – to preach solid messages and oversee a church body. What seminary didn’t teach him is how to maintain focus on the Lord’s vision when the pressure to keep all the “plates spinning” mounts.
For those ready to offer the advice touted by most articles and books, no amount of delegating tasks or leading better is going to fix this pastor’s burnout. The issue is much more fundamental. The problem goes all the way down to the “root cause” for the church’s decline in growth, impact, influence and perception in America today…
He’s not alone…
A conference taking place in a couple weeks advertises that “96% of senior leaders feel burned out”. Christian publications cite ministerial dropout rates approaching 50 percent. A New York Times article from 2010 about pastor burnout opens with, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”
Shouldn’t the job of a pastor be one of the most thrilling and rewarding? What could be more energizing than leading people to Christ and watching them grow in their faith? True, but that’s not what made the career path so stressful. The redefinition of “church” and its “customer” is the source of rampant pastoral burnout in America:
Energizing – Defining members as the church & the community as the “customer”
- Deep Discipleship – Seeing once Pensive, Passive and Private Christians undergo radical life change
- Closer Relationships – Your church family uniting around common external causes, reducing the infighting typical of internally-focused churchgoers
- Effective Evangelism – Your congregation bringing their neighbors and friends to the Lord in large numbers
- Equipping and Empowering – Increasing leverage by encouraging and training your members to take initiative and lead ministries
- Members Mobilized – Sending Powerful Christians from your church into local and international missions
- Successful Outreach – Seeing many new faces in your pews every week
- Networking with Local Leaders – Increasing in influence in your city as you learn about how to help address local needs
- Having Impact – Making a tangible difference in the material and spiritual welfare of your city
- Improved Perception – Becoming a church widely regarded as compassionate and caring, convincing those skeptical of church to find out what makes yours so full of love for others
As opposed to the new definitions evident at most churches today…
Stressful – Defining members as the “customer” & pastors/staff/buildings as the “church”
- Worrying about Paying all the Bills – Many churches have financial issues due to running more complex institutions with higher budgets than necessary. Ironically, churches would see greater giving and growth if they invested more of their budgets into discipleship and community engagement.
- Dealing with Personnel Issues – Greater complexity means more staff members. Alternatively, more willingness to challenge members to be all that Christ intends would mean more of them acting as the church and assuming leadership roles voluntarily.
- Overseeing Building Projects – Elaborate facilities are largely underutilized all week. It would be irresponsible of a charity to pay for a facility which was only needed for a 2-3 hours per week or for a family dependent on government support to pay for a second home they only lived in one day per week.
- Trying to be Someone You’re Not Meant to Be – As the definition of “church” has centralized, pastors have elevated to a level of control, authority and celebrity that God did not intend. Accordingly, pressure has mounted on pastors to take on great responsibility and maintain a persona because the church’s success hinges largely on that one person.
- Expected to be Several Places at One Time – Too many obligations to serve members for a single individual to possibly manage, yet too concerned about losing them to not meet their expectations
- Playing Referee – Mediating differences among churchgoers, which are inevitable but would diminish if they were discipled to the point of seeing themselves as the church, making them less concerned about their personal interests and preferences
- Running Hard but Seeing Limited Progress – Despite all those efforts to fulfill the pastor’s “obligations” above, the vast majority of churches aren’t growing or having much impact, and their members aren’t undergoing substantial life change
- Fewer Close Relationships – As churches grow, pastors become increasingly removed from personal contact, unable to find time to invest in fulfilling, enriching relationships with many members
- Getting Away from the Original Calling – Pastors presumably enter the profession to shepherd a congregation and impact a community for Christ, but find themselves one day overwhelmed with pastoral duties and trying to keep the ship afloat (or manage growth)
“Missed Expectations” – that’s the simplest way to summarize the primary cause of pastor burnout. Expecting one thing and then getting less than you bargained for is demotivating. Pastors go into ministry anticipating more of what energizes and less of what stresses, only to find out that there’s a great deal of more pressure to attract, retain and appease (i.e. treat members as “customers”) than they ever imagined. Likewise, they soon learn they must live up to unreasonable expectations placed on them – caused by most members viewing pastors and staff, and not themselves, as the embodiment of church. Churchgoers today are more apt to ask “what will the pastor and church do for me?” than “what can I do for the Lord to advance the Kingdom?” – a nerve-racking dynamic for a pastor who entered ministry expecting to build disciples and leverage them to reach a city for Christ.
Here’s what I told him…
What specific actions steps did I give that pastor who for the second time in his life found himself asking, “Is this all there is”?
I’ll share the rest of our conversation next week…
It’s Your Turn
Were you aware of how taxing the mental and physical toll has become on pastors today? Paul carried the weight of concern for all the churches, but did the Lord expect the position of Senior Pastor to be so stressful or have today’s churches expanded the job description?