A Problem That Persists
It is a story that we have seen blasted on nighttime news, posted on evangelical Christian news sites, upon the webpage of many a christian blogger, and littered on the news feed of Facebook. Another megachurch pastor has fallen into grievous sin and has stepped down. A celebrity pastor has come before his church to confess that he is depressed, exhausted, doubting his faith and it’s a shock because no one had any idea. A perfect example would be the recent resignation of pastor Pete Wilson of Cross Point Church in Nashville, TN. A loving, beautiful and supportive family, and a growing successful ministry, it seemed like nothing could be better for this man’s life. So I imagine it was quite a shock when he stood before his church in September of 2016 and said,
“I am officially resigning as the pastor of Cross Point Church…I really need your prayers and I need your support. We’ve said that this is a church where it’s OK to not be OK, and I’m not OK. I’m tired. And I’m broken. And I just need some rest.”
It happens over and over again, a recurring pattern of a problem that persists. A minister starts to let ministry become his idol, he confuses biblical intelligence with spiritual maturity and ministry success with God’s blessing upon his way of living. Then the problem compounds itself when he begins to ignore the clear reality of existing issues, becomes pridefully blind to his own sins and his ministry begins to lack passion for the Lord and His people. He stops preaching the gospel to himself and won’t listen to the advice and concerns of people closest to him. His ministry becomes a burden rather than a blessing, he secludes into silence and begins to question his calling, maybe even his very faith. He begins to give his mind over to fantasies of a better life in greener pastures.*
This is simply one expression of an issue that has continued throughout the ages of shepherding the Lord’s Church. Pastors and ministry leaders have long suffered from the pitfalls of addiction, depression and even in extreme cases suicide. Why does this seem to so frequently occur in the ministry? Why do we seem to be confronted so often with the difficulty and the dropouts of shepherding? How does this keep happening and why does it seem to be getting worse?
In a recent Schaeffer Institute study of 1,050 Reformed and Evangelical pastors every pastor said they had a colleague or seminary friend who had left the ministry because of burnout, church conflict, or moral failure.
Think about that for a moment, every single one of over a thousand pastors knew another pastor who had left the ministry. Another recent survey taken by around 200 pastors from five mainline denominations, showed that five of the top seven reasons for leaving local church ministry were stress related. Conflict in the congregation, conflict within the denomination, burnout and frustration, allegations of sexual misconduct and problems in the family. Of those 200 pastors 58 percent said they felt drained by the demands placed on them, were lonely and isolated, didn’t feel supported by the denomination or their church, or had marital and personal relationship problems.** This is the condition of many of our pastors, this is how they often feel as they pursue the work of gospel ministry. And these reasons that were listed by pastors for leaving should be very revealing to us and cause us to consider the current condition of pastoral ministry in our day and age.
These are shocking statistics that express a serious concern. These numbers should bring to mind our genuine need for heartfelt conversation about the health of our churches and their pastoral staff.
They reveal that one of the most historically neglected members of the Bride of Jesus Christ, the member that receives the least amount of shepherding care, is often the pastor himself.
This should make us ask the question, “Who cares for the pastor who cares for you?” Or another way to phrase the question would be, “Who does your pastor go to when he struggles with depression, falls into porn addiction, feels overworked and under appreciated, etc.?” The truth is, everyone needs a pastor, especially pastors. Many ministers are crying out in our current evangelical culture with the words, “Who shall care for our souls?”
As a result of the neglect of this need and ignorance of its lack of availability, we see the staggering statistics of burnout, depression and moral failure before us. Unless the Church comes to her senses and realizes her oversight in this area, we will continue to see the negative results of pastors leaving the ministry because they are overworked, exhausted and disillusioned. And unless those who are being called into pastoral ministry can be equipped with a more sober and realistic set of expectations as they leave their training and transition into shepherding work, we will continue to hear of ministers who shock their churches with announcements of affairs and even suicide attempts. This is an area of discussion that requires much more attention and genuine concern, a topic that needs addressed for the sake of Christ and His Bride.
Therefore, it is my purpose in this series of article to present the need for awareness of this epidemic as well as present practical suggestions for churches and pastors to implement in order to avoid these pitfalls. I will be addressing this very important topic in this four part series in this order.
First, I will seek to answer the question, “Why does there seem to be an increase in pastoral failure/burnout?” What are some modern trends that have caused an increase in this regard? In this section I intend to focus particularly on the issue of celebrity culture and its influence upon the church, particularly the pastor.
Secondly, I will seek to answer the question, “Why are pastors so susceptible to stress, depression and addiction?” What is so unique about the office that lends itself to so many issues of faith in crisis?
Lastly, I will offer professionally studied solutions as well as personal suggestions to reverse this unfortunate trend that we may see our pastors last longer and live happier in the ministry.
Stay tuned for part two, entitled The Celebrity Pastor Trickle Down Effect.
* This section is derived from chapters 1 and 2 of Paul David Tripp’s book Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. 2015. Crossway. 21-39. In this section Paul describes the pattern of behavior that leads to ministry burnout from his own experience as well as consulting for churches who are going through an evaluation process following the confession of a burnt out pastor.
** This information is derived from a survey in Dean Hoge and Jacqueline Wenger’s book Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2005. 37-38