This is the second of three articles about the convictions I felt as I looked back on my time in vocational ministry. Here’s a link to the first – Conviction #1 – Complicity, Numbers Games, & Cultural Christians.
As I was in some time of prayer and repentance over the realities of my first conviction, I heard the Holy Spirit bring a second conviction with clarity to my heart. I was specifically praying about the understanding that I’d participated in the creating of cultural Christians when the Spirit immediately spoke with simple clarity, saying just a few direct words…
“Yes, and you’ve become a pretty good cultural Christian yourself.”
He may have whispered it in my spirit, but it echoed loudly through my mind and heart. He was right. Painfully right.
My reflection quickly turned directly inward. My personal faith had morphed over time to be my day job. I prayed when I needed to as a leader. I read the bible when I needed to prep for a message or teaching. I fasted when the church did it corporately. It was easy to blur the lines in a way that I let those practices become equivalent to my own disciplines of growth. They weren’t though. They were tasks of the job and while there were many moments of genuine engagement with God in the midst of them, they were instigated by my role, not my own faith.
The healthiest seasons of my own faith have been when I’m not working within the church vocationally.
I wish that I were an anomaly, but I’ve had many pastors over the years confide in me their own spiritual dryness in the midst of leading in the church. It’s a spiritual chicken and egg struggle. Do pastors struggle to lead ministries of spiritual depth because of their own shallow wells, or do the commonly accepted shallow depths of ministry produce spiritually dry pastors? While I’m not sure there’s a simple answer to the cause and effect, I do know this is a significant red flag to church as we know it. The men and women that feel called to lead and are equipped by God to do so are burning out and falling at rapid paces. A high number of people we look to in our lives to echo Paul, saying “follow me as I follow Jesus” (1 Cor 11:1), are struggling greatly in their own spiritual lives.
Let me be really clear here. I fully understand that I am responsible for my own spiritual health.
The choices I make, the way I spend my time, and the ways I actively engage or disengage my own faith lie on me to own. As with any job stress, there have been times when the busyness and challenges of my job have put a strain on my following of Jesus. Again, I am an adult and capable of understanding the need for rest, self-care, disciplines, and other intentional investments into my own personal health. However, I’m also aware that there are many unique and difficult challenges to maintaining spiritual health in ministry. The realities of pastoral leadership, especially in today’s modern church, are uniquely difficult and spiritually heavy.
Again, if I were the anomaly, I’d be much less inclined to lean in here. Unfortunately, the church seems to be generally accepting of the personal challenges those in vocational ministry carry on a regular basis. It’s as if all of the red flags of unhealth from those we raise up in spiritual leadership have simply become the norms of ministry – the cost of doing business so to speak.
The list goes on and on…
These issues regularly get public airtime – a celeb pastor has an affair, a mega-church leader with a prominent voice in the mental health scene takes his own life, a Christian music rockstar recants his faith and walks away. It’s happening more and more, and while we’re quick to offer our “thoughts and prayers”, the church is clearly unwilling to address the root issues of the painful trends we’re seeing in leadership fallout. These and so many other struggles are happening daily in the lives of most church leaders. Yet when these issues and struggles are discussed, the common conversation comes back to mental health awareness. It’s a true and helpful point of discussion, to be sure. What I find so frustrating is that I’ve yet to hear a prominent voice in American Christendom wave the flag and say “maybe the system is broken”. How many times do we have the same conversations before we consider that the way we do church is breaking the leaders that God’s raising up to lead them? For most, that’s a non-starter as it questions too much and leads to too many other difficult questions.
We have taken a God-appointed and Holy Spirit gifted role in the life of the church and adapted it to look more like the leadership of a successful Fortune 500 company.
There’s very little pastoral leadership happening from most in pastoral ministry these days. In an article for churchleaders.com Megan Briggs explores the reasons that those in vocational ministry experience significant depression at a greater rate than other vocations. She says, “Most felt that ministers entered the ministry as a response to the Call and with the expectations of what that meant to be in the church as a spiritual mentor/leader. Reality sets in, however, as persons in the church seem more concerned about the survival of the church and its fiscal operation. The measures of success become those things that are measurable; budget size, bottom line, and membership size.”
The common profile for vocational ministry has changed significantly over the last half-century. Pastoral ministry was once a role of significant education and training through the seminary process. It was important that the people we called to lead had a firm foundation of theology and training. There was an expectation that they knew the Bible well and understood well how to lead others in spiritual growth. It was uncommon to find someone in ministry leadership that had not engaged in this process to become a Pastor. Quite a bit has changed since then. While many traditional denominations still hold to the model of seminary training, the common evangelical church has largely abandoned this process. Individuals with relatively little training and short faith journeys are raised up from within the congregation to serve in pastoral ministry. There are lots of reasons at play within this trend. Seminary is a long, slow process, that is seen as more and more irrelevant to church as we know it. The criteria by which we deem individuals called to ministry has changed as well. What was once an intentional season of training and vetting has been replaced with raw leadership potential and personal charisma as the primary factors for ministry. At the last church I served at, in a staff of nearly thirty ministry leaders, there were only four staff who had engaged in college or seminary training for ministry.
This isn’t a push for seminary training – most of today’s bible colleges and seminaries struggle to practically equip their graduates for real-world ministry – weddings, funerals, church disagreements, budgets, etc… are often significant voids in the curriculum. It is, however, a push for some form of intentional and engaged process of theological and spiritual training for modern church leaders.
Much of the modern American Evangelical church moves at an unbelievably rapid pace.
This pace is both the cause and effect of many intentional decisions to keep the elusive growth multiplier known as momentum. Momentum covers a multitude of sins (Not 1 Peter 4:8). The desire to create momentum and keep momentum often leads to rash decisions. Keeping momentum means there’s little time to slow down and evaluate. No time to process, just keep going. It often pushes rapid hiring and staff growth that in turn creates an ongoing leadership turnover. In the need to keep up with growth and projections, staff are run non-stop at an unhealthy rate. They’ve jumped onto a moving flywheel – either keep up or get run over. Unfortunately, many can’t keep up with the demands of modern ministry leadership, and they either jump ship or become a casualty of the growth machine. This turnover cycle only continues to contribute to (and multiply!) the challenges and struggles of vocational ministry leaders discussed above.
Common leadership mantras get presented as encouragement but quickly turn to thinly veiled job performance threats – “What got us here won’t get us there.” In other words, do what you do faster and better or we’ll find someone else that can. The internal staff culture of many rapidly growing churches is that of significant competition, job insecurity, and fears of failure. Very few roles or individual staff are safe. Growth metrics drive nearly every decision, including staffing. Because of the rapid pace and the need to keep momentum, there’s no time for development. No time to slow down and train someone, correct personal shortcomings, or mentor and raise up healthy seasoned leaders. No, for most churches in this pursuit of growth, the individual staff members are easily sacrificed for the “greater good” of the growth of the church.
There are two really challenging parts of statements like “What got us here won’t get us there”. First, the idea of “there” is almost always narrow, or undefined. Either it’s an abstract target on the horizon that’s somehow tied to quantified growth success, or it’s a very specific target goal that usually measured in attendance or giving. It’s as if getting “there” symbolizes success and victory for the church, but more often than not, not much changes even if you hit your target goals. Second, the statement seems to downplay everything you’ve done to this point to be successful. It doesn’t matter how well it may be going, change it up because the target of success is moving. It undercuts the foundations of ministries and leaders that have served tirelessly to get the organization to its current level of success.
The brokenness, burnout, and loneliness of those leading in ministry today should be a huge red flag to the church that something’s wrong.
There’s an uncomfortable reality that the church and it’s ministry leaders are in a really unhealthy codependent relationship so neither side is willing to call out the challenges the current system creates.
The church is looking to ministry leaders to feed them spiritually and entertain them to boot. They’re “giving” to support the services they engage on a weekly basis. It’s the exact mentality that leads people to say things like “I tithe, so I should have a say in that decision…” The motives are quickly revealed to be purchasing influence over giving to God’s kingdom. Even more, the church needs ministry leaders so they don’t have to do the heavy lifting of faith – someone’s paid to pray, to preach, to love the community, to engage evangelism, etc… The challenge? The church is an anemic spiritual version of its biblical model. Cynical? Probably. Accurate? More often than you’d be comfortable admitting.
But ministry leaders need the church too! They have job security that is directly tied to the success and growth of the church they lead. Preach hellfire and brimstone all day, but don’t risk a message that gets too close to being racially, politically, or financially challenging. There’s often too much at risk to be that honest. Even more, ministry creates an unhealthy vocational attraction for people-pleasers, narcists, and big egos. They often need regular praise and a growing congregation to validate their calling and gifts. The challenge? Ministry leaders are an anemic spiritual version of their biblical models. Cynical? Probably. Accurate? More often than you’d be comfortable admitting.
Ministry leaders are more often than not put on a pedestal and given undue honor or knocked to the ground and abused. Very rarely are they given a healthy proper place alongside and within the body of Christ, using their gifts in unison with the rest of the believers gathered together. Restoring them to a healthy function would bring an end to the growing fall and demise of church leaders across the nation. Doing so would take an overhaul of the church as we know that the church is ill-equipped to tackle.