There’s More to the “Pastor Burnout” Syndrome

This blog has been dormant for a couple years now.  Honestly, I think I just ran out of things to say and felt the pressure of a self-imposed schedule.  But a thought came to me recently that I felt needed to be said, dots that need to be connected.

I’ve been reading a lot recently about a couple high-profile pastors calling it quits due to burnout.  Every article I’ve read describes the rigors of vocational church leadership, issues some warnings, and offers a series of To-Do’s.  These are mostly true and practically helpful, but in my view are missing the larger picture of what is happening.  Actually, I think they’re not missing it at all…they just don’t want to talk about it.

Remember over a year ago when a Pew Research report surfaced, highlighting the demise of the American Christian Church?  “The rise of the ‘Nones'” to the church-world is just as dreaded as “Rise of the Sith.”  Actually, things aren’t all that bad for World Christianity, but our Americentric Gospel can’t really focus on that right now…we need to talk about us.  So what is really happening to us?  Is this really the end?

These questions were life-or-death for both of my small churches in the recent past.  One of them thought they might close their doors when a strong leader brought them out of the depths.  When I began serving as their pastor 5 years later, I shared that role with another church a few miles away.  This other congregation, before my arrival, also wondered if their church would die.  In my interview, it was highlighted that a couple mega-churches in the area had essentially gobbled up all the potential new members they might gain, as well as some of the old ones looking for something better.  In their eyes, large churches were the team to beat.

Large churches do a lot of things well.  Their numbers are impressive and there is always something to be learned for how an entity can speak into the hearts and lives of people so profoundly.  But large churches and their pastors are feeling the pressure too.  Are they even remotely close to dying?  No, but rest assured they’re concerned about a percentage point drop in attendance or a few less baptisms than the year before.  The pressure to uphold their gold standard produces a similar drive as dying churches: We must save our entity.   

Nobody has to drive very far to attend a church.  In many places there’s still a church on every corner, evidence of Christianity’s once prominent place in American society.  But you will never hear a church advertisement inviting you to attend the church closest to you to hear about Jesus.  No, you must attend their church because there’s something different about their church.  They’re not like the rest.  Every church will tell you that their mission is to “make disciples” or “connect people with Jesus,” but nobody’s really honest that much of their decisions are based on growing their entity.  Small churches do it because they don’t want their beloved church to die, large churches do it because they can’t stomach decline.  The insecurity around growing a brand of church is palpable.  Tactics grow more desperate, more outlandish, just to get someone’s attention.  Satellite campuses just happen to pop up in wealthier areas.  Clergy sensationalize a church’s program on Facebook.

I’m not a businessy person, but I’ve learned from watching The Profit to know that the lower a market the higher the competition, and the higher the competition the higher the pressure.  Even Marcus Lemonis and the Shark Tank gurus won’t invest in a company if they feel like the market is low.  Now, I think the market is always high on Jesus, but the research suggests something different for religious institutions, or what unchurched people call “organized religion.”  Religious institutions, big and small, denominational or non-denominational are feeling the tightened market.  And the pressure to maintain existence for small churches, or the arbitrary success for large churches, is choking out even its modern-day heroes.

Why did Pete Wilson and Perry Noble resign?  Is it really because they didn’t honor their day off or take enough vacation?  I’m betting that they asked themselves a question that all of these “nones” asked themselves at one point…a question I and others have been secretly asking: Where is Jesus in all this church activity?

 

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