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?



What is a Muslim? (and a Christian?)

A speaker at church last Sunday said that there are fundamentalist Muslims that shouldn’t even be called Muslims.  It was a curious comment, not because of its obvious provocation, but because I wonder: what is a Muslim?  The speaker had a certain idea of what a Muslim is, contrasted radical Muslims against that standard, and declared they are not Muslims.

If I were to turn the question back on myself I wonder, what is a Christian?  I mean, I know how to answer that on paper, but being a Christian, or Christ-follower, can be an allusive thing.  To what degree am I being a Christian?  Am I truly representing what that means?  And if I am not, at what point am I no longer a Christian?

There are plenty of Christians that I think are misguided and theologically wrong, but they are still Christians.  But then there are those that so egregiously misrepresent Jesus, like the Phelps family in Kansas, that I could confidently claim that is not Christianity.

I suppose what it boils down to is (and I’m only speaking about Christianity at this point) is three things: someone that has encountered God in Jesus Christ, submitted their lives to God in Jesus Christ, and commit to following the way of Jesus.

As I read over and over what I just wrote, being a Christian seems like a tall order.  But I just remembered something that has brought me peace.  That while I daily commit myself to follow the way of Jesus, Jesus commits himself to me.  Alas being a Christian is a lot of what I’m going to do and how I’m going to live; but more importantly it is what God continues to do in me.

Has humankind really progressed?

Secular Humanism suggests that the cure of the world’s troubles is humanity.  They will point to medical advances and civilized societies as evidence that the world’s troubles are going away because humanity is moving towards this perfect state of being.  And yet I can still read the news and find a world that is reminiscent of more primitive worlds past — Ebola, ISIS, and even the everyday corruption and systematic oppression in our back yard.

Someone once compared the movement of secular humanism to the movement of God’s Kingdom.  Now theologically, there are some major differences.  So much difference that we’re not talking “apples and oranges”…more like apples and garden tools.  But both beliefs talk of a movement and a progression, which leads me to wonder:

Has humankind really progressed or have we just turned a blind eye?

Think about it.  Our solution for savages that take people heads is killer robots.  Vaccines for any number of threatening illnesses don’t seem to protect anyone from cancer.  Serfdom is gone in most countries, but have you heard of red-lining?

I can accept some movement, but I’m not so sure we’re as far along as we think.

Why Is God So Slow?

2 Peter 3:9New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

This Scripture gave me a wake-up call. Here I find myself to be rather impatient with God…waiting for His will…waiting for His voice…waiting for anything. 

“Get over it,” I read.  “God is on His time, not yours.”  Ok, I suppose I can deal with that.  But then a tricky little twist. It’s good that God is slow. Why? Because that allows God to be patient with me. Turns out, I’m the slow one. Slow to catch on.  Slow to follow.

My soon to be 3 year-old is pretty slow. He takes foooooreeeever to get into the car or to trudge upstairs for his bath. Because he’s slow, I’m slow. I’m more late to things now more than ever in my life.  

Now how ridiculous would it be if he were to turn around and accuse me of being slow?

What?! What do you mean? I’m waiting on you!

Turns out that God is slow for my benefit and on my behalf; and for that…I’m thankful.

Who Wins in the Battle Over Time?

First, a word about my silence over the last few weeks. Truth is, I got really busy and really tired. Creative power for me is basically like a new bag of chips mostly filled with air anyways. So let’s just say I ran out of chips and I couldn’t be bothered to run to the store for more. All this to say: I appreciate if/when you read this blog. I still have a long way to go as a writer, but I hope it’s been somewhat meaningful/challenging/engaging for you.

Now…let me tell you what I did on Sunday. I didn’t go to church (playing hooky would make me sound dangerous; but alas it was just my week off). Instead I went to the Cleveland Museum of Art, looking for God in the expressions of artists old and modern. There were several revelations, actually, but one that I’ll share with you here. It seems that since the beginning of time people have been fighting over just that…time. People that value the traditions of old, such as Realism, butting heads with the Romantics among others. 

I live in the world of people expressing themselves to God, and so I also deal with the old-new dynamic. People that find God in the traditions of liturgy and Scripture; people seeing the movement of God’s Spirit in new and active ways. But believing that God is a God of the past, present, and future, do you think that maybe all this old-new fighting is just us? Hey you Traditionalist! Don’t you need someone looking ahead for you? Hey Futurist, haven’t you learned from the past? Perhaps it’s time to stop fighting over time and realize that there’s value in both.

Don’t You Love Traffic Jams?

On the highway you’ve set your ‘coast’ function and you’re riding smoothly.  To your great delight (sarcasm if you don’t know me yet) you come upon a traffic jam, one of life’s great annoyances.  Your schedule has been interrupted by a bottle-neck of hot carbon, the occasional honking of horns, and constant dashing of hopes that you finally might be free as you start and stop and start…and stop again.

Life can so easily become this traffic jam.

But in a world of chaos, God brings order.  God’s constancy is a foundation upon which any life can be built, and it’s free…peace-filled…rest-for-my-soul.  Each step is under control, but not mine or yours.

How does the constancy of God effect you?  The way you breath?  The way your walk?  The way you plan?

Spiritual Vs. Religious…What Is It Really About?

So a little debate came up on Facebook (which never happens).  It was about the somewhat recent rhetoric around peoples’ faith or relationship with God.  The debate is “spiritual vs. religious.”  It was catapulted into the forefront of people’s minds after this video went viral.  And so while the world went on as usual, the church was arguing, again, prompting videos like this.

My question is: what is this debate really about?

In my little Facebook convo, it was noted that people choosing to be spiritual but not religious are really refusing to accept what it means to be in community.  There’s something there, I think.  After all, we do live in one of the most hyper-individualistic cultures in the world.  We’re told that we’re our own boss.

“It’s my life; it’s now or never.” -Internationally renown sage and theologian Bon Jovi.

Truth is, I really want community to be there for me.  But when it comes to how I contribute to community…what I give us…how I submit…that’s another level.  Religion is a difficult thing to define, but most understandings imply that there’s more than one person involved and that always gets tricky if it’s all about us.

Is this debate really about us or you?

Science and Religion Singing “Why Can’t We Be Friends”? It Can Happen…

This article made me happy.

In college I rolled my eyes at having to take Astronomy as a German major, but Gen. Ed. courses are another blog post.  I can promise you that not one iota of substance was retained, save for this one encounter.  I took to my prof’s office a day after a lecture on the Big Bang.  As a person of faith, I needed answers…or at least I needed to be allowed to have certain questions.

“So you don’t know what caused the Big Bang?” I asked.

“No,” said the prof.

“So it’s cool if I think it’s God,” I responded, not knowing if he’d buy it.


Hear me –I was not a victorious little Christian soldier that day.  I learned something…something really important: Science and God are actually friends.  So where did I get the notion there was a battle going on?  Here’s what happens…

Somewhere along the way someone tries to use science to disprove God, or the Bible to disprove science.  The assertion, although peculiar, is packed with an infinite mass of unstable energy.  Then, unprovoked, this mass of energy explodes in the form of a scientific journal or a TV special on the 700 Club.  This Big Bang of antagonism sets off a series of nuclear reactions that form molecules of speculation, which then take on a life of their own.  The entire scene is so mysterious and beautiful it can only be deemed by onlookers as Unintelligent Design.

So let’s put aside our fundamentalism, learn from one another, and karaoke in unison.  There’s too much to learn and the fighting is giving me a headache.

Is the Devil Real?

One of the most memorable lines of any movie came from the film Usual Suspects, where actor Kevin Spacey, playing an evil mastermind disguised as a crippled simpleton, said:

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

This time, Hollywood speaks the truth.  It’s easy forget on the soft couch of a sanitized life, but it’s true nonetheless.  Recently I found myself unable to sleep because of crippling, physiological fear.  I won’t go into the details, but needless to say there was a real and present something against me.

I know, it’s easy to point out the ambiguity of Scripture regarding Satan and conclude he’s a figment of imagination.  But even if that’s the case, perhaps they were simply personifying that very real and present something that was against them.

All of this rumbled around in my head all weekend, and then this happened.

Evil is real whether we recognize it or not.  Joining God in His victory over evil, however, does require a simple recognition of that real and present something against us.

My Poverty Immersion Experience (5): It’s Just People, Man. It’s Just People.

Catch the series here:  posts one, two, three, and four.

One of the leaders on the poverty immersion weekend, and employee of one of the local homeless ministries, said it often: “It’s just people man.  It’s just people.”

On the final night of our weekend, we spent the late hours of the night not addressing poverty “out there,” but vulnerably reached down into our souls to find the poverty within us.  We’re just people, man.

When I returned from life as a teacher and missionary in Haiti, among many poor, I was struck with a great paradox.  In Haiti, in the midst of great poverty and tragedy, people were genuinely happy.  I returned as a youth pastor, tending to young people who had so much if not everything, who were genuinely unhappy.  Cutting.  Depression.  Bipolar disorder.  There was a poverty in their wealth, and it permeated in the air.  We’re just people, man.

People in poverty don’t have many things that people not in poverty have.  But the opposite is also true.  We’re all rich and poor in different ways.  We’re all.just.people.

God sees us in such ways.

Granted, we’re all uniquely and wonderfully made.  But God doesn’t see a CEO here, and an unhoused person there.  In truth both could be just as brilliant and resourceful –I learned that too.  God sees people.  Hurting people, joyful people.  People that love and people that hate.  People that pray and people that don’t; and people that don’t let on that they pray.  And God, full of compassion, loves each of us.  God doesn’t love our jobs or our status or our wealth.  God just loves us.  May I see what God sees in people; and may I love like God loves.