Something's wrong. We pastors are the stewards, the spokespeople, the advocates of a message of hope, life, and peace. And yet so few of us seem to be experiencing these qualities in our own lives. Something's wrong. In a world saturated with fear, insecurity, and stress, we are to show a different way. And yet those at the center of the church are burning out and leaving ministry at a rate of 1,500 per month. If that's what's occurring at the heart of the church, why would anyone on the fringe want to move in closer?
I recently read an article by two Christian counselors about the soul-killing impact of church ministry on leaders. (The statistic above comes from them.) They note that the pressure to grow the church is a significant factor leading to pastoral burnout. And some pastors "admitted they promoted growth models that were incongruent with their values because of a desperate need to validate their pastoral leadership." It seems too many of us have our identities wrapped up in the measurable outcomes of our work rather than in the life-giving love of the Christ we proclaim. Something's wrong.
Recently, I spent a week in western Iowa and met many wonderful pastors and church leaders. These men and women don't lead megachurches. They're not in chic urban or suburban communities where new cultural trends are born. In other words, they're not the people you're likely to see on the platform at a ministry conference. More than one church leader approached me during the week holding back tears. Each confessed he was on the verge of mental/spiritual/emotional collapse. The cause cited by all: the pressure to perform.
Some might say these leaders have failed to nurture their souls sufficiently. We usually want to blame leaders for their own burnout, but when I see the pervasiveness of this problem I wonder if there isn't also a systemic factor. Could contemporary church ministry itself be the problem?
When I attend conferences or peruse ministry books, websites, and magazines, I'm bombarded with one overwhelming message: great ministry results are the product of great ministry leadership. If a church is growing, if lives are changing, if budgets are burgeoning—it must be because the leader is doing something right. Conversely, if the church is shrinking, if lives are struggling, if budgets are busting—it must be because the leader is inept. As a result, a pastor's success and self-worth is inexorably linked to his or her measurable performance. Stewing in this toxic brew, is it any wonder why pastors' souls are shriveling? Something's wrong.
Consider a chapter titled "Bigger is Better" from a popular ministry book. The authors write, "A church should always be bigger than it was. It should be constantly growing." Talk about pressure. The problem is this standard doesn't hold water when applied to Jesus himself. John 6 describes the scene where "many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him." After teaching some weird stuff about drinking his blood and eating his flesh, the crowds who were drawn by Jesus' miracles decided they had had enough. Did Jesus' shrinking ministry mean he was an ineffective leader? Why do we hold ourselves to a standard that Jesus doesn't apply to himself?
Or consider one of my favorite stories from the Old Testament. In Numbers 20, Moses performs a miracle by drawing water from a rock to nourish the Israelites. By any human measure, Moses' ministry was a success. It was God-empowered (he performed a miracle) and it was relevant (the people were thirsty). If Moses lived today, we'd all be reading his ministry book titled How to Draw Water from Rocks: Effective Strategies to Refresh Arid Churches. There was just one problem: Moses' effective ministry was rejected by God. Moses had disobeyed the Lord's command by striking the rock rather than speaking to it. For this sin he was forbidden from entering the Promised Land. It turns out God performed a miracle in spite of Moses, not because of him.
Might God be doing the same thing today? Is God allowing some powerful, effective, and relevant ministries to grow in spite of leaders rather than because of them? If Scripture shows that faithful and godly leaders can have shrinking ministries (Jesus in John 6), and sinful leaders can have successful ministries (Moses in Numbers 20), then why do we persist in measuring our success simply on the measurable outcomes of our work?
Brothers and sisters, you are more than the measurable outcomes of your work. I've come back from my time in Iowa with a renewed commitment to help us all understand the mysterious calling we have in Christ. I want to be at least one voice countering the soul-killing noise surrounding church leaders today—noise that tries to convince us to ground our identities in effectiveness rather than faithfulness. Yes, we need to work diligently and serve Christ with our very best—this is our worship to God. But how we define success should look very different in the economy of God's kingdom from the tangible stats the world celebrates.
Some of us are called to plant; some of us are called to water. Unlike contemporary business, ministry involves the baffling interplay of the human and the divine, the spiritual and the material. There is a mystery to what we are called to do. Embracing this mystery and releasing the outcomes of our work to God is what we must do if our lives, and not just our ministries, are to be filled with his grace.
Adapted from Out of Ur, © 2008 Christianity Today International.
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