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Why do pastors burn out?


When leading a church becomes principally about numerical growth and legacy, it’s no wonder church leaders can struggle. There is another road, writes Joe Haward

Hope Valley

The numbers game

I’m tired of pastors burning out, getting ill and becoming shadows of themselves.

Being a minister, a Revd, a pastor, has become a game, a collaboration with a culture that seeks instantaneous results, success, nostalgia, fame, productivity and a name etched in history. And so we becomes players in this game of numbers and money, of recognition and success stories.

But it’s just a game, you realise?


‘What is your legacy?’

‘What drives you?’

‘Are you performing to your greatest potential?’

These are questions that have, in one guise or another, crept into our theological training, into our churches, into our pulpits and into our spiritual formation.

Ministers strive and struggle and work to build a church that will thrive and survive. We seek ways to make our ministry ‘sustainable’ as though this is a demonstration and confirmation of what a ‘successful ministry’ looks like. Relationships have been replaced by results, people have become targets, the church no longer people bound together in unconditional love, but now a group of resources urged to be ‘missional’, whatever that might mean.

And we get tired in every way imaginable because we sacrifice relationships on the altar of growth, to the god of exchange who will only bless the work of our hands if we pray enough, work enough, read the Bible enough, believe enough and believe the right way; the god of exchange whose voice has been whispering its poisonous lies for centuries, telling the ancients if they too sacrificed the right way, behaved the right way, then their crops would grow, their armies would win, their children would be many. Read Deuteronomy and see it for yourself.

And this voice is still whispering its lies within the institutional church, telling us all the same seductive poems, and pastors are left bloodied and bruised as the magic formula fails again and again. Remember, every person is equally loved, a person of broken beauty loved by the One of unquenchable Love. This whispering voice that seeks to overcome this unquenchable Love is not the voice of ‘evil’ people, but an institution, principalities and powers if you like, like what Steinbeck describes in The Grapes of Wrath, something that takes on a life of its own.

‘My church is growing’ echoes out from sections of the institution, a cry of defiance, proving that this god of exchange does indeed answer our heartfelt prayers. Yet in 10 years your successor will be left on the altar bleeding out as all your ‘growth’ is seen for what it really is, a culture of consumerism, people going from church to church, much like they do with their smartphones or cars, getting what suits them at the time.

Meanwhile the institutional church has continued its path of decay, many pastors and their families hurt and humiliated, left feeling worthless and responsible. The institutional church is going to die, yet so much is invested, so it will continue its course. Perhaps some will manage to get to the lifeboats. Yet many pastors will continue to believe that their worth is discerned through their ability to make this sinking vessel float.


Glimpsing hope

There is hope however! As a people of the Crucified One it is a path of cross and resurrection, and so it is not an easy road. Yet Jesus is walking with us, leading the way, speaking to us as often clueless and unremarkable disciples. And this is exciting! As Bonhoeffer said, ‘In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things, the figure of him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger.’

You see it, don’t you, this hope breaking forth like a new dawn? You’ve caught glimpses of it, I’m sure you have? Haven’t you?

It lies beyond the boundaries of the institution (although you’ve heard it whispered within its walls), and has been gaining momentum. Jesus is on the move! But we’ve had to have our whole outlook transformed, cast off our violent ways and understanding of who God is, and see this inexhaustible grace breaking out into our hearts, into our theology, into our communities. It’s like we’re once again becoming aware of this Trinitarian Life, aware that the Spirit has always been present, changing our hearts of stone into hearts of Unconditionality.

Yet pastors and folks in our churches continue to get hurt and battered. Some pastors feel completely trapped, their home and finances and friends and family all tied up in the institution. They feel like there is no way out. There are no easy answers.

But there are those who understand, who are walking the same path, who want you to know that they are a friend. And perhaps in friendship, the answers will emerge, the perfect love of Jesus will cast out our fear and enable us to walk into something beyond where we are now.

Maybe what we need is to simply know we’re not on our own. Like when we watch a sunrise and the new days rays touch our upturned face, and in that moment we somehow instinctively know we’re connected in ways beyond our understanding.

‘And these three remain, faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.'

Picture: Drew Collins / Mam Tor, Hope Valley / Unsplash

The Revd Joseph Haward is married to Sarah, and they have two daughters, Grace and Lizzie. Joe is an eighth generation oyster fisherman, turned Revd, after training as a Baptist Minister at Spurgeon’s College. Joe and his family now live in south Devon and founded the pioneer ministry This Hope. 

His first book The Ghost of Perfection is being published by Wipf and Stock in 2017.


Baptist Times, 16/01/2017
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