In the early years of starting Christ’s Church of the Valley I was asked to write an article for a ministry magazine.
At the time of writing I was starting more services, hiring more staff, assimilating more people, and putting out more fires than what seemed humanly possible. The editor told me to write about anything I wanted, so I sat down and just started writing, and writing, and writing.
The article below is what came out.
A quick caveat: This is not how I feel today. Quite the opposite actually. This is only a snapshot from a specific ministry season when I was not taking care of myself while working beyond my limits. I tell Senior Pastors I coach that getting a coach, setting clear boundaries, and having a strong, loving spouse helped steer me to a much healthier place.
However I do think the article does a good job of giving pastoral burnout a voice.
My hope is that if you are feeling weary, this article will help you to find yours.
Once upon a time there was a young man who felt called to become a Pastor. He went to a Christian college where they taught him many wonderful things – how to love people and teach the Bible and win people to Jesus. But when he entered his first church he realized there was a big difference between what he was taught and the skills needed to run a dynamic congregation.
So he read books and attended conferences and sought advice from consultants, and sure enough, his church began to grow. New people were coming to Christ like never before. They needed more worship space and parking so they ran a capital campaign. More people were baptized, their offerings grew and they added new staff. A few years later people took note of the growth of his church and he found himself in the interesting position of being looked to for advice.
But the pressure of leading a growing church began to take its toll. Endless staff meetings. Long nights. Weekly anxiety over whether or not they would meet budget. Management issues. Architects. Piles of phone calls and emails to return. Systems. Planning. Paperwork. Requests for counseling. Inability to go anywhere in his community without being recognized.
Deep down he wondered if this was all worth it. But he persisted. He shoved any disapproving voices in his soul farther and farther away. “I’m doing this for the kingdom,” he reminded himself. “Besides, I’ve gotten them too far in debt now to leave.”
Years later his church had grown beyond anything he ever imagined. He had book deals and endless speaking requests. People lauded him as someone to model their ministry after. In other pastor’s eyes he had achieved it all. But personally his soul was smaller now than it had ever been before.
Late one evening after a discouraging meeting with his Finance Manager over sagging contributions, he walked into the staff office bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, and slowly slapped water on his face. He starred at the person he was forced to become to maintain such growth.
With every new building built, and with every new staff member added, and with every capital campaign administered he felt like a little bit of his soul shriveled up and died. He felt numb. He mumbled something almost inaudibly at first. Then he repeated it again. “Is this what I signed up for when God called me into the ministry?”
A Penetrating Question
One of my favorite rock bands, Coldplay, released a song a while back called “Clocks” that immediately hit the top of the charts. Buried in the middle of that song is a little question that flies by so fast you almost miss it unless you are listening closely.
The song asks, “Am I a part of the cure, or am I part of the disease?”
As of late I can’t get that question out of my head.
Four years ago my wife, kids and I moved to the suburbs of Philly to launch a new church for a heavily unchurched area. In just four short years we’re popping over 700 and getting ready to break ground for a multi-million dollar complex.
People would say things are going great.
But the larger this thing gets, the more unhappy I become.
It’s that question.
I keep wondering if this thing we’ve just created, this entity, this land consuming, staff adding, money raising, people churning, numerically and financially growing conglomeration of people – I’m wondering if it’s part of the cure or part of the disease.
By now you can probably tell where I’m leaning, so let me explain…
I don’t like what I’ve become
A while ago I asked a nationally recognized Pastor and author to give me some direction. To be honest, I was pretty surprised that he was willing to come and consult with a scrub like me, but he graciously did. I had a long list of questions that I needed help answering, but top on my list was the question, “How can I sustain this for the long haul?” When his plane landed we spent two days together driving around our area talking and praying. Do you want to know what his first words to me were? “Brian, it takes a pretty unstable person to lead a church from 0 to 500 in 3 years.” I said, “Ummm, thanks, I think.”
I don’t like what I’ve had to become to lead, manage, catalyze and propel this ever-growing mass forward. In his book, Organizing Genius, Warren Bennis says that “Great groups are full of indefatigable people who are struggling to turn a vision into a machine and whose lawns and goldfish have died of neglect.”
My problem is that I want out of the machine building business. In fact, I never wanted to be in the machine building business in the first place.
The sheer weight of the burden on my shoulders never leaves. Money. Meetings. Planning. One friend of mine in a similar situation calls himself “the weeping prophet,” not because of his passion for the lost, but because of the misery of running the machine. In fact, almost every mega-church pastor I have ever talked to, and I mean almost every one, has whispered behind the scenes, “This is hell. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”
To lead a growing church you have to become a workhorse (and lead a team of exhausted workhorses). The problem is when I do this I become a hypocrite. There is a disconnect between the life I’m leading and what I’m teaching our people. Rest, peace, freedom from anxiety, and contentment are words that cannot cross my lips with any amount of authenticity when I’m running the machine.
My question is simple: “Why isn’t anyone warning upcoming pastors about this?” If we are a fellowship of churches with endless numbers of congregations looking at the 1,000 mark in their rear-view mirrors, does anyone else see a problem? How can this be a part of the cure when the people leading these entities are miserable?
I don’t like what my calling has become
In the 1920’s a team of archaeologists excavating a section of a city called Dura-Europas in western Syria uncovered a spectacular find-the first known dedicated church building. Dated to roughly 231 a.d., it was a house converted into worship space, including a tub for baptisms. Over this tub they found a beautiful mural of a young beardless shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders.
While I am jazzed by the nature of this archeological discovery, I am also saddened. Unlike me, for the first 100 years of its existence, kingdom leaders were focused on people—reaching them, baptizing them, teaching them, and starting new fellowships for them. That was their calling. And this is what I thought I signed up for.
They didn’t see building buildings as part of their mission. The only collections that they had were for the poor. There were no budgets. No Capital Campaigns. Church leaders didn’t worry about things that consume our time like programs and systems and mission statements and strategic planning. There was a small group of people that met in a home. That’s it. New Testament scholars all agree these small fellowships were no more than 25 to 50 in size, and the Apostle Paul seemed quite content with that.
I feel at times like the leader of a spiritual institution, like a regional manager for a Wal-Mart or YMCA. Of course I am passionate about reaching people for Jesus, but I also constantly need money to keep this thing going. People are needed, not so much to become disciples but to lead and administer and fill up programs. People in the hallway are immediately sized up in my head, “Potential leader…contact. Whiner…avoid. Sharp couple with great giving potential…connect.” I despise this. I can’t imagine this is the vision Jesus had for his new community.
So What’s The Answer?
This past summer I had a chance to visit a booming mega-church in the west. It had just completed its billionth capital campaign and had it all: new state of the art buildings, acres and acres of land, surplus parking, a spacious bookstore, snappy graphics and lots of happy, carb-counting worship leaders. Walking into the worship center with my wife, I stopped mid-stride, threw up my arms and said, “I don’t want to do THIS anymore.”
She said, “What?”
I said, “THIS. All of this. Every last bit of it. Giving my life to THIS is shrinking my soul a little bit everyday. If I keep it up nothing will be left.”
I guess what I allowed myself to articulate for the very first time was that I wanted out of the machine building business.
Machine building is part of the disease.
I want to be a part of the cure.
I don’t want to be 55 years old, looking in the mirror and mumbling to myself, “Is this what I signed up for when God called me into the ministry?”
The only problem is I don’t know what the cure looks like.
Have you been burned out before? Building the machine? What did you do?