“What lies are you tempted to believe in ministry?”
Over the past several months, I’ve asked this question to dozens of pastors and Christian leaders. It’s a question that often goes unasked in religious leadership circles, but the resulting conversations have been honest, vulnerable, and revealing. Here are some of the common answers:
I have a small church, which makes me a bad and ineffective pastor.
My addiction has no effect on my congregation.
More speaking opportunities at ministry conferences means I’m a legitimate pastor.
The size of our buildings, budget, and attendance are the only viable way ministry success can be measured.
If I pastor better, God will love me more.
I can please everyone and be faithful to my calling.
If I preach better, my church will grow.
My physical health and wellbeing are not spiritual matters.
I don’t need help.
I don’t have time to rest.
God’s grace is big, but it’s not big enough to cover what I’ve done.
My personal identity is directly related to my ministry performance.
These answers reveal the dark crawlspaces of the psyche of a pastor. They’re not surprising to me, though — in almost a dozen years of vocational ministry, I’ve been tempted to believe these things, too.
Why do we believe them? Because in our time, the definition of ministry “success” has been professionalized to the point that it mirrors mainstream American culture’s definition of success. We celebrate and perpetuate metrics of success borrowed from the pages of business management textbooks. And these metrics of success are chewing up and spitting out pastors at an alarming rate.
The pastoral vocation today is a sea of dead bodies. Consider these stats, which I’ve pulled from various surveys:
1,500 pastors leave the ministry for good each month, citing burnout or contention in their churches.
80 percent of pastors (and 84 percent of pastors’ spouses) are discouraged in their roles.
Almost half of all pastors have seriously considered leaving ministry for good in the past three months.
For every 20 pastors who go into ministry, only one retires from the ministry.
50 percent of pastors say they are unable to meet the demands of their job and are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
When I share these statistics with pastors, they slowly, knowingly nod their heads.
Yet when I share these statistics with non-clergy, they are shocked: “How can this be? I had no idea!” A widespread Super Pastor mentality has led us to believe that pastors never struggle, never doubt, never get discouraged, and never wrestle with feelings of failure — just because they’re pastors.
But pastors are people, too. Ministry is a significant calling and it is involves broken, sinful, and scandalously ordinary people God calls and uses to shepherd souls. These broken ordinaries are called pastors.
Thirty years ago, pastor and author Eugene Peterson wrote with prophetic clarity that pastors are expected to “run churches rather than care for souls.” Peterson was already concerned that pastors had become obsessed with keeping the customers happy and luring other customers away from the other religious shops down the street.
The irony is that the Gospels show that Jesus’ leadership approach couldn’t have assumed a more different posture. The contrast between Jesus and pastors who preach Jesus is jolting. He had every reason to embrace the reputation of the sought-after religious celebrity. But he purposefully avoided the spotlight, often telling people to refrain from speaking to others about the miracles he had just performed. Pastors today reach for the spotlight, seek the attention of any who will give it, and eagerly share with others (in person or on social media) our great accomplishments.
The entrance exam to the Christian life is the admission of failure. We call this “confession of sin” or “repentance.” And yet many pastors believe they can’t admit when they have failed and sinned. Dozens have told me they are petrified to open up and share how they are really doing. They feel unsafe to share their doubts, struggles, sins, and discouragement with the people they’ve been called to shepherd and serve. Instead, pastors wear masks and go into hiding, desperately hoping they won’t be exposed.
It’s a vicious cycle, one entirely absent of the very element that makes the Christian story so beautiful: grace. We pastors hide our failures, fears, doubts, and weaknesses, and grace only becomes a theological and theoretical religious term for the pulpit on Sunday mornings.
No pastor is a Super Pastor. Pastors are broken failures in need of grace. Just like you.
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