Church Leadership

Pastoral confession: I’m not okay

September 28, 2016

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Pastor Appreciation Month” is October and there is something you need to know about your pastoral leader.

There is a clearly defined point in every pastor’s ministry that they find themselves in a deep hole. It is a deep hole that is created in the soul which comes from emptying yourself. You serve, preach, visit, do the hard work of transformation, night meetings, early breakfasts with church members, care for others, care for your family, and you usually have nothing left for yourself.

Enter the void.

Megachurch Pastor Pete Wilson of Crosspoint Church in Nashville, TN announced that he was leaving the church he founded.  After 14 years and 7,000 people attending each weekend, Wilson shocked his congregation with his departure.  As many pastors struggle to attendance and attraction, what would lead a successful pastor to step aside? He said:

And now, more than ever before—I really need your prayers and I need your support. We’ve said that this is a church where it’s okay to not be okay, and I’m not okay. I’m tired. And I’m broken and I just need some rest. I love you all; I love the vision of this church more today than I ever have.

In what is one of the few instances of pastoral confession, Wilson admitted to what many pastors feel, “I’m not okay”.  That was hard to read as a minister because I’ve been there. As Carol Howard Merritt put it, in an age where church decline has occurred for the last 40 years, church members expect to reverse such trends in a short amount of time. Expressions of congregational anxiety leads to micro and macro criticisms towards the pastor. Or, the pastor cannot continue in the overfunctioning in growth or transformation.  All the work of caring and leading a church runs down pastoral leaders into a dark abyss. Often, pastors have very few people they can turn to in the congregation to say, “I’m not okay” for fear church people will find out and freak out that their pastor does not have it all together.

Since we are talking about confession, I’ll share my own. As a pastor, I have poured my heart, soul, mind, blood, sweat, and tears into congregational ministry and treated very poorly for it.  I’ve been railroaded, blindsided, and stepped on. I’ve felt there are times I’m in a losing battle. “Battle” is a horrible word to use, right?  Ministry shouldn’t be a battle. Sometimes it felt like an emotional war. The best thing I did for myself was to start seeing a clergy coach trained in family systems and counseling to address my distress.

Pastors are people too. In my experience, many people in a congregation forget this. The criticisms, congregational anxiety, and weight of a declining American institution wear down on churches and pastors. Many pastors are not equipped in seminary with how to turn around a church or deal with transition. Most pastors were trained to be theologically attuned preachers, Bible teachers, pastoral care givers, and not transformational organizational leaders. For the minority of pastors who take on organizational challenges of their local church they are often met with aggression, criticism, and church meeting outcomes that have already been decided.

The time has come for churches to have realistic expectations of their pastor. Congregations can be led into greater vibrancy but it cannot be done alone. It takes the church leadership to realize what is the reality of the state of most American churches. It takes church leadership to see the toll such attempts at transformation take on pastors. Mechanisms in the church are needed for pastors to be honest about problems and concerns of confidentiality. Leaders also need to allow the pastor to keep proper boundaries of family, spiritual formation, and time off. Staff Relation Committees need to meet often with church members and leaders to help separate the realistic expectations from the burnout expectations. Further congregational training is required by local and regional ministry networks and denominations.

After worship this past summer a congregant came up to me and said, “Thank you for your sermon today, Alan. You know, you should really take some time off with your family. They need you too.” It was a very freeing moment. This person recognized the role I play as father and husband – not just their pastor.  Most pastors are usually people pleasers and we need those reminders to tend to our families as well.

Pete Wilson’s story of “I’m not okay” is happening to pastors.  It may be happening to your pastor right now. The strain upon them is reaching critical levels for American clergy. If your church expects your pastor to work 70-80 hours a week you are setting your pastor up for failure. Churches need to realize the key to congregational vitality is a shared ministry of laity and clergy.

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