A high, and stressful, calling
Burned-out shepherds are a warning sign for the church
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Earlier this year, The Barna Research Group reported that 42 percent of pastors nationwide considered resigning in the last year, up from 29 percent in 2021. The role of the pastor has always been a difficult calling since Paul urged his young protégé, Timothy, to “stand strong in the grace of Jesus Christ” and endure suffering as a good soldier” (2 Timothy 2:3). Yet, we might live in one of the most challenging environments for the pastorate in decades. An increasingly polarized populace, combined with racial tensions, pandemic after-effects, disunity in the church, and the largely negative impact of social media, are a toxic stew that makes leadership difficult.
Mark Sayers, author of A Non-Anxious Presence and an influential pastor in Australia, recently wrote that the influences on church members are manifold and often out of a pastor’s field of vision: “A congregation may be physically present within their church, but their primary influence comes from the digital networks to which they are connected. These digital networks may be political, cultural, or theological.” The problem of pastoral burnout has attracted the attention of many secular media outlets, such as The New York Times and News Nation.
The Barna study found that the top two reasons many clergy members are considering quitting are the immense stresses of the job and the increasing political divisions they see within their congregations. These two are interrelated as the country’s deep divisions no longer stay outside the church walls but invade as partisan politics seeps more and more into the daily lives of American citizens.
This epidemic of pastoral burnout should be a sober warning for all of us. For pastors, it’s a reminder of the high calling of the role, one that comes with both blessing and disappointment. Our need for godly, courageous, faithful local shepherds is greater than ever. It is the consistent heralding of God’s Word, the application of truth to the false ideologies of the age, and stable leadership of presence that God can use to have a transformative impact on a people and a community. It is pastors who, by their obedience to the Spirit, can equip Christians to live on mission in an increasingly antagonistic world.
But those of us who are faithful church members should recognize our role in ensuring our communities continue to have churches with faithful, courageous pastors. If the source of pastoral burnout today is members unwilling to give up their fractious ways, unwilling to resist the polarization of the age, and unwilling to work toward Christian unity, perhaps it is time we take seriously the need to encourage and support faithful pastors.
Too often, we expect our pastors to be either pundits who confirm the hot takes we’ve consumed throughout the week or therapists who appeal to our needs and wants. But faithful men of God deliver God’s Word as it is, not as we’d like it to be. The text of the Scripture often cuts to the quick, attacking the idolatries of the age. This is why the most important thing in your life and in the life of your community is not about what happens in November (important though it is) but what happens next Sunday.
Our engagement in the world—our work to create communities that ensure human flourishing—will only ever be as effective as the formation we receive when we gather with God’s people every week, which is why we should prioritize the spiritual, physical, and mental health of those who lead our congregations. Our concern is for the health of our churches, for the health of our communities, for the health of our nation.
Paul’s words to Timothy came at a time of increasing persecution of the church. Today, pastors in America face a less hostile environment than Paul or Timothy, but no less daunting a task. So let’s pray for strength, for courage, for steadfastness. And let’s pray that we become the kind of church members who exhibit lives shaped more by the Word than by worldly noise.
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