Just over the last few days, I’ve heard from four ex-pastor friends of mine I haven’t touched base with since I left Bible college back in the late 1990s. All of us either attended the same Bible college or seminary around that time, and back in those heady days, we were all excited to be training for full-time vocational ministry. Over the intervening years since leaving higher ministry education, all four of us served either in a pastoral capacity at a church, or taught Bible and theology at a Christian school.
And significantly, to a person — all of us experienced significant degrees of burnout and ill-treatment at the hands of those evangelical Christians whom we were attempting to lead or teach.
One told me that he’s since left the church and become an atheist; the second said he’s “barely involved” in his local church and only attends from time to time because his wife expects him to be a faithful member. He’s questioning everything in which he once believed, and carries a huge weight of anger and bitterness toward those who mistreated him during his ministry years.
The third is still involved in a church as a member, but is gravely troubled: his daughter is seriously deconstructing her Christian faith — and is angry and bitter at the horrible ways she witnessed the church treating her parents when her dad was a pastor. He told me that he’s trying to figure out what all this “deconstruction talk is about,” and is seeking to understand why millennials, in particular, are apparently leaving the evangelical church in droves.
In my case, we closed down the church of which I was the head pastor in the Portland, OR, area; angry and disgruntled members blamed me for all of it, and took zero responsibility for their dysfunctions that contributed to the closure. After 12 years in full-time ministry I left that traumatic experience behind, and vowed never to set foot in a church again, or have anything to do with Christians.
After moving to the UK to complete a doctorate, however, we did find a home in a church. We stuck it out for another six years or so, until we finally couldn’t take it any more and left. I taught at a Bible college in the UK for eight years also, but lost my job when the school became mired in debt due to financial mismanagement. But well before all that occurred, I had been extremely unhappy about the atrocious treatment by the school of both its staff and students. Ironically, they did me a favor by letting me go, although it introduced significant financial stress into my life due to losing my job.
Therefore, as it turned out, all four of us had our idealistic (and unrealistic, as it turned out) expectations shattered upon entering ministry. Let’s take a closer look at some of the issues and problems that plague those involved in ministry and contributes to pastoral burnout.
Statistics over pastors leaving the ministry are much-disputed; it is difficult to pin down exactly how many church leaders are in fact quitting their vocations due to burnout, exhaustion, or other contributing factors. I can only cite my experiences, and the experiences of my friends as perhaps somewhat representative examples of how the church, and Christians, treat people. In the case of my three ex-minister friends, although our journeys have led us into very different places and spaces, the common thread is this: we were treated terribly by our fellow-Christians when we were in ministry.
And this includes spouses and families too, who are obviously part of the equation for the married minister. The pastor inevitably will be affected by his or her job in ministry, both in terms of long hours spent at work and away from family. Their children witness first-hand the effects of the job on their parents and siblings, and often report feeling resentment toward the church for taking mom or dad away from the family. Like the daughter of my ex-pastor friend above, many of these “pastor’s kids” have not only deconstructed their faith, they’ve left the church for good over issues like this.
Beyond the horrible treatment at the hands of Christians, there’s another factor that contributes to ministerial burnout: managing expectations. A vast majority of pastors report (65%, according to one set of surveys) that they feel as if they’re living in a “glass house,” and believe they can’t possibly live up to the expectations placed upon them by their congregations. Contributing to that, 66% of church members surveyed state that they expect their minister (and his or her family also) to live up to a higher moral and ethical standard than their own.
What tends to happen in many a church setting is that the congregation will put the minister up on a pedestal, as it were; but then members delight in gossiping about their ministers and throwing stones at that unfortunate leader. This also contributes to a culture whereby transparency and authenticity on the part of both leaders and congregations is impossible to achieve. Thus, everyone ends up “wearing a mask” so as to appear that they’ve got it all together, but this only ends up hiding their true struggles and problems.
There’s another complicating factor in this equation too: what if a pastor or church leader has doubts about various aspects of his or her faith? Can the minister safely express her concerns about certain of the theological commitments of the denomination of which she is a representative? What if someone on the pastoral staff disagrees with a particular interpretation of the Bible preached from the pulpit on a Sunday? Is it safe to express those disagreements without fear of reprisal, censure or loss of one’s job?
Are certain books or authors considered “off-limits” as being too progressive or liberal for the minister to read? What if the pastor publicly airs the fact that he is struggling with his faith, and no longer believes some (or all) of his former commitments? Another ex-pastor friend of mine summed it up by saying, “As a pastor, you can have doubts about your faith; you just can’t publicly have doubts about your faith, and still expect to keep your job.”
I could add more questions to the list, but hopefully you are getting the idea by now what I’m driving at here: for the most part, churches are not a truly safe place to air disagreements, doubts or concerns about virtually any aspect of the Christian faith, theology or the Bible. Therefore, they are in effect stifling genuine intellectual curiosity and exploration of new ideas, and keep people in a state of both emotional and spiritual immaturity.
I believe, therefore, that this very lack of safety and vulnerability is a contributing factor to many a pastor’s burnout, or at the very least creates an unhealthy and stifling atmosphere for both personal and spiritual growth and development. Conformity is not unity, by any stretch of the imagination; very little room, if any, is allowed for true diversity and free expression of thought.
Propping Up the System
The final issue concerns the problem of the levels of cognitive dissonance that the minister must maintain in order to stay a part of the system. Both leaders and church members alike can become experts in suppressing their doubts and concerns, and maintaining levels of cognitive dissonance. This condition refers to the sense of existential or emotional discomfort one experiences when attempting simultaneously to hold to two or more conflicting ideas, beliefs, values, etc.
To quell their doubts and stop them from advancing, evangelicals often resort to using “Christianese” types of phrases, which psychatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls “thought-terminating clichés” or “loaded language.”
Highly reductive, brief-sounding phrases and definitive statements, they often serve as platitudes intended to stop an argument or doubts from proceeding any further.
These can include convenient quotes from the Bible (“The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away”; “All things work together for the good”) or can take the form of well-meaning and pious-sounding platitudes, such as: “God has a plan;” “God’s ways are mysterious. We’ll get all the answers in heaven;” or “That’s not biblical!”
While not every minister is in danger of burning out and leaving the ministry, I would still question whether or not that minister has truly taken a hard look at the issues and problems within many evangelical churches that I’ve raised in this post. Living within a constant state of cognitive dissonance is incredibly emotionally unhealthy, not to mention existentially threatening. Suppressing doubts and concerns will only manifest themselves in other areas of life, often in very unwholesome ways.
In addition, one must examine this issue of how Christians treat not just those in church ministry positions, but also how they treat others too. Ostensibly, Christians are supposed to be “Christ-like,” treating others with love, respect, dignity, grace and mercy. But if you’ve been around Christians for any length of time — much less tried to serve as a minister of a church — then you’ve most likely experienced atrocious treatment by some of them. There seems to be a major disconnect between the Jesus character of the Gospels — how he treated others with dignity and respect — and the shockingly bad ways so many Christians behave toward each other.
Granted, not all evangelicals are like this; but it is abundantly clear for people like myself and my friends mentioned above that we have been significantly damaged by Christians on multiple levels. In particular, as I’ve been saying throughout this piece, church leaders are particularly susceptible to terrible treatment at the hands of their flock. It’s no wonder, then, that many of us have not only left the church far behind, but in many cases — the entire Christian faith too.