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The True Cause of Pastoral Burnout

A couple of years ago I spoke for a group of Methodist Christian Educators in Maine. After three lectures on the Kingdom of God and the Community of Faith, I was asked to do a “speaker talk-back” where anyone could come and ask me questions. Of the 200 attenders of the conference, 60 came to my talk-back session. I polled the room to ask what kind of questions they came to ask and soon found that one question was being asked by virtually everyone in the room. It wasn’t a topic I had raised in my lectures. It wasn’t a subject that the organizers had even planned to address. But for the pastors, lay leaders and teachers in the room, it was the only one they wanted to talk about: “How can we keep our churches from dying?” You could practically see the discouragement written on their faces. We pastors are working harder than ever and not seeing results. It’s like we are stuck in an aerobics class from hell. We just keep running in place.

We pastors are exhausted because we are ambivalent. We are ambivalent because we are sincerely called by God, deeply committed to minister to souls and eager to speak to the spiritual condition of life, and, at the same time, we know that we are rapidly becoming irrelevant to many.

Most of us were unprepared for how rapidly and demonstrably our culture was changing. Most churches (with a few obvious exceptions) are dying. We pastors wanted to be at the helms of ships that would head bravely into the adventure of an open sea and a beautiful distant land. Nobody told us that we were training to become captains of ships that are all slowly going down or being abandoned. We are ambivalent because this isn’t the ministry or the context that we signed up for, and we are burning out because we just don’t know what to do. 

Youth club sports is considered by most parents to be more important for forming the character of our children than the church. Spirituality has become wildly popular but so deeply individualistic that the fastest growing “religious affiliations” amongst college students are “none” and “spiritual-not-religious.” We pastors who were trained to teach those who show up, to care for those who call for help, to lead those who will volunteer and to administer the resources of those who willingly give are now called upon to minister to a passing parade of people who treat us like we are but one option in their personal salad-bar of spirituality.

We are in uncharted terrain trying to lead mostly dying churches into a post-Christian culture that now considers the church as an optional, out of touch and irrelevant relic of the past. Most people think of pastors not as experts of the soul for the big questions of life, but as curators of the flat earth society or pawns for a political action committee. To make matters worse, we pastors who used to be held in such high esteem are now just assumed to be charlatans or pedophiles or widow-fleecing fundraisers. When masses of ordinary people want spiritual insight they turn to Oprah, not the church. And committed church goers and church leaders are panicked about it.

Burnout comes from not only bad boundaries and trying to meet unhealthy expectations, but also from an ambivalence born of uncertainty about our own competence and relevance.

Most of us got into this because of the Bible and people. We wanted to teach the Bible and care for people. We felt called to nurture the souls of people and communities of faith. So when we are doing those things (even with some not-so-good boundaries), we are mostly fine. Most of us also understand and acknowledge that there is a difference between felt needs and real needs and that there is always a degree of work involved in reaching often distracted people with our messages. (Isn’t that why we work so hard on getting good illustrations, jokes, even videos for our sermons?)

But, most of us weren’t called and don’t feel equipped to be change-leaders in a rapidly changing world. But that is the reality and that is our call. Until we wholeheartedly dedicate ourselves to that reality and that call and all the ways that we pastors are going to need to learn and grow and change ourselves (grieve our own losses along the way) to be relevant in that changing world, we will just continue to live on the verge of burning out and giving up.  

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Dr. Tod Bolsinger came to San Clemente Presbyterian in 1997 after serving for ten years at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. He was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1993. He earned a Ph.D. in Theology and Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, and has taught M.Div and D. Min classes at Fuller Theological Seminary and Denver Seminary. He is the author of two books and contributer to two others. He speaks and consults with church, organizational and business leadership groups with TAG Consulting.