I Get It. And We Should Talk About It.

104633512Nashville mega-church pastor Pete Wilson recently resigned from the multi-campus Cross Point Church which he and his wife Brandi planted in 2002.

As the church celebrated its 14th anniversary, Wilson delivered a video message in which he said (among other things):

“Most of you in this church only experience what I do on Sundays, especially those of you who watch online. You just see me when I kind of come up here on Sundays but the reality is as leader and the pastor of a church, what happens in between those Sundays is just as important and it requires a lot of leadership and it requires a lot of leadership energy. And leaders in any realm of life, leaders who lead on empty don’t lead well and for some time now I’ve been leading on empty. And so I believe that the best thing for me to do is to step aside from Cross Point and so I am officially resigning as the pastor of Cross Point Church”

Wilson went on to say: “We’ve said that this is a church where it’s OK to not be okay, and I’m not okay. I’m tired. I’m broken, and I just need some rest. I love you guys; I love the vision of this church.”

Wilson then resigned from vocational ministry.

I don’t know Wilson.

But I get it.

In November, 2014, I discussed my own decision to resign from vocational ministry. In that post, I wrestled with what sometimes makes resigning from ministry different than resigning from any other career:

How do you tell people you need a break from teaching others when it seems like that’s what you’re gifted at? How do you tell people you need a break from your job when your job is to care for people? You can’t take a break from caring. How do you tell people you need a break from your job when your job is “Christianity”. You don’t take a break from Jesus.

There are many reasons a pastor might resign.Ministerial dropout rates continually hover around 50%.  The Tennessean quotes Lifeway Research, who in 2015, asked 734 former senior pastors why they left, finding:

that 40 percent left pastoral work before age 65 because they had a change in calling, 25 percent cited a conflict in a church, 12 percent left because of personal finances and 12 percent left for family issues.

Aside from unrepentant sin, the most controversial explanation of pastoral resignation seems to be the all-dreaded but ill-defined “burnout”.Though “pastor burnout” is often ill-defined, it is often equated with spiritual failure that could have been avoided simply by following the right formula.

Consider Thom Rainer’s post “Autopsy Of A Burned Out Pastor: 13 Lessons“. Rainer acknowledges that: “Perhaps the autopsy metaphor is not the best choice”, but the implications of failure (or maybe even spiritual death?) certainly stain his choice of words. In fact, in the “lessons learned” section (i.e. things you can do to prevent the same fate for yourself) includes such nuggets as:

  • Being a short-term people pleaser became a longer-term problem.
  • The pastor had no effective way to deal with critics.
  • The pastor did not have daily Bible time.
  • The pastor’s family was neglected.

You get the gist.

Any pastor who experiences burnout could have prevented it.

If only.

They’d followed the right steps.

This seems sort of like Donald Drumpf saying that soldiers who return from battle suffering from PTSD simply “couldn’t handle it.”

The Christian community has been frustratingly slow to to develop holistic approaches to mental health care. Popular counseling approaches vilify the use of antidepressants while many believe that pastoral burnout can simply be avoided if we check off the right spiritual-workout boxes.

Instead of acknowledging the complexities of mental and spiritual health, we have adopted a formulaic approach seemingly borrowed more from the world of self-help than from the Bible. Follow these simple steps and you too can live a worry-free life (Of course this is related to the self-help model of preaching many of our churches have adopted but that’s a post for another day).

Pastoral burnout is a complex issue that requires more than self-help steps (as is most of the spiritual life).

Pastoral burnout is often the result of clinical depression marinated in a culture in which it is nearly impossible to discuss job performance without suffering a critique  of one’s spiritual health (even though the two may not be related at all).

It is the result of feeling like you are alone. Even when you’re surrounded by people who may have your best interest at heart (and some who don’t).

It is the result of unrealistic expectations. From Everyone. Including yourself.

It is the result of feeling like you can’t confide in your “fellow leaders” because you’ve set yourself up to “lead” them. After all, there has to be a “first among equals, right?”

It is the result of feeling like it’s all up to you because the buck stops somewhere and the captain goes down with the ship and I just haven’t quite gotten to the point of true shared leadership yet . . .

It is the result of a culture which skips over some of the Psalms and equates depression with spiritual failure.

My own experience has led me to find many of the discussions of either depression or pastoral burnout are shallow at best, superficial in the middle and outright judgmental at worst. Burnout is nearly always equated with spiritual failure.

No wonder why more pastors aren’t honest with their struggles until the best option seems to be the last option of resignation.

This is as much an issue of mental health as it is the result of ill-defined and unrealistic expectations. We have set up our pastors to be entrepreneurs, salesmen, counselors, managers, public speakers, accountants, human resources specialists and nearly everything in between. And we have created cultures in which, despite our best intentions otherwise, it’s not OK to not be OK. Especially if you’re a leader.

I hate that Pete Wilson and his family have to go through this season. But I am thankful that the issues surrounding the spiritual and mental health of pastors and all Christians is having a moment of national conversation. I am thankful that more and more people are opening the public eye to this much-needed conversation.

We must commit to fostering environments of acceptance. Many of us simply don’t feel safe to say that we’re not OK. If that’s true for many Christians in general, its certainly acute in our leaders. We need more leaders who display the humble confidence to demonstrate the multi-faceted tapestry that is the Christian faith. Some times are good. Some times are bad. We must be honest enough to voice both. We must be caring enough to accept others.

My prayer is that Wilson’s resignation sparks a worldwide discussion of how we structure our churches, what we expect of our leaders, what we expect of one another and what an authentic Christian life really looks like.