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.

 

Why Do We Make It So Difficult (03): Emotionalism/Performance, And, “I Don’t Feel Close To God”

Emotional-TradingOver the past week or so I’ve been wondering whether our current system of “American Church” actually makes our fundamental task (Make, Mature and Multiply Disciples) more difficult than it ought to be. We’ve looked at questions like: “What is the Call To Ministry” and we’ve examined why many seemingly qualified men often feel discouraged from ministry as well as the idea that our current system actually promotes passivity rather than active faith.

We’ve also taken a moment to point out that voicing questions/concerns does not mean that I’m bitter in any way. I’m really not. But I am in a place of wrestling with a lot of really big questions which I feel deserve open consideration and public dialogue.

Today I want to consider another issue that I’ve thought a lot about over the years. As you might guess, I wonder if there aren’t many ways in which our current system have actually made following Jesus more difficult than it was meant to be. I’ll be open and say that, though it’s been many years since I’ve read Neil Postman’s essential Amusing Ourselves To Death (seriously, if you haven’t read it, please do so), his notion that “the medium is the message” has stuck with me as I’ve considered American Evangelicalism both as a pastor and church planter.

I have come to wonder whether the very systems we have adopted are actually distracting from discipleship. I believe that one of the main places where we see this disconnect is given birth in our Sunday Gatherings but matures in personal quiet times. Let me explain.

Though there are certainly exceptions, I’ve come to wonder whether American Evangelical “worship gatherings” can be separated from emotional appeals. The very notion of our Sunday gatherings has borrowed so much from the entertainment industry that I’m not sure they can be separated. We borrow our seating structure from entertainment venues, with the “crowd/congregation” seated as spectators and the “leaders” on a stage with cool lighting and a professional speaker. I’ve been to worship gatherings that were indistinguishable from rock concerts and that should be at least a bit disconcerting.

Many people describe their favorite concerts as “religious experiences”. There is something special about losing yourself in the moment to the power of music/crowd/shared experience. But I wonder how much of that we have set out to re-create in our Sunday gatherings. The most famous “worship leaders” are often the ones who can most consistently get an emotional reaction. The most famous preachers are also those who are typically the best public speakers. We have come to believe that the most “effective” worship gatherings are those during which we were most emotionally moved.

This, of course, carries over into the personal Christian Life. We have come to believe that we are most close to God when we “feel” most close to God. Our “most powerful” quiet times are those that are the most emotional. In other words, though it begins with our production/performance based Sunday gatherings, it certainly extends to our personal spiritual disciplines. We have have come to equate spiritual growth with emotional experiences.

I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me as a leader and said that they just “don’t feel moved” in their quiet times, so they must not be “close to God”. I get it. I mean, there are times in marriage when you “feel” closer to your spouse, but (hopefully), your commitment does not waiver when the emotion is not there. Yet, somehow, we have come to believe that our faith is in danger when our emotions aren’t moved.

If the medium is the message, as Postman asserts, then many of the ways we have adopted in following God owe more to American entertainment culture than with genuine faith. If emotionalism can weave and wane in a marriage, surely we will not always have an emotional response in worship or Bible reading/prayer. And I’m not so sure this should be as much of a concern to us as it seems to be.

In fact, the more we equate emotional experience with spiritual experiences (which are, undoubtedly often emotional), we are setting ourselves up for a never-ending cycle of theatricalism in our churches. Once a specific church hits a “dry spell,” many might head to the church down the road who has the “fresh experience”. When we don’t always feel “moved” in our quiet times, we will be tempted to substitute time with God’s Word for time with things that tug on the heart strings.

Many of us have wholeheartedly devoted ourselves to the chase of emotional experience while we hope that spiritual growth will follow. But what if spiritual growth is not always accompanied by emotional experiences? I have grown the most in some churches many would consider “dry” simply because I was regularly encouraged to place myself in an encounter with God’s truth. The speakers weren’t always dynamic nor the music moving but the truth was impressed in my heart.

I worry that by adopting so much of our systems from the entertainment industry, we have communicated that “church” is just another form of entertainment. Hopefully you’ll grow during the performance, but at least you’ll leave wanting more.

It has become so confusing that I have to wonder what it might look like to remove the performance aspect from our Sunday gatherings. Is it even possible any longer? And, while there is certainly an emotional equation to our faith, God’s move will always produce emotional responses in His people, but I’m just not sure that emotional experiences will produce the movement of God. Have we muddied the waters and made it more difficult than it was ever meant to be?

Why Do We Make It So Difficult (02)? Missional Living And The Plague Of Passive Christians

cemetery-church-416587-mOver the past ew months, I’ve thought a lot about various aspects of the way we “do church” in America. Though there are certainly variations on a theme, many if not most American Evangelicalism churches look pretty much the same. Though one may have “young adult contemporary with a hint of edginess to attract the Millennials” style worship while the church down the road maintains “traditional values”, chances are, the basic structure of what they do, (order of worship, ministry structure, classes offered, etc.) is probably pretty similar. You can repaint the barn all you want but it’s still a barn.

The other day I considered whether the American approach to “church” tends to exclude otherwise qualified men or whether I’m just a curmudgeon. By the way, I did get one vote for curmudgeon from a friend on FB, so that is still a real possibility. Just like I have come to wonder whether or current models of ministry tend to favor certain personality types over others, I wonder whether the current model of church has actually hindered rather than fostered discipleship. The primary thing Christians have been called to do may actually be stunted by our approach to try and fulfill the commands of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).

While I love that there are exceptions, the general rule seems to be that the American church produces passive Christians. I have been part of the missional conversation since I was encouraged by my Acts 29 Assessment team to attend Soma School in 2008. Since then, I have been challenged to actively live out my faith and I have given my life to equip others to do the same. We tried to plant a church that would require people to participate. We have participation in our sermons. We are structured around Missional Communities, we limit our church programs, etc. After all, Paul is very clear that it is the people of the church who are to be responsible for the majority of its ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13).

And we have seen God change people’s lives! We have seen people not only learn their neighbors’ names but build relationships with them. We have seen families open up their homes for foster care and adoption. We have seen people learn to identify and de-throne the idols they worship. We have seen people increase in love for God and others.

But it has been a slow and sometimes discouraging process. It has meant that we have to be sensitive to the fact that many people are simply not accustomed to their local church expecting a lot (other than maybe money and volunteer time) from them. Jesus certainly gave people pause before following Him, reminding them to count the cost. Following Jesus will often cost us in life because Jesus expects our entire lives to be devoted to Him. The local church is the avenue in which and through which we live out this life-encompassing call. If you are never challenged or made uncomfortable by your church, you might have reason for concern.

God’s people have been blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12:2). God calls us to bless the cities in which we live, even if we feel captive (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Jesus  calls His people “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16). But I often meet Christians and pastors who feel like they just don’t know how to tangibly live out their faith.

Why have we made it so difficult for Christians to actively live out their faith in natural, unforced ways in everyday life? Why have we made it so difficult for so many Christians to talk openly and welcomingly about their faith? Why have we made it so difficult that throwing parties and serving others seems so unnatural? Why have we made it so difficult for people own their own spiritual growth?

I have come to believe that many of the challenges American Christianity faces are a direct result of the methods we have adopted in living out our faith. These methods have actually created a culture of passive Christians who need to be awoken, energized and equipped to put feet to their faith.

Though there are certainly other factors, I think that at least a few reasons we seem to pump out passivity, such as:

Theology (or lack thereof) of Place: American Evangelicalism generally seems to have a poor theology of place. Instead of challenging commuter culture, we have adopted it wholesale. We have removed most churches from their local context. Sure their property sits in a particular geographical area but it is increasingly rare for those surrounding communities to feel that the church is a blessing.

We need to regain and live out the notion that faith is put in to practice in everyday life. Local churches should be involved in their local communities. If we have been blessed to be a blessing, our communities should have tangible blessings to point out. Instead, they complain that our mega-services cram up the traffic and we take tax breaks from our communities rather than pouring in to the city.

The issue here is probably bigger than just a theology of place.

A n0n-holistic Gospel Leads to Christian Isolationism: Though the Evangelists and Revivalists of recent ages past certainly meant well, American Evangelicalism seems to have learned from them that the salvation of souls is the most important thing. But if all of creation has been affected by sin, surely the Gospel impacts and will someday redeem all of creation. The Gospel is not about getting in to heaven when we die, it is about living out the Kingdom here and now.

One practical result of this disconnect is directly tied to our poor theology of place. Not only have we disconnected the local church from its neighborhood, the separation of salvation from everyday life has only led to the fact that Christians like to clump together, removing ourselves from the “secular” world. We create our own sports leagues, reading clubs, etc. It is entirely possible for a Christian to have no contact whatsoever with those who believe and live differently. We can eat Christian toast, listen to Christian radio on our way to our Christian job, having lunch at the Christian coffeeshop, and then go to Bible study before going to bed.

As Francis Chan says in Crazy Love  (a book itself devoted to shaking Christians from passivity):

“Christians are like manure: spread them out and they help everything grow better, but keep them in one big pile and they stink horribly.”

Christians were never meant to separate themselves from the rest of the world (John 17). Not only does isolationism separate us from those who don’t yet believe, it increases passivity. Though I may be challenged on the certain nuances of particular ideas, when I’m surrounded by those I generally agree with, stagnation is usually close by.

The Professionalization of the Pastorate Has Led to Poor Equipping: Though Paul clearly say the five-fold ministry as given to the church to equip Believers for the work of the ministry, we have relegated this “work of the ministry” to those paid to do it. Instead of viewing themselves primarily as equippers, many pastors are forced to live as doers. Part of this is related to the fact that seminary is probably not the best way to train equippers and we primarily seem to have seminaries in general because we wanted legitimacy from the academic world, but I am digressing and hope to address some of those issues later.

The very fact that John Piper (regardless of your thoughts on him and his ministry) felt the need to write a book called Brothers, We Are Not Professionals reminds us that this is indeed a real issue amidst American Evangelicalism. Many Christians have adopted passivity because they have come to believe that that’s what they pay others to do. And, instead of encouraging people to take responsibility for their own spiritual growth, we have turned spiritual growth over to the professionals.

Consumerism and An Entertainment Culture: Very few would argue that American culture has not willingly gift-wrapped itself in consumerism and the desire to be entertained. But, as Neil Postman has pointed  out, the medium is the message. Our news shows are more scripted drama than simple reporting of events. And our worship gatherings are often more about entertainment than they are equipping Believers.

As Hirsch and Frost and others have pointed out, the very fact that our congregations are lined up in rows facing a stage means that the gathering will typically mean a passive audience. Top this off with the unhelpful aspects of “seeker sensitive churches” and we have many churches that will adopt the “USA Today” model of preaching, never challenging above a seventh-grade level. The music is led by slick emotionalists and the message is delivered by a professional public speaker.

Another side of this is the self-righteously Reformed folk who have adopted the notion that the sermon is the time for lessons in doctrine and the transfer of information. I was heard a famous preacher say, more than once, that if a pastor wasn’t spending 40 hours a week in their study, they had no business stepping behind a pulpit. While not necessarily entertainment driven, this approach certainly promotes passivity rather than engagement.

As I said the other day, I am not bitter towards the church. But I am in a personal place where I feel the need for public dialogue. Over the years, I have asked hundreds of people if they thought the American church was rocking it at actually making, maturing and multiplying disciples. I have not had a single person say that they think we’re doing a great job. That should prompt some deep self-reflection and some really big discussions.

As Einstein reminded us, insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Even though we have painted the barn lots of different colors over the years, it is still a barn. If our current system does not excel at the one main task to which we have been called and, in fact may have not only discouraged some men from serving but encouraged passivity, (and I am open to the fact that you may have had a different experience and that I may actually be wrong) we need the humility to talk openly about our shortcomings.