What’s a Pastor to do???

I’m spending the last day of my vacation thinking through the coming year, and getting my “to do” list ready.  The time includes taking stock of my goals and priorities, both personally and vocationally.  Imagine my surprise, then, to see that #2 on the list of most e-mailed articles in the NY Times this morning is called: “Congregations Gone Wild”, an op-ed piece about pastoral burnout.  The article couldn’t have come at a better time than the end of my vacation.

pastor burnout comes from sickening sweet consumerism

It catalogs the demands placed on pastors as a result of our consumerist culture.  “Spiritual Consumerism” is what it’s called, a term to describe American’s tendency to pursue spirituality the same way they pursuing buying cars or going out to dinner, or shopping for food.  Walk into a grocery store for apples and you’ll have a big decision awaiting you because there will be a half dozens choices.  The same with milk, and restaurants, and menu choices, and vacation experiences and….church life.

As a result, there’s a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, consumerist approach that church leaders adopt in order to create both multiple choices and experiences for potential attenders. We do this when we offer various worship times and locations, each serving up different styles of music.  We do this when we seek to create excellent experiences caring for children.  We do this when we assess the viability of various components of our community life, as we do each year in the summer because it’s our time to create a new budget and decide where to invest resources.

We do all these things in the church I lead, and will continue to do them.  But we need to be careful, realizing that if that’s all we do, we’re laying the groundwork for creating, not a real presence of Christ, but spiritual consumers.  Spiritual consumers “go to church”, the way they go to Mariner games… they go if the team’s winning, or if not, at least for the friendships and food.  This creates leaders who, if they’re not careful, aren’t really leading at all, but only reacting to market trends, like Costco and Walmart (do people want polar fleece? plastic chairs for their patios? a series on sexuality? the politics of the religious right?)  Such an approach isn’t healthy or sustainable, and is one of the reasons pastors are suffering from burnout.

How does a pastor swim upstream against these cultural trends?  What are his/her priorities to be?  What’s a pastor to do?

1. Recognize our calling. We’re not called to put on a show for people who “go to church”.  We’re called to equip a gathered community to “be church” which means helping people find their unique callings and gifts, use them, and develop habits and priorities for living that will be sustainable and life giving.  I’ll say it often in the coming year at my church:  “you don’t go to church… you ARE the church.”

2. Recognize our gifts. Pastors have different gifts.  Visionary, teacher, leader, counselor.  These are blended with unique blends of mercy, exhortation, and service.  All of these things contribute to the pastor’s role and calling which is “shepherd the flock”.  Pastor means shepherd, and if I’m called to be a shepherd, I need to discover the unique gifts God has given me to be a shepherd, and focus on those gifts.  I can’t be everything for everyone.  Nobody can.  Instead, I need to know my gifts and focus the bulk of my energies there.  Many pastors burn out because they’re trying to be all things for all people.  That was never in the plan, and is itself a result of the consumerist mindset whereby members of a faith community see themselves as recipients of “services” in exchange for pay.

3. Set an example. We do this through sharing our lives with people, however we do that (some through teaching, some over coffee in one to one meetings).  Our own habits that contribute to intimacy with God, our own life priorities, even our own struggles, failures, and confessions, contribute to shaping a congregation, by giving people an example of ongoing transformation.  If we need to be superstars, above the fray, without flaws, we’re setting ourselves up for both hypocrisy and burnout.

4. Live with the tension. Pastors who burn out seem to have all their identity eggs sitting in the basket of their church vocation.  This is unhealthy because it creates a fear of losing one’s job and a fear of rejection, both of which cater to the consumerist mindset.  I resist this by having a life beyond the church – it’s a writing life, a life in the outdoors, a life of wide reading and exploration.

On the other hand we who lead need to be committed to our calling and our flock 110% because this isn’t just a job.  When it becomes just a job, then we’ll lead only as long as it’s easy, or serves our ego, or is “successful”, which is a way of saying that we’ll not be leading at all.

Ecclesiastes seems to offer the best word here:  “Whatever your hand finds to do – do it with all your might.” That’s it!  Be fully present in your calling.  Be fully present in your vacation.  Be fully present in your lovemaking, and your cooking, and your praying, and your study.  The gift and discipline of presence will provide the right balance.

I’m ready to be fully present in Seattle as my church faces the opportunities and challenges of a new season for ministry.  For those who read this blog and “are the Bethany church“: let the adventure continue!

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  • GDG

    Would it be possible to suggest that the pastor’s and churches you mention are just changing with the times? I believe many pastors would use this as the reason for consumerism and mass marketing to create growth of their church.

    This may even speak to why having traditions established in a church could be important in curtailing the “changing with the times” mentality.

    Are you telling us that church has more to do with Jesus, and less to do with trendy clothing, alt/indy/emo concerts, and mass media campaigns with $100k’s of equipment?

  • raincitypastor

    The trick, it seems, always resides in finding the answer to this question: “What is the wine, and what is the wineskin?” (a reference to Jesus’ teaching that the religious leaders of his day resisted change that they should have embraced). The big question is this: “Are the things we’re doing as leaders contributing to, or detracting from, the church’s calling to be the visible expression of Christ for this time and place?”

    I’m suggesting that this is, too often, not the question asked. Instead, church leaders are asking, “how can we make our church grow?”, a question which will, inevitably, foster consumerism.

  • Devin

    I like your reminder that we don’t just “go to church” but that we “are the church.” It seems like there is often a sense that the staff at church is responsible for determining what the church will be and do and we as a congregation then passively follow. If we really are the church, then we bear both the responsibility and joy of responding to Jesus calling for it.

  • Richard-

    I’m very much in this tension right now and thank you for your encouraging words. Great reminders for a young lead pastor finding the balance of everything. Thanks for your leadership!

  • www

    Hey Richard, I appreciate your words here and sharing these reflections with others part of the church (not just us going to a place entering and leaving).
    If it’s our calling to serve the poor, etc… and we are not doing a very good job of it (given the incredible divide between rich and poor).. A question I have for you is how does the church equip people to go out into the world to “do” and “be” moving into the story God is calling? I hear you teach “equip new leaders,” however I know volunteers who burn out. How does one live vocationally and financially if they are not a “pastor?” .. and as you clearly refer to “pastors” in your post, what defines a pastor for you?

    You could also encourage people part of the Bethany church, similarly to rethinking the word “church,” to rethink the word “ministry.” I’ve heard Rob Bell teach and say something like this: “when people say to me they are thinking about getting involved in ‘full-time ministry,’ I respond with: are you a Christian? If the answer is yes, then it’s too late!”