Statistics on pastoral burn out, moral failure, and just plain broken spirited exhaustion are stark. How have we ended up in a situation where swathes of pastors have some form of break down, or suffer from stress and anxiety? Or simply leave the ministry?
I want to recognise that this is a complex problem. There is rarely, if ever, a simple answer. There are always complexities in terms of the pastor’s heart and expectations and the congregation’s hearts and expectations. But I wonder if there are some structural things we need to think through in evangelicalism if we want pastors to thrive long term and to teach our churches long term and it begins with our models of leadership..
A pastor is an elder, an eldership is a team responsible for the flock
How do you think of the pastor and his relationship with the elders? If you’re an elder how do you think of it? Is the pastor the boss or the one paid to carry out your instructions? Are you a team of equals or is there a hierarchy? Pastors need to think about this too. Too many pastors talk about wanting a team of elders who are on mission together but then organise and structure things so that is at best difficult if not practically impossible.
I’ve always valued having a team of elders where we begin meetings by asking after one another’s spiritual health, prayer life, devotions, and family care. And where we’re committed to responding to what we hear in prayer and action. It is not an easy thing to cultivate and maintain because we want to sinfully shy away from such vulnerability, but when it works it is beautiful to be part of. It’s probably the thing I miss most whilst we wait for God to provide elders to serve alongside me at present. Such team eldership takes seriously Paul’s command in Acts 20 to the Ephesian elders, and Peter’s call in 1 Peter 5.
Too many churches see the pastor as the only port of call for pastoral care, if he hasn’t visited the church hasn’t cared for them. Too many elderships settle for this and leave the pastoring to do all the pastoring. No wonder pastoral casualties are high. Imagine if in a hospital only one doctor saw any patients, and all the others only met with him in a board meeting once a month. Imagine the stress levels and the rate of breakdown and the appalling patient care that would be experienced.
I wonder if in part this is fuelled by our second issue. Maybe you’re already thinking yes but that’s what he is paid to do.
Outsourcing ministry to paid staff
I wonder if this is really the crux of the issue. We live in a professionalised world. We pay people to care, to clean, to deliver so that we don’t have to. So when we pay the pastor to do ministry we assume that we don’t have to, and that multiples as we pay multiple staff. If that thought process is adopted by elders they are left playing the role of the governor of a school, a slightly detached critical friend who key decisions are run past but who are somewhat detached from the day to day and the people on the ground.
Again that’s a worldly but holy unbiblical model. Pastors are (Ephesians 4v16) to equip God’s people for works of service as they teach the Bible. They don’t do all the ministry. Yet with the professionalising and monetising of ministry we can all too easily fall into this mindset and it is crippling.
There are other factors at play, busyness (though surely an elder can’t be too busy to be an elder and be appointed or remain an elder) for example. But I wonder if these are the two main ones. The two major culprits in our church culture for the rash of pastoral casualties that we see littering the way.
Imagine with me for a minute that your pastor was taken ill tomorrow. In a bizarre twist all of your church staff are hit with a contagion and are out of action for the next month. What would happen the church? What would happen to pastoral care? What would happen to Sunday’s?
If some of those things wouldn’t happen we’re putting too big a burden, an unbiblical burden, on pastors. And changing that begins with elders who take pastoring the flock seriously. Who see eldership as a team committed to the spiritual care for God’s sheep under Christ, including the care of one another. Who see 1 Peter 5v1-4 as their job description not just the pastors.