Thoughts on “Congregations Gone Wild”


Clergy burnout#1#
An editorial in Sunday's New York Times by G. Geoffrey MacDonald entitled, "Congregations Gone Wild" has drawn quite a bit of interest. Click here to read it. It's an editorial continuing the conversation brought about by a NY Times article noting the rise in clergy burnout. MacDonald continues the conversation by asserting that the source of clergy burnout is more than just the rise in the physical, emotional and spiritual demands of ministry. It's exacerbated by the shift in what's expected from today's ministers. 


"The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people."

I don't believe seats and screens usually demonstrate anything other than a contemporary move in most churches. However, his broader point that there are visible signs of the shift from the biblical role of the minister and the expected role of today's minister is on target. It's true that some congregations and "boards" of congregations put pressure on the minister to give people what they want rather than what they need. "or we'll find our spiritual leadership from someone else." I have admittedly received, over the years, more "suggestions" on how I should dress than what I preach or subjects for prayer. In general, however, I've been blessed to have avoided the kinds of environments MacDonald describes for most of my journey in ministry thus far. Such churches inevitably decline, because God doesn't bless such churches.

"Congregations that make such demands seem not to realize that most clergy don’t sign up to be soothsayers or entertainers. Pastors believe they’re called to shape lives for the better, and that involves helping people learn to do what’s right in life, even when what’s right is also difficult." 

Right he is. He ends the article strongly.

"Ministry is a profession in which the greatest rewards include meaningfulness and integrity. When those fade under pressure from churchgoers who don’t want to be challenged or edified, pastors become candidates for stress and depression. Clergy need parishioners who understand that the church exists, as it always has, to save souls by elevating people’s values and desires. They need churchgoers to ask for personal challenges, in areas like daily devotions and outreach ministries. When such an ethic takes root, as it has in generations past, then pastors will cease to feel like the spiritual equivalents of concierges. They’ll again know joy in ministering among people who share their sense of purpose. They might even be on fire again for their calling, rather than on a path to premature burnout."

As serious of an issue as clergy burnout is, the biggest issue for churches is that God won't bless such churches. In addition (and this is where I deviate from MacDonald), few actually want to be part of such a church. People want to experience the life change that God provides, and few want to waste their life doing empty religion. There is scarcely a bigger waste of life. They want to deepen their walk with God. They want some help for the journey. At the same time, they don't want the church to make spirituality unnecessarily odd or boring or embarrassing. They don't want to have their thumb sucked by leaders who lack the fortitude to do what's right instead of what is expedient–when those two collide. Not most people.

I don't believe MacDonald is generalizing all of Christendom as much as he's observing an emerging trend. The editorial is, on the whole, excellent, and thought provoking. Churches need to heed his warnings. Over the years, I've come to realize that just as some are too suspicious or quick to judge me–I have been, at times, too quick to assume things about them. When I've done so, it's impacted my ability to lead adversely. We shouldn't assume that because they want something different than we are currently providing they are wrong, wordly, or unspiritual. We ministers contribute to our own problems if we do so. Yes, there are worldly people in every church. There are also godly people who have a worldly moment. It's the church's task not to acquiesce or orient to them, but to pastor them out of their spiritual immaturity with all the Fruit of God's Spirit.

When we think so little of people, we will not be able to lead them well. We will lack the ability to see what God can do in their life and really believe it can happen. They will also sense how little we think of them and return the favor. I believe this is one of the ugliest results of the "the church must change or die" books and movements. You know who they are, and they create this sense of spiritual poverty in the pew and constant crisis in order to affect change. I understand the burn they feel to see the church be all it can be. However, the crisis mentality is, long-term, one of the most subliminally damaging enemies of the church. I have a lot to say on this one, but will save it for another post.

Question: Do ministers, in general, think too highly of church members or too lowly of church members? What fruit does this bear?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on “Congregations Gone Wild”

  1. I think a serious reconsideration of the OT prophets is a helpful context for this discussion. It will be interesting to revisit this subject in about a decade or so. As for me, I’m pleased to have found my calling elsewhere. I wish I had done it years sooner.