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Opinion How a consumer culture threatens to destroy pastors

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Pastors, you are so dear to me. You’ve been extra fathers and mothers my whole life. The vast majority of you are good people who love God and want to be obedient. I respect and love you immensely.

I’m also worried about you.

I’ve had a behind-the-curtain perspective on church leadership my entire life. My husband, Brandon, and I have been on a church staff since ages 21 and 19, respectively. I am also the daughter of a pastor, albeit a very rogue pastor, but still.

The stats are not on your side. A new LifeWay Research poll last week says a pastors’ work-life balance is not exactly balance:

  • 84 percent say they’re on call 24 hours a day.
  • 80 percent expect conflict in their church.
  • 54 percent find the role of pastor frequently overwhelming.
  • 53 percent are often concerned about their family’s financial security.
  • 21 percent say their church has unrealistic expectations of them.

This is not good. With numbers like these, could we re-imagine some things together for the health of your churches, your families and your own souls?

Maybe we start here: 90 percent of you believe you inadequately manage the demands of your job, and half of you are so discouraged, you would abandon ministry if you had another job option. Any career in which 90 percent of the laborers feel insufficient indicates a fundamental problem. When your nearly unanimous cry is “I cannot do it all,” maybe the answer is simple: You actually cannot do it all and should quit trying.

I wonder if the American church is setting itself up for failure? If church structure— which is geared toward meeting every need, developing everyone spiritually and organizing all inward and outward ministry — results in a 90 percent failure rate, perhaps we should reevaluate.

When a faith community is church-centralized, the staff is expected to take full spiritual responsibility for people, which is well beyond their capacity. Sure, a few churches are so enormously staffed that paid pros can keep the plates spinning. But most churches are small or mid-size, with modest staffs that cannot handle such demands.

I wonder if a “Come to us and we will do it all, lead it all, organize it all, calendar it all, execute it all, innovate it all, care for it all and fund it all” framework is even biblical? It sets leaders and followers up for failure, creating a church-centric paradigm in which discipleship is staff-led and program-driven.

This slowly builds a consumer culture wherein spiritual responsibility is transferred from Christians to the pastors, a recipe for disaster.

Ironically, while you work yourselves into an early grave, your people feel overextended, too. Unsurprisingly, you turn on each other.

Each group feels resentful; pastors wonder, What more do these people want from us? and the church folks wonder, What more do these pastors want from us? This approach is not making disciples but is creating a lose-lose situation where no one feels they can deliver.

Perhaps the church can embrace new forms and new measures of success. Encourage more decentralization built on mission and flexibility, creating margin for busyness while still championing the kingdom.

Perhaps it’s a widening the definition of what counts. Does an informal gathering of seven people discussing God bear less weight than a church service? If a family gives two hours on a Tuesday, is that less meaningful than two hours on a Sunday? We can’t also expect three church programs to legitimize meaningful investments.

Ironically, the more responsibility people take for their spiritual development and their neighbor, the healthier they become — also, less resentful of the church, less dependent on programming and less reliant upon pastors. This frees up the staff for more reasonable roles, and the people to be good neighbors.

One more thing: The numbers tell us you suffer in private and struggle in shame: 77 percent of you believe your marriage is unwell, 72 percent only read your Bible when studying for a sermon, 30 percent have had affairs and 70 percent of you are completely lonely.

You are a mess! Which makes sense because you are human, like every person in your church. You are so incredibly human but afraid to admit it. So few of you do.

Clearly, pastors struggle mightily, yet we rarely hear this from the pulpit. The average person sits in church weary and burdened, with no idea her pastor deeply understands her grief. So everyone keeps pretending.

Not every congregation is safe for an honest leader. Some churches prefer the illusion, because leaning into a pastor’s humanity is hard and uncomfortable.

But fear is a terrible reason to stay silent. Fear is not a trustworthy motive, a terrible reason to do anything. Scripture tells us plainly that fear is not of God.

I beg you to get in your pulpit and tell the truth. About yourself. Vulnerability is absolutely transformative and creates more trust, not less.

Your people are broken and hurting, and instruction without identification deepens the shame — both yours and theirs. What a blessed relief when a pastor confesses his or her humanity. You are more than a leader; you are also a brother or sister, and the family needs more truth-tellers.

A holy practice of confession creates wholehearted and healthy faith communities. Confession saves the truth-teller and truth-receiver.

Give a heady sermon and folks are moved, but give a vulnerable sermon and they are set free.

Bench yourself awhile if you need to. Speak emancipating, petrifying truth in front of your people. Evaluate your church culture and decide if you are making disciples or consumers.

Let’s make our faith communities beautiful again using the unsexy, ordinary tools that have always worked: truth, confession, humility and prayer. They are surely not fancy, but they save and heal.

Even you.

Jen Hatmaker is the author of several books, including the new “For The Love: Fighting For Grace in a World of Impossible Standards” and bestselling book “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.” She is the star of HGTV’s “My Big Family Renovation.”

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