“What’s missing in the church today?” That question was posed to a well-known megachurch pastor. His one-word answer was “vision.” I couldn’t disagree more!
We are intoxicated with vision and obsessed with leadership. There’s more big talk, more big ideas, more big dreams than ever before. “Bigger and more” has been the rallying cry of the church in the last generation.
Over the last twenty-five years, vision and leadership and growth have become the topics of choice for pastors. In some ministry circles, CEOs and business entrepreneurs are quoted as frequently as the writers of Scripture. Enormous energy and resources have been thrown at helping us become more effective leaders … and for good reason.
A generation ago, pastors were equipped to exegete scripture, understand church history, and craft sermons, but were ill-equipped to provide organizational leadership to the churches they were called to pastor. As churches grew and the culture changed, pastors had to learn about the world of creating budgets, managing staff, casting vision, constructing buildings, raising money, worship programming, and managing change.
So the inundation of leadership and church growth resources met a definite need. The focus on leadership and vision filled a massive void, and we have all been the beneficiaries.
But not all of the impact has been positive. We have pushed the priority of a pastor’s interior life to the fringes. As we have sought to fill the gap with leadership resources we have inadvertently marginalized the soul-side of leadership. The result is a crisis, a crisis of spiritual health among pastors. The statistics these days on pastors are troubling and paint a bleak picture.
Pastors are leaving the ministry in record numbers. Discouragement and disillusionment are epidemic among those who lead in ministry. And many are choosing to fire themselves rather than fight any longer.
A New York Times article presented a dismal report card on the state of pastors:
“Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension, and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”
It doesn’t sound like we are doing a very good job of modeling how to live well. We may sing “it is well with our soul”, but there isn’t much evidence to confirm it.
Burnout, scandal, depression, immorality, loneliness – they are all words commonly associated with people in ministry.
Many of my pastor friends and your pastor friends stand up Sunday after Sunday and faithfully preach the truth. They unselfishly minister to others and do the very best they can to lead their church. They feel incredible pressure to inspire their congregation, grow their churches, and impact their communities.
I have pastor friends who are constantly looking for the “secret sauce” of church growth. They are better-than-average leaders and communicators, but their churches haven’t experienced much growth. They struggle with feelings of inadequacy and live with this nagging doubt that they are failures as leaders.
They are secretly dying a slow death and many want to give up.
After decades in ministry I do understand how people get to this point.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a better way forward.
We don’t need to abandon our discussion of leadership in the kingdom, but we do need to include a question that doesn’t get enough airtime. What does “spiritual” leadership look like? What does healthy leadership look like? What does a healthy team look like?
We have neglected the fact that a pastor’s greatest leadership tool is a healthy soul. Our concentration on skill and technique and strategy has not served us well. The outcome is an increasing number of men and women leading our churches who are emotionally empty and spiritually dry.
Parker Palmer said, “A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside of himself or herself … lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.”
Let those words soak in. They are especially profound when you realize they were written a generation ago. We have ample evidence of Palmer’s insight. When leaders neglect their interior life they run the risk of prostituting the sacred gift of leadership. And they run the risk of being destructive instead of productive.
As pastors we regularly preach that the Christian life is “inside out”. It starts with the heart. The root determines the fruit. Life flows from the vine (internal) to the branches (external). The same is true for our ministries. True, lasting, Christ-honoring fruit starts by paying attention to our interior life. What ballast is to a boat, a healthy soul is to a leader.