With all the societal upheaval of the last couple years we are now seeing the economic fallout reflected in the shortage of labor, the challenge in the distribution of goods, as well as the host of longer term mental and emotional health issues, which are becoming more and more evident. In our ministry of focusing of leadership development, we are also beginning to see the fallout among leaders who have not only had to navigate these challenges personally, but also have had to deal with the added responsibility of helping others through these times.
One of the results in North America is that we are now seeing the impact on pastoral/leadership in the form of burnout. A Barna Group survey (Christianity Today Nov. 2021) found that 38 percent of pastors (in USA) are seriously considering leaving full-time ministry, up from 29 percent in January 2021. In addition to this sobering statistic, is the reality that many are also dealing with mental and emotional healthy issues all the while struggling to lead others during these times.
A lot of pastors are saying, “Is this really what I signed up for? Is this what I was called into?” Dan White states that “Prior to COVID-19, burnout was a silent epidemic in ministry leaders. . . The stats testify to this, but now I might say burnout is endemic.” Perhaps this indicates a wrong motivation or expectation of the reality of ministry, but nonetheless it is something a generation of leaders is dealing with.
Of course leaders in the past were not exempt from such pressures, and even greater ones that included persecution and martyrdom. Paul in 2 Cor. 1:8 reveals that he and his team “. . . were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.” Many pastors are ashamed of these feelings or admitting them as the Apostle Paul did. However, if a giant of faith as the Apostle went through this, it is likely none of us are exempt.
As an international ministry we deal with leaders in a variety of cultural and societal contexts. Recently we asked our various teams how the pastors and leaders in their countries are navigating these same challenges. Alexey, our MCNet coach in Russia responded with the following email:
Rarely pastors discuss these issues here in Russia. In our post soviet culture in general these themes are less discussed then in the West. However, I’ve seen over the last two years that several prominent church leaders have raised the issues of burn out. But we do not really have statistics about it.
There is one pastor from Siberia whom I know quite well, who is also an overseer of group of churches and one of prominent evangelical leaders in his city and region. When he started sharing openly experience of his burn out and medical treatment for depression it was felt by many as a bombshell. “Pastors are spiritual people, therefore they do not burn out” – is the general understanding among evangelical churches here.
Since many churches were started in the 1990s and 2000s, the current decade is the time when the leadership baton is being passed as church founders face the reality that they will not live forever on earth and that they themselves will not reach all the dreams and visions they have had. Since many of pentecostal and charismatic churches are first generation churches, issues of passing the baton and finishing the race well are not part of church culture. I think the situation is a bit better in Baptist churches which were connected to churches which existed in Soviet times. I think in these traditions over several generation of Christians have had to deal with issues of what today is called burnout. The pressure put on churches and ministers during Soviet times created a culture of survival and a certain resilience.
Another general cultural difference from the West in our context, is that many people in Russia live in “survival mode” since the collapse of Soviet economy in 90s. So the crisis of COVID is just another crisis. For many Russian people, especially those outside of the mega cities, the crisis of the 1990s is still not over. So there is a much higher tolerance on a cultural level to such pressures and changes. Yet, as everywhere, these pressures influence churches and ministers.
Alexey’s comments confirm what we as a ministry have experienced over the years working in various other countries. Besides the realities in Russia and Ukraine, those in countries such as Cuba and China also experience additional pressures due to persecution (overt and subtle). The reality of the last couple years have merely exacerbated this. As a ministry called to come along side of pastors and church leaders how can we help?
To begin with, it is important that leaders (and all of us) are able to evaluate and be honest regarding where they are at spiritually, emotionally and mentally. They then need a context in which they can share this with others and realize that they are not alone in their struggles. Phil has completed a spiritual journey workbook, “Finishing the Race” which is designed to help a leader go through Scriptures and deal with the various issues they are processing that are potential obstacles to finishing well. It is intended to be studied in a retreat setting over several days so that leaders can discuss these issues with others who are going through similar challenges. He will be facilitating this with our core team at our regional meeting in Turkey in June.
Burnout in our western context may be due to unrealistic or false expectations. Burleson, who also facilitates such spiritual retreats, explains that this process is “. . .forcing pastors to find their identity in Christ and not in the perfection of their ministry, and I think that’s a good thing.” Having doubts about what we are doing and having to receive our purpose from Christ is not a new thing or limited to “leaders.” Biblical figures such as David, Moses, Joshua, Peter and many others all had questions and doubts at times in their lives.
The global events of the last couple years have merely highlighted something that most were able to keep under the surface. In serving leaders we want to help them come back to a place of a deeper relationship with Jesus and to come out the other side more resilient. This will enable them to then fulfill the purpose that God has for their lives. Though Paul had very real struggles he was able to say at the end of his life, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Our goal is to help all the leaders we serve be able to also have this as their testimony.