The Fall and Burnout of Mega Church Pastors

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Today I want to engage something that’s been exercising my heart and mind over the last few months. Many of you have been troubled, as I have, about the apparently continuing issue of pastors, and particularly (because of their profile) megachurch pastors either burning out and stepping down from their roles, or “falling” for some particular habitual difficulty, problem, or sin.

I’ve been very moved about the plight of these men, and I’ve been very struck by the way in which their lives have simply been set aside, at least in the way it has been explained in public by those who oversee them and those who seek to oversee the churches they are usually the senior pastors of.

I’ve been very struck by the way in which there has rarely been a description of the path back to the position of senior pastor they have stepped down from or been relieved from by their board of elders or church councils. There’s really never an explanation of what happens next and how they might resume their role again.

When a pastor falls or finds life overwhelming in the ways we see manifest in ministerial burnout, it’s almost as though there’s no way back.

Yet the Scriptures have an entirely different approach to frailty and weakness and sin. I’m thinking right now of Galatians 6, where it says:
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

I find myself quite convicted by that passage, especially when I think about these men who, for one reason or another, have stepped away from their position of influence and pastoral insight.

You might say it serves them right. They’ve sinned, they’ve overworked, and they’ve overdone what they should have done. They’ve been caught, and now they’ve been exposed, and there’s no way back for them.

You might point out the vanity and the pomposity of megachurches—how they position themselves on the religious landscape, and how often, being pushed forward by these senior pastors, become predatory presences in the overall spiritual world of western society. They seem to vacuum up all of the spare and straying Christians and often vacuum up whole congregations in what is presented as mergers or whatever. Basically, it’s an acquisition on the part of a powerful group as they take over a weaker and less prominent group.

You might point out the kind of postured authenticity which is so clearly an exercise in communication and PR.

You might point out that all of this together makes these men and women look like exploitative shepherds, rather than good shepherds in the mold and pattern of Jesus.

You might rightly be saying in your own heart that these men have gotten their comeuppance. They have gotten their just desserts, and what can you expect? They have let down the standards that they espouse and proposed—standards for holiness. They have let down the things they taught. They have let down the things that they should have been an example of.

But my question is this:
If this happens at such a regular frequency…
If the regularity of the occurrence of a senior pastor from a significant pulpit is forced to step down because of burnout or personal issues, or forced out of their position by their governing elders or group of leaders…
If it’s such a regular thing, is there something else for us to explore?

If we’re looking at it, should we be looking at the individual, or should we be looking for something about the system?

In my research in the world of academia, one of the questions you ask yourself from time to time is:
What’s the system that supports the behavior of the individuals within it?
What is the social context, the cultural framework, that leads to the particular predictable behavior patterns we observe?

If the predictable behavior patterns are those of senior pastors finding themselves incapable of continuing their ministry, either because of overtiredness or because they’ve strayed from the path of holiness, then surely we should be asking questions of the system.

The Emerging Generation

Christian Smith, one of the great Christian sociologists of the 21st century, has done a great deal of work looking at the emerging generation. Souls in Transition is one of the many books that has come out of the incredibly comprehensive study he has done on this topic. In that work he discusses that the spiritual landscape of moralistic therapeutic deism—a theology and spirituality based on:

  • trying to do the right thing (moralistic)
  • assuming that you ought to have the best of lives and that everything should be oriented around your well-being(therapeutic)
  • that God is smiling at you at a distance and uninvolved in your life (deism)

That moralistic therapeutic deism that is the undergirding spiritual perspective of the emerging generation is, Smith says, deeply influenced by the fact that, for the last two or three generations, mass-market consumerism has been the principle way that people in the west have understood their lives to be conducted.

They’ve understood that their lives are defined by needs and wants, and those needs and wants are to be supplied by the system around them that meets those needs and wants.

So they become the center of the universe.
They think it’s a good thing to do good things, but basically the world is designed to meet their needs and to make them happy.

The greatest entitlement of the emerging generation, says Smith, is that we believe we should be happy.

That’s something that hasn’t really been part of the emotional or intellectual framework of human history at all in any part of our time here on earth. It’s a very, very modern idea.

If that is the fabric and atmosphere and frame of reference that helps us think and reflect on life:

  • That somehow we ought to be happy
  • That somehow we ought to do the good things
  • That somehow a smiling deity is looking to give us the best of life

…Then it’s not surprising that Christians and pre-Christians alike find themselves looking at the world as something there to provide them with all they want and could ever need.

You look at that and think fair enough, that seems like a justifiable critique of western society and especially North America.

Taking This to the Church

Here’s the thing—there’s an uncritical acceptance of mass-market consumerism in the churches.

And there is a particularly uncritical view in the megachurches.

Yes, I know that we say that we’ll fast every so often and we’ll give money to the developing world and that we’ll have campaigns that cause us to sacrificially offer our financial wealth to projects of particular need. I don’t doubt that all of those things are true.

But fundamentally, the atmosphere we breathe is never questioned. We go to church to receive religious goods and services.

And frankly, the churches we’re referring to right now that are the most prominent locations of pastoral burnout and fall are the places where you find the uncritical acceptance of mass-market consumerism to the greatest degree.

You see worship teams that are equal in their presentation, in their style, in their technical proficiency, in their staging, in their creative presence on the stage, of any secular group you could mention. I can’t tell you how many times on my Facebook feed I find people live from some worship event, and it could be any rock and roll venue anywhere in the world.

And at one level, there’s nothing that much wrong with it, is there? It’s just one example of a way in which we’re seeking to be relevant to the world. And I understand that. I’ve often striven to be relevant myself, and I think it’s important to contextualize our message so people understand it and can embrace what we’re talking about.

But when we doing these things, presenting our worship, developing our buildings, designing our programs without any thought or question that mass-market consumerism may actually reflect our lower nature and not our higher nature, I think we’re getting ourselves in trouble.

Here’s where the rub comes. Here’s where the difficulty arises.

We place these pastors I’ve just described at the very top of this totem pole. We place them in the elite status of being the definers of what is good or ill, and the harbingers of the future (whether that be bright or otherwise). And they themselves become an offering to the consumption of the masses.

And as they are consumed, they find themselves needing to somehow escape the voracious appetite of the beast to which they’ve been thrown.

They are, mind and body, spirit and soul, offered up week after week to a hungry monster whose appetite is never satiated.

And as they are consumed, and as the content they bring is confused, they find themselves out on the edge.

  • They find themselves idolized and lionized by the masses.
  • They find themselves abstracted from reality.
  • They find people buying them meals in restaurants and sending them special gifts.
  • They find themselves slowly but surely adopting a position within the celebrity culture that is idolized by the consumers of the world.

Celebrities have become the pantheon of the consumer society, and as such as worship at their altar.

So before long, the pastors become idols within the system that is hell-bent on drawing us away from God.

No wonder their souls are hungry. No wonder their hearts cry out.

It seems as though this merciless removal, this heartless approach to their falling and straying, offers really nothing other than judgment. Certainly not hope.

I find myself challenged by that. I find myself thinking something like, “That guy was probably drinking for a long time. Who was helping him? Who was taking him to a clinic and working with him and wrestling with that whole thing?” “I think that pastor was addicted to painkillers for a long time.”
“I think that guy was probably straying into pornography for years.
“I think that person was put in a position where women who idolized him found it possible and easy to approach. I think that’s been going on for a long time.
“I don’t think anyone was savvy enough to recognize it. And even if they were, is it possible to hold out against that which you are constantly and continuously feeding?”

All we’re saying is that the pastors have been devoured by the very thing they have been feeding for years.

Surely there’s another way.

Feeding the Sheep

Those of you who are biblically informed enough might say to me, “Isn’t it right for pastors to feed the flock? Isn’t it right for Christian leaders to take care of the flock of Jesus Christ by feeding them?” You’re right.

Look at the reinstatement of Peter by Jesus in John 21. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and Peter responds that he does. Jesus asks Peter this question three times to erase the three denials, and afterward responds, “Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep.”

Really what Jesus is saying is that, as the Good Shepherd, he is committing the sheep to Peter’s care, and feeding and caring for the sheep is what the shepherd does.

And that’s the key. It’s feeding and caring for.

  • It’s not feeding and spoiling.
  • It’s not just feeding and feeding.
  • It’s not just feeding and then finding delightful ways of presenting basic fare so people maintain their interest in what you offer.
  • It’s feeding and caring.

As we feed, we’re called also to care.

I look at the systems that we’ve established in our churches. From the very youngest through to the very oldest in our congregations, we believe the right thing to do is to make people feel happy and comfortable and well fed and well tended to all the time and on every occasion.

Discomfort needs to be removed from the picture.

Challenge needs to be pushed away. Well, maybe people like a bit of spiritual challenge so they can come to the front weeping every so often to clear out their hearts. But I mean more than that. I don’t mean the occasional spiritual high that sends you home with that apparent spiritual buzz. I’m talking about the leading, prompting, guiding toward action and service that makes us feel uncomfortable and puts us in a position where we may not actually feel happy.

Caring for the sheep means caring for their whole well being.

  • The relationships that exist between them
  • The lives they live
  • How they go and find pasture

The Good Shepherd leads his sheep out to find pasture and brings them in to find protection and provision.

Jesus the Good Shepherd wants the shepherds under his care and his oversight to lead his sheep out. Leading sheep out from the sheep pen means they will feel afraid, will feel intimidated, will feel a little overwhelmed.

Maybe if we had a little more of that and a little less of this uncritical embrace of mass-market consumerism, we would see an emergence of a somewhat different culture.

Out to Pasture

It’s been very illuminating for me as I think back over my years of work and calling and service. I think back to the times when I’ve been in a position of unquestioned leadership and how dangerous that is.

  • When I’ve been in positions where my principle role is to provide content that other people consume, it is dangerous for my own sole.
  • When I’ve been the leader of a congregation that I’m taking out on the streets and putting into engagement with the enemy and his dark kingdom, it is an incredible protection both for me and for the people I lead.

I want to leave you with that thought. I think the best protection for us is to question this unbridled, overarching consumerism in the church and adopt a posture that says, “Let’s go out and engage what we’ve learned with the people we’re called to love.”

I think that what we’ll find—especially if we maintain the right kind of balance that Scripture rightly instructs us to follow—that we’re in a somewhat different position than the one we so often find ourselves in now.

My thought I commend to you for reflection is this:

Are you as a leader leading people out to find pasture? Or are you only ever bringing them in to feed them?

• If you lead them out to find pasture, they will grow spiritual muscle, because they’ll be walking and eating.

• If you lead them out to find pasture, you will be teaching them that it’s not the cuisine of the spiritual kitchen that they need to look for but instead the raw materials of spiritual food and godly living.

• If you lead them out into pasture, you’ll teach them they need to work off what they consume and burn it off in right behavior and good action.

• If you lead them out, I think you’ll give them and you a chance of meeting the real world rather than this imaginary, almost fantasy world that is found inside the churches that so rarely touches down with reality. It will keep things honest and keep things pure and keep things rolling forward in the right way.

I think that is the responsibility for us as leaders—we should both feed and care for. And caring for means the overall spiritual health of those we lead. For people to be healthy, they have to be active.

In Galatians 6, Paul continues once he has encouraged us to be gentle in the restoration of those who have fallen and says:
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.

  • We should bear one another’s burdens, but carry our own load.
  • We should help one another with the things we struggle with that perhaps the system leads us to struggle with, but we should carry our own load and carry forward our responsibility.The responsibility of the leader is to feed and to care.
Mike BreenComment