The other day my wife sent me a link to a story she found online. The link was to a story of a pastor who was leading by all accounts a “successful Evangelical church” – it was very large, still growing, dynamic, people really liked what was going on inside and wanted to be a part of it! The pastor announced his resignation from ministry. His words were short, simple and direct to his congregation:
“I am not okay, I am broken! I am tired! Everyone knows you cannot be a leader and run on empty – I am empty!”
After reading an account like this, which is not new or unique, I reflected again upon our vocation in ministry and thought: “Ours is a good work and a good vocation, but truly ours is a profession that can be perilous to our own souls”!
Hearing again this kind of story in the news I asked three questions, questions I seem to be coming back to again and again as I work with a non-profit supporting the interior work of God in the lives of ministry leadership.
The first question, “Where does a pastor go, when in the midst of leading and teaching others how to live well, his or her own soul life and development have become critically unstable and sliding perilously to a breaking point?” Practically speaking I cannot think of a more important question to ask when a story like this breaks upon us.
The second and third questions are a bit more uncomfortable to reflect upon, yet I believe vitally important to understanding what is going on: Is the experience of this pastor, and many like it, necessary in the normal Christian journey? And thirdly, is what is taking place within this church necessary and vital for the soul growth and development of His Church the body of Christ? In other words, what seems externally tragic to all those involved in this story (and we are all involved), could it be a severe and generous mercy of God upon this pastor’s life, and a severe mercy to His bride – the church? Is it a necessary mercy leading both this pastor and the body of Christ toward understanding something deeper and stronger than what was known and experienced before? The necessary component I want to be clear upon is not the tragedy itself, but the self- awareness that led to the resignation of the pastor. And then more broadly, the necessary mercy calling the church of Jesus Christ to examine more closely its own church-building culture and what impact it is having upon the soul of its leaders and congregations.
I believe it is a mercy that is being given to all. I believe it is a mercy being shown from a loving and deeply caring Father, jealous for the health of the soul(s) of his beloved. I realize to say so will leave me open to great misunderstanding for being insensitive, or over-spiritualizing and over-simplifying the events leading to the resignation and its impact upon so many lives. But I am not insensitive. I identify too closely with it in my own life and within our profession to be stating it glibly! Nor do I believe I am I over-spiritualizing or over-simplifying the events by calling them “a mercy”!
Rather I believe my questions and words are more a “shout out” to those who love what God loves – the bride of Christ! A shout out to ask all of us to look carefully and differently to see what is going on in the life of this individual and the larger church of Jesus Christ . No doubt it is an uncomfortable gaze for anyone willing to look into the actual experiences of successes, achievement and popularity and find realities of emptiness and brokenness all along the way. Equally it is uncomfortable to look at the amount of energy, time, and passion expended by so many and to discover that in the end God truly is after more “with and within us” then he is “from us”.
The relationship between what is necessary for our soul growth and how we actually grow requires that we see and understand a much larger picture of the kingdom than our churches adding members or becoming “bigger, better and more,” which leads so many of us to experience emptiness, exhaustion, and depletion of soul. That larger picture that we must see, both by its nature and by its experience, always engages a deeper interior work that is largely unseen. It involves things in us being removed (more often than not accompanied by pain and suffering), and it all comes from a merciful God seeking communion with us in the deepest place of our meaning and existence.
I think it is hard for us in the evangelical church to grasp an idea of spiritual growth and development that requires real suffering from our brokenness in order to grow deeper in soul! I don’t know the story of this pastor, but I feel every bit of suffering in the words “I am not okay, I am broken.” We like to believe that our personal belief in our statement of faith and our strong faith-filled affirmation of it at all intersections of life, is all that is needed to grow truly stronger in soul. We fail to see that having the “mind of Christ” (I Cor. 2:16) is more than something academically engaged….it is more than an affirmation of right theological beliefs or practices and must involve for all of us an experience of suffering (of all kinds) in order to share more fully in that mind that was in Jesus! Equally, I think it is hard for the evangelical church to grasp the great toll being paid by our ministers by the pressure that is constantly re-enforced from many sectors to attract more people, to build greater programming, and to mobilize larger numbers in mission. The internal call of the soul to find its fullness in God and not within our work or activity is truly the journey of soul growth and development. The two often will come in conflict, but one must win out, if what we pass on to the next generation is to last. God, I believe is jealous for our soul!
I admired the courage and the integrity it took to resign! I am drawn all the more to my savior by the courage of this pastor to leave what is successful and growing to tend more fully to what is central! This is what is eternal and ultimately what must be passed on to succeeding generations. My prayers to our Father are prayers of openness and stepping more completely into this good work of soul growth and development.
Gracebridge Alllaince seeks to support ministry leaders in tending to their interior life with God in the midst of the demands and challenges of ministry. If you personally related to the ideas shared in this blog I would love to hear from you! Please leave a comment on this post or use the contact form to reach out to us. Thanks.