Congregations Gone Wild


The New York Times opinion page had an op-ed piece published by a United Church of Christ pastor who lamented the record numbers of clergy burning out. Here’s his opening salvo:

The American clergy is suffering from burnout, several new studies show. And part of the problem, as researchers have observed, is that pastors work too much. Many of them need vacations, it’s true. But there’s a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation can help solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

As they say in the blog world, read the whole thing: “Congregations Gone Wild.”

Apart from the fact that the author is a pastor in the United Church of Christ (mainline, non-evangelical, and compromised to the nth degree) is his point still valid? And does it extend to more evangelical churches? What are we to make of the vision of the congregation today when compared to its leaders? Are the people in the seats simply more worldly and self-centered than their counterparts of 50 years ago?

And what are we to do about this?

Your thoughts are appreciated. Please leave a comment below.

16 thoughts on “Congregations Gone Wild

  1. slw

    I wonder what came first: Ministers who sought church growth through satisfying consumer tastes, or churches who sought ministers who could satisfy consumer tastes?

  2. Interesting article! In some of the churches we’ve observed it was actually the pastor who encouraged his flock to see him more as a CEO than a shepherd. He did have almost a third who supported his ventures, but the rest truly wanted more teaching of The Word!

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy

    My writing partner is a burned-out country preacher, currently run ragged between two congregations totalling around 100. He has reported many of the same problems — primarily a greying congregation who don’t want anything to change, but who have an ever-growing Wish List of What The Pastor Is Expected To Do. (He’s actually been told to his face “We don’t want to learn any more big words; you’re here to Keep Us Comfortable.”) Since his denom is congregational in organization, the Church Ladies (AKA his self-appointed “Accountability Partners”) have hire-or-fire power over him and the situation is just plain ugly.

    All this in a rural small-church situation, as far from the Megachurch down the road as you can get. His non-pastoral contacts and interests (like me) are what’s keeping him sane.

    • H.U.G.,

      Yes, the congregational power structures in rural churches can be just as difficult. The difference is that the megachurch pastor has layers of hierarchy to insulate himself from that competing power structure, while the rural pastor doesn’t. That makes it even harder for him.

      All I can say is Maranatha!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        All I can say, Dan, is if you knew me or my writing partner, you would not say “Maranatha” to either of us. We both got our brains thoroughly fried by The Gospel According to Hal Lindsay & Edgar Whiesenhaunt back in the Seventies and Eighties. (i.e. Pin-the-Tail-on-The-Antichrist/Rapture-Scare-du-Jour.) I can’t speak for him, but any mention or hint of The Second Coming or Book of Revelation brings up all sorts of unwanted baggage in me.

  4. Jeremy

    I grew up a PK and became disgusted with what pastors have to deal with, not from the world but from those who call themselves Christians. I speak from experience that Christians can be the most vile creatures on this planet. I have seen close pastor friends of mine be abandoned by their denominations and allowed to have their power shut off to their homes (with kids) because they weren’t generating enough “tithe” for the denomination (a fee the church has to pay, so the denomination wouldn’t help. Out of all the offices of the ministry, being a pastor has to be the most demanding and I respect the position very highly because I know what those men and women of God go through that most people never see or hear of. I am certain to give my present pastor an encouraging word and to lend a hand because they need it.

    We need to appreciate our dear brother and sister pastors and not look at them as slaves or punching bags. I have a calling on my life and it took me many years to respond because I am aware of how demanding and at times thankless being a pastor can be. I have had to deal with many trust issues and bitterness inherented from what I have seen my parents go through and other ministers. It’s not until I realized that there is truly no joy in living unless you are obedient to the Lord that I said, “Yes” to the Lord.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      I have seen close pastor friends of mine be abandoned by their denominations and allowed to have their power shut off to their homes (with kids) because they weren’t generating enough “tithe” for the denomination (a fee the church has to pay, so the denomination wouldn’t help.

      My writing partner (the burned-out preacher-man) has told me that in his denom, pastors’ widows routinely have to eat out of dumpsters.

      “Be warm and well fed — I’ll Pray For You.”

  5. I know this isn’t quite answering the question but perhaps the problem is really with this idea that one man, “the pastor”, is the sole shepherd of “his” flock. Was it ever Jesus’ intention for His Body that one person should carry so much? Whose flock is it anyway? I think many pastors are expected to function as the head, when it is Jesus who is the head. If we all got on with being hands and eyes and feet maybe there would not be so much burnout? Pastors often expect themselves to bear what no lone man was ever meant to bear and, yes, they may end up, therefore, compromising their real calling.

    • Seymour,

      That “pastor does it all” model is definitely broken. But if the congregation fights against picking up any slack, what is the pastor to do? It’s a big problem. I think the only answer is genuine revival.

      • Dan: That “pastor does it all” model is definitely broken. But if the congregation fights against picking up any slack, what is the pastor to do?

        Er, my first guess is that he should have been teaching them from the get-go to minister to each other instead of harping on Malachi ch. 3 for the ten-thousandth time.

        My second guess is that this generation has to die off in the wilderness before anything substantial can get done.

  6. I am one of those ministers. However, instead of becoming burned out the situation was worse. Picture an angry mob of bullies and scoundrels coming for you at night. Think of malicious groups meeting at night plotting on how to bring you down before them. Imagine a gentle kiss of betrayal on your check from an elder who was within the inner circle. All in the midst of the hour of the power of darkness.

    Luke 22:53
    53 “When I was with you daily in the temple, you did not try to seize Me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”

    If it were not for my wife stepping in between the butchery I am not sure I would have survived. This continued for 3 1/2 years until it all manifested in all it’s ugliness 10 minutes before Sunday service was to begin.

    One observance that I would like to make in regard to the large amount of pastors being devoured alive is that many pastors are not properly covered and protected in the body. Instead, they are left alone in the garden and abandoned when the enemy moves in to destroy him or her. To my own amazement I watched elders/leaders shrink in the face of such attacks. It is an awful feeling when you can feel the cold wind of abandonment and eerie silence as your brothers and sister slip into the darkness when they see torches and pitchforks coming.

    If a pastor is going to survive his or her calling they will need to be covered and surrounded by men and women called to cover them with their own bodies when the stones start to fly and the mob starts chanting for your neck.

    In my case I thank my King and Lord Jesus Christ. For I would never have made it through drinking every drop of this cup if I had not a Savoir who had already drank from this cup and suffered in a way I could never touch. Yet He shared in it with me every step and lead me through it all.

    What a Savoir!

  7. Joshua

    I would agree. I think many Churches are broken by this desire to have the pastor do 80% of the work of the ministry. Yet Scripture says that it’s the job of pastors, evangelists, and teachers to train and equip the saints for their works of ministry, not do it for them! And yet I think those of us who are pastors are afraid to talk about this even if we know it is true because there can be repercussions.

    Benson Hines, who is heavily involved in Campus Ministries, put up a A.W. Tozer quote the other day that hit me like a brick in the guts.

    “Any man with fair pulpit gifts can get on with the average congregation if he just feeds them and lets them alone. Give them plenty of objective truth and never hint that they are wrong and should be set right and they will be content. On the other hand, the man who preaches truth and applies it to the lives of his hearers will feel the nails and the thorns. He will lead a hard life, but a glorious one. May God raise up many such prophets. The Church needs them badly.” (from Of God and Men)

    After reading that, I decided I couldn’t live the way I had before, by just throwing out a few lines and dancing around the objective truths, hoping anyone who actually needed to be challenged would do it to themselves. So I got up last Sunday and apologized to the Church I am a Youth Pastor in (and I preach for the Sunday Evening Services over the summer)because I did this. And now we’ll see. Because this is actually the very topic I’m going to be preaching on this coming Sunday Night. It’s my last sermon before the Sunday Evening Services give way to the return of Youth Group. But I’ll be preaching on the two things that seem to be missing the most from Church, the Need for Fellowship, and the Need for everyone to be involved in whatever work of Ministry God’s called them to.

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