Less than two years ago I wrote an article on The Problem of Suicide. In it, I stated:
Each year, 44,193 Americans die by suicide which, on average, amounts to 121 suicides per day. For many of us, these figures don’t feel too far off. We can picture the faces and remember the names of those in our own communities who’ve taken their own lives.
As a young pastor, I too came face to face with the harsh realities of suicide and the pain brought on by watching those I loved experience such deep suffering. Particularly, I remember a man named Jim in our congregation who was struggling with mental illness. For a while, he fought the good fight and did what he could to spend time in prayer and read Psalms to find comfort. Eventually, however, filled with despair, he took his own life.
I was devastated. At the time, I was unprepared, idealistic, and largely unsure how to handle the events that had just transpired in the church community I was shepherding. Unfortunately, I think many churches today fit that same description. They are trying to figure out how to help people struggling with mental illnesses and care for loved ones in the aftermath of loss but don’t really know quite what to do.
Before and since that time I have written often on mental illness among church leaders in particular, most recently upon the passing of Jarrid Wilson. Jarrid and I were friends. More and more we are hearing about church leaders struggling—in their leadership, in their personal lives, in their understanding of themselves and our world.
We are struggling emotionally, spiritually, and physically. This is in no small part due to growing awareness that the demands on pastors and church leaders today are outpacing the self care and resources available to lead from a place of health and wholeness. In essence: pastors are hurting and often struggle to get help.
Let’s be honest…many of us are on the edge of burnout
I am not immune. Combating feelings of being overworked and overwhelmed seems to have become my status quo. And just like scores of pastors across the world—very likely including your own—I can easily defend my perpetual hamster-in-the-wheel state with statements like “But this is for the Kingdom!” “Our world needs Jesus, and our churches need the fire to tell others about him!” and “Our culture is confusing and if I’m able to help churches navigate it well, I need to!”
In other words, many of us are balancing on the edge of burnout.
This is our narrative. Often, in our efforts to do good and be mission-minded, we can lose ourselves. We can lose the simple fact that a healthy me = a healthy leadership style = a healthy way of dealing with challenges that both my church and I face.
But the church in North America has a crisis in church leadership on its hands. A recent Lifeway Research study revealed that the role of pastor can be challenging:
• 84 percent say they’re on call 24 hours a day
• 80 percent expect conflict in their church
• 54 percent find the role of pastor frequently overwhelming
• 53 percent are often concerned about their family’s financial security
• 48 percent often feel the demands of ministry are more than they can handle
• 21 percent say their church has unrealistic expectations of them
More than just data, I have front row seats to the truth of our situation at the dozens of pastors’ conferences and networking events where, in the hallways between lectures, stories pour out from pastors on this edge. Commonly burdened and burned, they nonetheless whisper in hushed tones in hopes they aren’t overheard by their peers. For all our talk of honesty, the perception persists that such struggles for a pastor leave an indelible mark of shame.
Yet this is hardly unexpected. Pastors are people too and the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that in the United States over 46 million people are plagued by mental illnesses each year. This is 1 out of 5 adults.NAMI also reports that mental health disorders are seen in over 90 percent of all deaths by suicide.
Lord, help us.
It’s time our churches become healthy places for those who are struggling, including pastors
Now the concept of those in church leadership feeling overwhelmed is not new. Unfortunately, neither is the truth that too many in leadership feel isolated and alone and lack accountability and the capacity to handle conflict and challenges well.
Common, yes. Okay, no.
Each time I talk with a pastor friend who is feeling overwhelmed I am reminded that we need to be doing more to care for our leaders and to be giving them space to struggle and wrestle with hard issues. After all, a healthy body of Christ is one where we want to be open about who we are inside instead of trying to portray a disingenuous appearance outwardly.
The past few years have shown us that the health of our church leadership is less than ideal in many cases— and even toxic at times.
Moral and ethical failures have been on display for a watching world to see. These same failures have damaged countless congregations and trusting parishioners who are now asking what it looks like to have leadership that is accountable and trustworthy.
Often buried under these headlines are the countless stories of pastors dealing with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Most distressingly, these have become more normative. Although these stories are difficult to hear, in doing so, I believe, we have an opportunity to provide space for many to find healing and wholeness—if we do it right.
A one-day summit to help those in pastoral ministry
Last year, when we at the Billy Graham Center held the Reflections GC2 Summit on Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Violence, we saw the same thing. Heinous stories that were once stored in the dark came out, opening the door for others to feel as though they have permission to bring theirs to light as well. But we have much work to do.
This is the case for the crisis in church leadership today.
But it’s past time that we elevate the conversation that other organizations, churches, and counselors have been involved in for years. On Friday, December 6, 2019, in partnership with the Wheaton College School of Psychology, Counseling, and Family Therapy, we will be hosting our 4th GC2 Summit at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL, this time on Facing the Hard Truths & Challenges of Pastoral Ministry: A Conversation on Leadership, Burnout, and Mental Health.
The GC2 Summit will be a time for pastors, church leadership teams, and lay Christians to come together to:
- Hear from other pastors addressing issues of burnout, mental illness, isolation, and stress
- Get tools to support you in building accountability and support, prayer, personal discipleship, and more
- Learn from top counselors addressing issues of taking care of the whole body, the dangers of mental illness and burnout, and developing boundaries to care for oneself and others well
- Engage with experts speaking on the tangibles of healthy leadership
- Receive prayer and personal support
Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church, and Derwin Gray, founding pastor of Transformation Church, will be keynoting the event along with an amazing line-up of speakers who will be addressing issues of leadership burnout, soul care, healthy team assessment, identifying issues of mental illness, supporting senior leadership, and building a congregation of care and compassion.
Additional speakers include Dr. Margaret Diddams, organizational psychologist and provost at Wheaton College; Dr. Phil Ryken, president of Wheaton College; Dr. Eric Brown, director of Wheaton's Clinical Mental Health Counseling M.A. program; Ruth Haley Barton, author and founder of The Transforming Center; and Drew Hyun, pastor of Hope Church Midtown, as well as the founding pastor of Hope Church NYC.
We invite pastors, church leaders, church staff and elder boards, and all those who care about the issue of pastoral leadership and pastoral care to join us.
C.S. Lewis once said, “Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.”
Let’s all come together and talk about our broken hearts and how to become the leaders and churches that God desires us to be.
Will you join us? Space is very limited so save your seat today. Register at www.gc2-summit.com.