“Our Pulpits Are Full of Empty Preachers” by Kyle Rohane is the cover story in the May-June, 2022 issue of Christianity Today. “Tens of thousands of pastors want to quit but haven’t,” the subtitle reads, “What has that done to them?”
And here, the wandering begins—with the first one-third to one half of the article talking about the vocational drift and “great resignation” that has plagued all sectors of employment… and how that drift compares and contrasts with the vocational uneasiness of Pastors.
It’s only when you get to its second half that the article really gains traction. There, we are given some sense of the causes of angst among clergy (i.e., standard stresses, combined with pandemic and other emerging culture forces and realities).
And there, we are given some hint of solutions. Key words—perhaps the heart of the article (for me, at least)—are given near article’s end:
It’s easy to forget that Christ’s undershepherds are still sheep in his flock. If we treat pastors like spiritual superheroes, we do them a disservice. Superman doesn’t need to do pushups, but ministers still need permission and margin to do their spiritual exercises: time alone with God, time praying, time in Scripture beyond sermon prep, time with spiritual directors and counselors and other pastors who get what they’re going through.
This line is surrounded by the testimony of Pastor Johnathan Dodson. His story is far too rich not to include here in its fullness.
When Dodson experienced his sudden-onset ministry burnout, he went straight to his elders and explained the situation to them.
“They said, ‘Let’s just sit in the dirt with you. Let’s mourn. We know it’s been an atrocious two years,’” he said.
Dodson was as surprised as most pastors might be by such a response. More often, they fear the kind of encounter he heard about a short time later. “I was meeting with a group of pastors who I have lunch with every six weeks, and I told them the story of this sitting in the dirt together. And the wisest and oldest pastor in the room said, ‘I can’t believe they responded like that. My elders would have tried to fix me.’”
Our first instincts, when we see a church leader spiraling, might be to jump to their rescue with book suggestions or time management recommendations. But ailing pastors need something deeper.
“We’re in a fix-it culture,” Dodson said. “If there’s something broken, we think, How do we get it healthy? How do we get it back on track? The category of lament is very inefficient. It’s unproductive.”
Dodson’s leadership team knew the greatest need of the moment wasn’t to get him back to preaching ASAP. His wounds were deep, and he needed time to heal. So they granted him an immediate sabbatical. No agenda. No strings attached. Just a promise of some time to process the previous two years without the weight of congregational leadership resting on his shoulders.
“The first few weeks were weeks of lament, of spontaneous crying, having to pull over because the tears were just coming so fast and hard. Not being able to walk into church. Feeling paralyzed and having to sit in the parking lot for 30 minutes and then sneak in the back,” he said.
“Then I moved into a second phase. I got away to the Colorado Rockies. Natural beauty is healing and restorative for me. I had some days of silence and solitude, and it was just so wonderful.”
Dodson found respite in Isaiah 53 and Lamentations. “In Lamentations 3, there’s a long argument that basically talks about the wormwood and the bitterness of [Jeremiah’s] sufferings. It only gets into that bit we’re familiar with about mercies being new every morning after [more than] 10 verses of suffering. But after that, he says, ‘It is good.’ The Lord does good to those who wait for him; the Lord is good to those who sit quietly and wait.”
This message and time with the Lord were just what Dodson needed. “It was in that quiet and waiting that restoration began to happen, where I wasn’t responsible for people, and the grief began to slip away.”
Time alone with God (silence, solitude, nature), time praying, time in Scripture, time with spiritual directors and counselors and spiritual friends who are willing to “sit in the dirt” with us: who would not benefit from these spiritual practices?!?!?
It’s a message at the heart of the most recent issue of the Zoe-Life seasonal periodical which is Ruminations. “Soul Matters for Christian Leaders” (and here, we are talking about clergy, yes, but also Christian leaders across the spectrum) homes in on the “perfect storms” we face in ministry… and the crucial ways that spiritual formation fuels sustainability and vitality.
We pray you will find it worthwhile… and worth sharing!