Jason Pankau and Michael Lee Stallard
Studies have shown that many pastors and church staff are burning out. They feel the pressure to preach and create programs and events that entertain and inspire congregants, many of whom hardly serve in their church. This means added work for church staff and the faithful volunteers who shoulder most of the weight.
The current state is taking its toll. Pastors and church staff are working long hours to keep up, and as a result are spending less time connecting with the Lord, their families and friends. It’s no surprise, then, that they become spiritually and relationally disconnected. This often leads to feelings of loneliness, emptiness and depression, exactly what Satan wants. Disconnected individuals are more susceptible to temptations such as sexual sin, over eating or substance abuse, each illegitimate ways to treat emotional pain. Clearly, this is a problem. What can be done?
Eliminating pastor and church staff burnout requires a change of thinking and behavior. Job one is to teach the members of a local Christian body what a healthy Christian community looks like and how it contrasts with communities that are inconsistent with Christianity.
In helping people develop a vision for the Christian life, we like to begin with Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that describes Christians as being connected supernaturally, united as one body with the Trinity. Ask people to imagine what this might look like to have a local “church family” that is one with the Trinity. Show them Scripture verses that help them see that a Christian community is a church family that is marked by Christian love and humility, and where people serve one another, consider others as better than themselves, and seek the opinions of others. When we live submitted to the guidance and power of God and intentionally build a “Connection Culture” with one another, God produces much fruit through our lives and extends His Kingdom in a reproductive way. All truth is God’s truth so we like to show people the research from a variety of fields including psychology, neuroscience and history that proves connection helps us flourish in life from the time we are infants to our twilight years. By engaging the members into the mission, pastors can focus on their primary roles of equipping the body for works of ministry and they will discover the power of the body of Christ moving towards full strength. This is a very engaging place for pastors as well as congregants. It is an awesome thing to witness the Holy Spirit uniting/connecting a local body of believers who together are learning practically what is means to be “in Christ.”
If people are going to understand the need for such movement toward connection they need to first see that connection is waning in most churches today as people try to self-help their way to become disciples, even though it isn’t possible. Many people have been deceived into accepting the following myths which are obstacles to developing Chrsitlikeness and connection:
- Myth 1: “God helps those who help themselves” (according to Barna Research, the most quoted “Bible” verse in America among adult and teen believers); therefore we can self-help our way to Christlikeness. Problem: It is indicative that most Christians have not been trained well enough in how to submit to God and abide in Christ to know that this quote does not come from the Bible. Too many are living in and through their own guidance and power. As a result, their experience of the abundant life and their witness to the watching world are diminished and they don’t experience the power of the Holy Spirit moving in and through them.
- Myth 2: My relationship with God is a private matter, including my sins, so I will stay out of your business and I expect you to stay out of mine. Problem: There is a reluctance by many Christians to enter into Biblically functioning covenant community and make a commitment that they perceive may interfere or limit their lifestyle or plans.
- Myth 3: I will mature as a Christian by going to worship services, praying and reading my Bible once in a while. Problem: Biblical truth is often presented in isolated (topical) form without a good understanding of how it fits into the Christian life as a whole, promoting the compartmentalizing of the Christian’s life. Also, there is an assumption that the appropriation of Biblical knowledge by itself will lead to spiritual maturity.
- Myth 4: Jesus is our savior but doesn’t really require us to relate to Him as the Lord of our lives. We are all just doing the best we can to be good people. Problem: The church community typically focuses on making converts rather than making disciples.
- Myth 5: It is the job of professional clergy to do the work of ministry and the “priesthood of all believers” is not practical or a good thing to encourage at our church. Problem: To influence many people simultaneously is generally considered the method of choice. Personal one-on-one discipleship appears to be too time-consuming, energy consuming, and inefficient.
As a result of these myths and problems, 70 percent of church-going Christians are disconnected. They show up on Sunday for inspiration or out of a sense of obligation but they hardly serve, give, seek the Lord or cooperate with the Holy Spirit to grow in Christlikeness. And they will not come to know the joy that surpasses understanding until they connect with the body of Christ.
Research clearly shows why the church in North America is dying: disconnected congregants stop giving and eventually leave. A 2008 survey by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University found that of the 38 percent of people in the survey who ended their support to at least one non-profit organization in the prior year, nearly 60 percent said they did so because they felt disconnected from the group. An online survey by Crosswalk.com recently concluded that 34 percent of people who attend church leave because of a lack of personal connections there and 53 percent agree that the primary reason they currently attend a place of worship is because of the friendships (i.e. connection) they’ve established.
From our research and experience as leadership and engagement experts who work with churches, businesses and government organizations, we know that the solution to struggling churches is both spiritual and systemic in nature. Churches flourish when people connect with God through Jesus Christ, with one another in Christian community, and with their calling of servanthood. A simple way to remember this is connection with Christ, community and calling. This creates what we’ve referred to as a “Connection Culture.” When these connections are in place it develops a holistic, transformational, disciple-making church community that mobilizes people to serve in the Spirit. It creates the church that Jesus said “all the powers of hell would not overcome” (Matthew 16:18). A church that develops a Connection Culture will find its staff fired up, not burned out, because people in the community are praying, growing, serving and giving.
Last year, I (Michael) went to visit one of the world’s leading churches and it was evident that connection is everywhere. Holy Trinity Brompton (“HTB” for short), an Anglican parish in London, is flourishing. As I observed the congregation and attended services, spoke with past and current congregants, and met with church leaders, it was clear that at the core of HTB you will find that people connect with Christ, community and calling. HTB is expanding into satellite church buildings owned by the Church of England in the greater London area that would otherwise be in danger of closing or have already been shuttered due to dwindling congregations. In addition to multi-site growth, HTB plants a new church nearly every month and aims to ramp up to planting 20 new churches a year. To train pastors, church leaders, and laypeople, HTB established a theological college, St. Paul’s Theological Centre. To train worship leaders, HTB launched Worship Central Academy last September.
Outside of the UK, HTB is perhaps best known as the church that developed Alpha, a 10-week course that introduces participants to the core beliefs of the Christian faith. To say that the Alpha course has been successful would be an understatement. The global reach of Alpha is breathtaking. Since its launch in the late 1970s, more than 16 million individuals have completed the course. It is supported by all the major Christian denominations. At present, approximately 50,000 Alpha courses are being taught in 169 countries and in 112 languages.
To learn more about HTB and connection, read the case study found at this link: Alpha Church: The Church Flourishes When People Connect. At the conclusion of the case study, you’ll find 12 questions designed for pastors and church leaders to examine their own church culture and help them strengthen it. We encourage you to share the case study with others, too.
To start thinking about how a Connection Culture can transform your church, we invite you to sign up to attend a free webinar we are doing entitled “Protecting Pastors from Burnout.” It will take place next Tuesday, January 24, from 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. (Central Standard Time).
In summary, when pastors and church leaders develop Spirit-led cultures that connect people to Christ, community and their calling, pastor and church staff burnout becomes obsolete as vibrant members of the body of Christ actively pray, grow, serve and give. If the movement to connect and unite the body of Christ continues to grow, all the world’s present church buildings will be insufficient to hold the billions who see the Spirit of unity in love present in our churches and seek to know its Source.