The New York Times seems to have a developed a remarkable new love for pastors. Two articles in one week have expressed compassionate concern for pastors’ health. Last week I commented on the article that encouraged pastors to take sufficient rests and vacations. Then, on Saturday’s Op-ed page a pastor, Jeffrey Macdonald, made the case that there is an even more fundamental problem at the root of increasing pastoral burnout and ill-health, “a problem that no amount of vacations can solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.”

Although the article was rather excessively headlined, Congregations gone wild, Macdonald makes a convincing case that the 50-year trend towards consumer-driven religion has re-written pastoral job descriptions with a knock-on effect on pastoral health:

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… 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.

Macdonald says that pastors who continue to faithfully preach the whole counsel of God are coming under huge pressure to compromise, and he’s speaking from personal experience:

In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.

Instead of pressurizing pastors to tone down their messages with a constant diet of amusing and comforting sermons, Macdonald urges churchgoers to ask their pastors to challenge them to higher and holier standards in their faith, worship, and daily lives.

When such an ethic takes root, as it has in generations past, then pastors will cease to feel like the spiritual equivalents of concierges. They’ll again know joy in ministering among people who share their sense of purpose. They might even be on fire again for their calling, rather than on a path to premature burnout.

I think Macdonald’s article tells the truth but not the whole truth. Congregations bear some responsibility for this sad situation. However, I don’t think we pastors are entirely blameless. We have feared people more than the Lord and wanted people’s smiles more than the Lord’s. We have re-written the old proverb to: “The smiles of people bring blessing, and he who trusts in his salary shall be safe” (not Prov. 29:25). 

As we prepare our sermons this week, let’s ask ourselves, “Why did I choose this verse? Why did I insert that joke? Why did I remove that challenge? Why did I delete that application?” 

If consumer-driven religion is your Master, don’t be surprised if you end up being consumed.

  • Dana Young

    Thanks for this post, David. This confirms for me one of the reasons I’m compelled to seek another church and one of the foundational things I’m looking for. The church that I’ve been a member of for 25 years has gradually, but solidly, bought into a pragmatic “seeker oriented” approach that often leaves the Gospel unproclaimed, the lost fed a placebo instead of the Truth and the saints fed mostly “dessert” or left to feed themselves as best they can.

  • David Murray

    Dana, I’m very sorry to read about your struggle to find a Church. May God lead you to a godly pastor and loving fellowship of His people.