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7 reasons why so many church leaders are having breakdowns or deconstructing their faith

Earlier this week, the US-based Christian author and former pastor Joshua Harris announced he was no longer a Christian. In a statement Harris said: "The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction,’ the biblical phrase is ‘falling away’". Billy Kennedy, who leads the Pioneer network of churches, says he's observed an increase in the number of UK Christian leaders going through similar experiences

So, here's a serious question. Why are so many pastors, leaders and ministers having breakdowns, going off with stress, deconstructing their faith? Something is not right. What are we (collectively) doing wrong?

On Tuesday I posted the above question on my Facebook page. Within hours I’d received over 150 comments from friends far and wide offering advice.

I know a number of people involved in church leadership who have recently been signed off work with stress. Every week, it seems, I hear of another leader or pastor (some well-known, others not) who has either had a breakdown, been signed off work or has decided to call it a day entirely on their Christian faith.

I’m not saying church leaders have a more stressful job than other professions. In fact, in surveys on job satisfaction church ministers often come out quite well. But given how many pastors are running into similar difficulties, it seems something is going wrong. 

For some the answer is simple – exercise regularly, eat well, go to bed on time, operate out of place of ‘rest’, etc. For others it’s more complex – the system needs an overhaul, unrealistic expectations of congregational members, unhealed inner ‘drivers’. And for others it’s part of the cycle of maturity and we should accept this is the way life is and what appears as a negative can actually aid our personal growth.

The comments are still pouring in, but here are 7 possible reasons which have been given so far, for why so many church leaders are struggling:

1. The system needs fixing

Our models of church are unsustainable. Leaders might genuinely answer a call to the gospel of grace, but they can all too easily slide into merit-based measures of success and become slaves to numerical and financial growth.

There’s also the constant demand to please and contain those you have, while also expanding to those you do not have yet.

The hierarchical nature of organised Christianity is intensely demanding. If you were a company director or CEO you wouldn't live under the scrutiny of the workers to such a crucial degree. A CEO would be free to hire and fire their people. Whereas in church, a congregation to some degree hires and fires its leaders.

You are not well recompensed - can't afford the rest and holidays that others can – and there’s pressure on your kids to be 'perfect'. Marriages can come under pressure due to sheer time commitments. Then there’s the danger of overwork and working Sundays and bank holidays.

2. Isolation

It’s no secret that pastoral ministry can be one of the most lonely professions. And you’re often working with some of the most rejected people.

Building friendships as a leader is a real issue. And it’s not as easy as it sounds.

3. Unrealistic expectations

People don’t always understand the frailty and vulnerability of leaders. There’s often little encouragement and much criticism.

There can be judgementalism and blame from others in the congregation about your gifts, spirituality, control-freakery/not enough vision/not enough Holy Spirit/too much Holy Spirit/not deep enough teaching/too dense teaching/not making disciples/building your own thing - when they don't see or recognise your heart or your hard work. 

You might be expected to have all the best answers to tough theological questions, and to always know what to do in any and every pastoral situation - when clearly that's impossible. 

Our expectations of our leaders (both inside and outside of church) is very high and leaders feel the need to maintain the “I’ve got it all together” mantra. More vulnerability and honesty about how we’re doing, and a willingness to ask for help will change perceptions and expectations.

4. Disappointment 

There’s a strange tension we often live in between vision and expectation and the inevitable disappointment we face with the messy, mundane lives we deal with, including our own. That's an emotionally difficult wire to walk.

When you're bombarded with models of 'success' and faced with the reality that gospel growth and transformation is not something within your 'control' then you can end up if you're not careful, in despair.

5. We forget we’re only human

We are human beings, not human doings. But somewhere along the way with all the developments in society we are striving more than ever to look out and take care of others and not ourselves.

It’s the same problem that managers in non-faith organisations are facing - we are all having to cope with a heck of a lot more than we ever used to.

With the stigma of mental health very slowly lessening, people are opening up and church leaders are on the front lines of this. We are collectively asking a lot more of people without considering their well-being and church leaders are stepping in the gap without full comprehending the impact on their own wellbeing.

6. We don’t know ourselves

Make sure you're doing what you were born for. Something you love. Fulfilling your purpose (you can put up with an awful lot if you are). 

A very limited definition of 'church' means many leaders end up not able to do what they signed up for. I once asked a room full of youth leaders "how many of you are doing what you feel called to or is it just the closest you can get and get paid?" Three people burst into tears and there was a huge amount of frustration expressed. I suspect it’s the same with many church leaders.

A huge problem is the fact we make Sunday attendance the defining measurement for the health of the church. Making disciples, community impact, training and sending and many others don't seem to feature. The most whole leaders seem to be those who know who they are, how they are wired, find space and lead out of that.

7. And finally, my favourite piece of advice so far…

It’s hard for us to hear about leaders going through a crisis of faith and burnout. They are two different things, but not necessarily mutually exclusive.  

We react emotionally first of all. We may feel shocked, sad, disappointed, let down, angry, disillusioned. To feel these things is normal; it’s how we’re built. Here is someone we looked up to, or at least, deferred to. Letting them go is hard.

As we begin to process our feelings and thoughts, we come up with plenty of reasons (see above). The truth is that being a leader does not make you impervious to doubt, fear or breakdowns, it likely makes you more vulnerable to it because you are in the spotlight, under the microscope. This alone can be too much. Nor can you pretend or strive to be immune to the pressure, to your own weaknesses and dilemmas – the lid will eventually come off. A good leader must learn to hold and inhabit places of tension: personal tensions, relational tensions, conflicting beliefs, personality differences: the tensions of journey, metamorphosis, deconstruction and reconstruction. This is our creation story.

The Bible is full of leaders who ‘got it wrong’. The business world is full of leaders who ‘get it wrong’. They find a way through. They don’t give into shame, fear or anger. Making mistakes is part of the process. Reflecting and learning is a part of the process. Change is part of the process. It’s just that for most of us we do it from the comfort of our dinner table, our loyal friends or with a therapist. Leaders do it more publicly (some for whatever reason decide to announce it to the press – a bid for authenticity? A cry of pain? A desire to reconnect somehow with the wider world from a place of loneliness?).

Why can deconstruction be so devastating? Because it causes us to question, ultimately, the very heart of who we are as a person and as a community: our identity, our values, our beliefs and our purpose. How can you survive the many face-down-in-the-arena moments with nothing to guide you? But in the pursuit of authenticity and commitment to the truth, some of us just have to go there. I would just say this: deconstruction (and breakdown for that matter) isn’t the end of the road. It’s just a point on the journey. To be stripped bare does, at least, strip away a load of the chaff at the same time. Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it. I think the next bit can be exciting. Let’s not give up.

Billy Kennedy is Senior Leader at New Community Church, Southampton, and International Leader of the Pioneer network. He spends his time supporting and coaching church leaders in the UK and across the globe.

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