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The Beatitudes Are the Cure for Pastoral Burnout

“Pastoral ministry,” it’s been said, “is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can absorb.” Unfortunately, in the wake of the COVID pandemic and other societal pressures, pastors and the people they serve have been getting disappointed at a rate neither group can sustain. We see this in the frightening, ongoing trends of pastoral and parishioner burnout.

Alexander Lang’s decision to step down as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights, Illinois, is a gut-wrenching case in point. Lang, who served the Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation of a thousand members for a decade said in a viral blog post last month that stress, loneliness, and a mismatch between his expectations and the reality of pastoral ministry finally forced him to call it quits. Lang paints an honest but ultimately confused and jaded portrait of pastoral ministry.

Thankfully, the Beatitudes give us a better vision. They show us the radical difference between God’s call and our American expectations.

Laudable and Impossible

Lang’s experience—of trying to “shoulder the responsibility” of his congregation and feeling overwhelmed by impossible expectations—highlights the identity crisis among many pastors today. When a church’s expectations—well intentioned as they may be—set the pastoral agenda, pastors inevitably become domesticated prophets, employees of the church who resemble smiling greeters at Walmart. In this model, they serve under the imperious requirements of “customers” instead of congregants. They’re harassed and helpless, like a shepherd at the beck and call of clamorous sheep.

For our understanding of pastoral identity, we must look instead to the ministry of Jesus, who knew firsthand the pressures of people’s expectations. This pressure asserted itself from the start as the paralyzed, the demon-possessed, and the diseased appeared. But when the Lord sat down on the mountain, he invited his disciples to see his kingdom through a radically different set of priorities.

When the Lord sat down on the mountain, he invited his disciples to see his kingdom through a radically different set of priorities.

Rather than establishing a kingdom of outward wealth, power, and prestige, he ushered in a kingdom of lowliness and sacrifice—and he invited the soon-to-be apostles to join him.

It may not have sounded attractive to them (or to us!). But, he promised, this is the way of blessing. In the same way, Jesus turns to us today and invites us to shape our ministries not by the priorities of the world (where we’ll surely be disappointed) but by the priorities of his eternal kingdom (where there’s blessing forevermore).

Burning Down Our Expectations

Pastors need to remember that the Beatitudes pour gasoline over our contemporary ideals and then light a match. Instead of our desire for prestige, Jesus offers poverty of spirit. He extols meekness over pride. Instead of ambitious church growth strategies, he commends a hunger and thirst for righteousness. Over against spleen-venting diatribes, he calls for mercy. For the soul riddled with anxiety, he provides divine peace.

And as the crowning gift, he offers persecution for righteousness’ sake. “Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus says, “for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:12).

This isn’t meant as an all-out critique of Lang. As a fellow shepherd, I feel genuine empathy. His description of how pastors bear the concerns of their congregants is quite right. “I want to know if they are struggling or making progress,” he writes. “I want to know if I can offer resources to help.” Paul addressed the Galatian church in this way: “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal. 4:19).

But there are a few things Lang gets wrong, errors I’ll try to correct here, particularly for young pastors entering ministry who must grasp the nature of their calling and how radically different it is from the expectations of American culture. Such a vision invites us from the shadows of frustration and bitterness into the purpose and joy of our calling.

Ministry Is a Battlefield

Lang explains how some members of his community sought to remove him from his post. In time, their machinations reached out from the shadows into an ugly public smear campaign that ultimately failed but “caused damage and left [him] wondering.” Lang adds, “But when you see that there is a group of people whose sole goal is to dismantle your career, that is an entirely different beast that no one expects, particularly from people who supposedly label themselves Christians.”

In this unexpected crucible, pastors are often overwhelmed by feelings of betrayal, sorrow, and resentment—a suffocating grief that inevitably leads to resignation. It’s the gritty, nail-strewn valley of pastoral ministry into which Jesus spoke his beatitudinal promise, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).

Why should we believe these words? Because Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, has walked this agonizing path himself and calls his undershepherds to follow him. “He was despised and rejected by men,” says Isaiah, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). We’re told that “he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8).

In contrast, the world wants to reduce the pastoral vocation to a “career,” a respectable profession that’s appreciated and honored. But we must remember Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:12. When we suffer, we stand in the lineage of prophets—servants who are generally despised and mistreated, honored only after they’re dead. Like them, our essential sustenance comes not from the people under our care but from the ravens, that is, by supernatural means.

In the meantime, we remember and embrace the blessedness of the Beatitudes. When we’re wronged, we practice mercy. When the church is riven by disputes, we seek to be peacemakers. In all this, pastors enjoy the privilege of joining our voices to the apostolic witness, to the great song of the Lamb that will crescendo in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 15:3).

Coming Day of Blessing

After describing how he was defamed by mudslingers, Lang asks, “Is leading the church really worth the investment if this is what I’m going to get in return?” As I read that line, I remembered a bit of wisdom I once heard: “Preach from your scars, and not your scabs.” In other words, wait until your wounds have healed before you vent your hurts. Like scars, wisdom comes with time.

I get the impression Lang’s traumatic experience has yet to reach the scar phase. He questions whether his investment of blood, sweat, and tears is worth it. It’s a fair question. But once again, the Beatitudes provide an answer. They teach us that if we’re looking for the fullness of God’s blessing here and now, we’ll be utterly disappointed.

Instead, the Beatitudes point to a coming day of blessing—a day when comfort, mercy, and the greatest gift of all, beatific vision (seeing God), will bring redemption to our scars. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”

In the meantime, we must comfort one another (2 Cor. 1:3–5). Over the last three years of difficult ministry, I’ve gathered regularly with a group of pastors from my town. This has been a lifeline for me, and it will be for you too. Find like-minded pastors. Lock arms with them and confess there are only two days—today and that day, the glorious day when all that’s hidden will be revealed. Till then, “let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).

Upside-Down Kingdom

Lang addresses the expectation for pastors to be like a successful CEO: “You have to grow the business and, under the conditions we are in right now, that’s super difficult because . . . the culture is such that people don’t really want to go to church anymore.” Unfortunately, Lang has a point. Many assume our pastoral calling is about numerical expansion and consumer happiness. But this is a lie from the pit.

The Beatitudes point to a coming day of blessing—a day when comfort, mercy, and the greatest gift of all, beatific vision (seeing God), will bring redemption to our scars.

The purpose of pastors is to promote a longing for God. We’re to echo Paul’s audacious, Spirit-directed yearning to see Christ formed in the Galatian Christians (4:19). We must equip our congregations to reject the mental and emotional gluttony of this world, the malnourishment of soul that only craves the next high.

When pastors pursue this priority, they and their people will, says Jesus, be “satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). God’s blessing isn’t for those who win the race. It’s not for spiritual champions who have arrived and enjoy a standing ovation. Instead, it’s for those who hunger and thirst, those who recognize their need and desire righteousness, even if they have a long way to go.

Aren’t you glad Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the consistently righteous, for they will be satisfied”? If this were the requirement, we’d all go away empty. Thank God it’s not the realization of the desire but the desire itself on which Christ pronounces his blessing. It’s not for the one who attains righteousness but the one who longs for it by faith.

Our Righteousness in God

This is why Jesus endured the indignities of human life (betrayal, arrest, and desertion), why he withstood mockery and slaps in the face from those who ought to have worshiped him, why he was silent before the self-indulgent foolishness of Herod Antipas. It’s the reason he endured the crown of thorns, the exposure, and death. Why? Because the glory of Christ’s kingdom is found not in human strength, triumph, and exaltation but in the most counterintuitive turn of all—the sacrifice of the cross.

By confronting us with this cruciform kingdom, the Beatitudes clarify our pastoral identity and calling to spiritual poverty, meekness, mourning, hunger, and persecution for righteousness’ sake. In the words of Isaiah 66:2, “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” We thus reject the frivolous, cotton-candy righteousness of American consumerism that promises to validate our pastoral worth by its own standards. Eating that counterfeit bread leaves us perennially hungry. Instead, genuine wholeness is found in hungering for God’s approval in Christ, the true bread who came down from the Father.

By confronting us with this cruciform kingdom, the Beatitudes clarify our pastoral identity and calling.

This is the mystery of pastoral ministry. We can simultaneously be discouraged and hopeful, mourning and joyful, hungry and yet satisfied. In Christ, we’re both famished and full, laboring and at rest. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).

Dear pastor, if you’ll embrace this calling—serving the church out of your weakness and with dependence on Christ—then you’re truly blessed, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

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