A leading Pentecostal pastor has challenged church leaders not to focus so much on numbers and growth but on being faithful with the few.
Paul Bartlett, National Director, ACC Community Engagement, and state director for ACC in NSW and ACT, told an online Mental Health Summit this week he was shocked by how many pastors want to quit.
He has concluded that the modern church has created a list of measures that inevitably create a stressed, unhealthy pastor.
“As a local church pastor myself, I would read the Scripture when Jesus said, ‘My burden is light and my yoke is easy.’ And internally, I would say to myself, ‘That’s not true because my experience is, it’s overwhelming – it’s too much and I can’t do it,’” he said.
“Then I had to pause for a moment. I had to ask myself, ‘Well, either Jesus is lying’ – and just to be clear, I don’t think he is – ‘or something about the way I lead must be unhealthy.’”
These days, the perennial question is, “How many campuses do you have?”
Bartlett said he asked himself what Jesus had to say about success and how he would measure it.
“I couldn’t find it anywhere until I started looking at Revelation and realised that Jesus critiqued seven churches, and first of all, those churches were different. So there was no one type of church that was the same,” he said. “But secondly, he never mentioned any of the measures that the modern church does – like how many people attend your church.”
When Bartlett was younger, he said everyone at conferences would ask, “How many people in your church?” These days, the perennial question is, “How many campuses do you have?”
“All the measures were about growth. So you can imagine if a pastor feels like his or her sense of security is in how many people attend, and I already felt bad about that pre-COVID, can you imagine what COVID did to that when I hear numbers like 30 per cent of people haven’t come back, et cetera, etc.”
Bartlett concluded that for pastors to be mentally strong, “we have to break the culture that says success is numbers. When success might be faithfulness, loyalty, overcoming persecution, sticking at it, even though you’re not the biggest church in town, loving the few people you have. Maybe you’re not trying to love the crowds. There’s a whole range of things, and I’m quite shocked at the amount of pastors that don’t want to keep going and they want to quit.”
“Can you imagine what COVID did to that when I hear numbers like 30 per cent of people haven’t come back?” – Paul Bartlett
Five years ago, Bartlett says, no one talked about the mental health of pastors, good or bad. So he decided to take steps to try to change the culture.
“Because pastors, if they said they had mental [ill] health, they were often told, that’s unspiritual … So I had to change a culture. So I kind of did a sneaky thing. I didn’t talk about mental health – I talked about mentoring.”
Bartlett organised for a group of semi-retired pastors to train as mentors. They would then invite a pastor couple out for a fully paid dinner and chat about ministry and life. “And then off the back of that, we said to them, ‘Why don’t you encourage them to start a mentoring process?’, which is what we did.
“Pastors have to model a commitment and a vulnerability and authenticity.” – Paul Bartlett
“So we tricked them through the dinner to get mentoring. They started to get mentoring and then we encouraged them to go from mentoring to supervision. And my last comment is this, I am a product of that mentoring process. So number one, I’ve had a mentor for 16 years. I meet four times a year. He meets with me for an hour. He meets with my wife for an hour, who’s equally in ministry with me in the church, and he meets with us together for an hour. So three hours, four times a year.
“I can say that alone has been most significant to my own personal mental health. But when I became a state president here in NSW, I took on a professional supervisor, and that has been critical to my mental health. And so one of the answers to helping pastors do well is pastors have to model a commitment and a vulnerability and authenticity and talk out loud about the fact that they get mentored. They have professional supervision, [to help] if they have days, weeks, times when their mental health is not doing well. We’ve got to remove the stigma of the idea that pastors can just pray away their mental problems when they need far more practical things in place.”