By JAMES BROWN, ALVIN PATRICK
There’s been a boom in mega-churches with thousands of members over the past two decades, but that massive growth has come with a cost. A survey of pastors shows the demands of the job are creating greater stress, and some pastors are feeling overwhelmed or even burned out.
Pastor Howard John Wesley, the leader of the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, is a gifted preacher and teacher who uses popular culture in his message to young people. But, he told his 10,000-member congregation that he decided to take a break.
“There’s not been a day in these past 11 years that I have not woken up and knew that there’s something I had to do for the church, that I have to be available for a call, that I journey with people through the highs and the lows of life,” he said. “Now I want you to hear me clearly, I’m not exhausted, I’m tired. There’s a difference.”
With those words, Wesley announced that he is taking a 3½-month sabbatical from the church he loves.
“I’m just tired, running a little bit on empty,” Wesley said.
Explaining the distinction between being tired and burned out, he said, “The joy. I’ve not lost my joy.”
“There’s just some of the fatigue that comes along with it that requires a re-plugging in and charging up,” he said. “So that I can continue to do what I think I’ve been called to do.”
Eleven years ago, Wesley was called to lead Alfred Street Baptist Church, and he has done it well. Church membership has quadrupled to 10,000 during his tenure, but the demands — some self-imposed — have taken a toll on the fourth-generation preacher.
Asked if he felt compelled to work 24/7, Wesley said, “It’s the only model I’ve ever known … I was raised by a dad who, God rest his soul, told me, ‘Never turn down a preaching engagement.’
“Here I am at 47, with 21 years in pastoring … and going, maybe that wasn’t the best advice,” he continued. “That collar, that robe doesn’t grant you any immunity from mental disease and depression and anxiety.”
“Preacher burnout” has been an issue in the Christian community, according to a 2015 survey of 1,500 evangelical pastors by LifeWay Research. The survey found that 54% of pastors feel their role is frequently overwhelming and 33% feel isolated, but 71% of churches have no plan for a pastor to receive a periodic sabbatical.
“What pushed me this year was that Pastor Jarrid Wilson who took his life,” Wesley said.
In September, Jarrid Wilson, the associate pastor at the 10,000-member Harvest Christian Fellowship in California died by suicide. He was just 30 years old.
“There’s an unhealthy addiction to standing in that pulpit,” Wesley said. “You can delude yourself into thinking that that’s what life is all about.”
Wesley said he sees a therapist regularly and he plans to use his sabbatical to begin a healthy lifestyle of exercise, a plant-based diet and most of all, tending to his own need for personal time with God.
“The greatest thing that has come from that sermon and this sabbatical is receiving hundreds of emails and texts from other pastors who said, ‘Thank you … I need to do this as well,'” Wesley said.
The pastor said he “absolutely” feels freed.
“Because I’m not ashamed,” he said. “Free that I don’t have to be Superman. I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to be super anointed every time I walk into this building. That I can be Howard John and not just pastor.”
The congregation welcomes Wesley’s sabbatical. It starts Januray 1, and he will be back just before Easter.