Popular pastor and best-selling author Judah Smith has an important message for Christian leaders: Focus on your spiritual health and the well-being of your soul, or burnout will inevitably creep in.
Spiritual fatigue is all too real of an issue for the church. According to recent statistics, an overwhelming 70% of pastors have considered leaving their role due to stress, and 40% have actually left the pulpit in just five short years from beginning their ministry. Additionally, an overwhelming 82% of pastors felt like the ministry had "unrealistic demands or unwritten expectations" on them and on their family.
As a pastor himself, Smith - who leads the multi-site City Church - is no stranger to burnout. In fact, his own experience with spiritual fatigue prompted him to write his latest book, HOW'S YOUR SOUL? Why Everything That Matters Starts With The Inside You.
In an exclusive interview with The Gospel Herald, Smith discussed several steps pastors can take to avoid burnout and spiritual exhaustion, why he believes isolation is a "soul killer," and how church members can best support, encourage, and uplift their leaders.
GH: What inspired you to write How's Your Soul: Why Everything That Matters Starts With The Inside You?
JS: Awhile back, I accidentally preached an entire sermon series on the health of our souls. I say "accidentally" because I intended to preach one message, but as I studied the topic and saw how relevant it was-first for me and then for our church-I just kept going. I think it ended up being eleven weeks long.
That journey completely transformed how I look at ministry, life, and myself. Along the way, I discovered a few areas of my soul that weren't healthy or that weren't headed in a good direction. I also found myself asking people, "how's your soul?" instead of the cliché "how are you?" I was surprised at many of the responses-it was incredibly healthy for people to evaluate and articulate the state of their inner self.
So often we don't take the time to determine if we are healthy on the inside or not, and yet our inner health has more to do with our stability and success than probably any other factor in life. I wrote this book because I wanted to help people find true peace and health on the inside-a peace and health that only God can provide.
GH: Why is it so important for pastors to focus on the well-being of the soul and understand what's going on inside of them?
JS: Pastors are first and foremost humans. We have the same needs, struggles, and issues as anyone else. Yet the unique nature of being spiritual leaders can often isolate us. In an effort to be good examples and to "live what we preach," we can unintentionally create an environment where we are unable to admit need or ask for help.
I think that's profoundly unhealthy-and honestly not even biblical. Sure, we can fake it for awhile. And maybe there are a few remarkable people with iron wills who can hold the course their whole lives without failing. But in the long run, emotional isolation coupled with the pressure to be perfect often leads to shipwreck. God didn't design us to live that way. As pastors and leaders, we need to ask ourselves the hard questions long before we reach the point of imploding.
GH: What are some dangers associated with not taking the time to focus on inner health?
JS: The most obvious dangers, of course, are disqualifying ourselves for ministry or simply giving up. When this happens, especially with public figures, people say things like, "How did this happen? I never saw it coming." Usually the potential was lurking under the surface for years but was never admitted or addressed.
A more subtle danger is that we could live our entire lives with unhealthy souls. Sometimes we think certain insecurities, anxieties, guilt, fear, competition, and a myriad of other things that affect us on the inside are normal. We might even think that they are spiritual or that somehow they please God. Living with this mindset can cause things like emotional burnout, kids who hate the ministry, health issues, depression, anxiety attacks-the list goes on. It's far better to find the time, courage, and humility to address unhealthy thoughts and emotions along the way, rather than waiting until too late.
GH: In your opinion, why do so many pastors and ministry leaders fail to properly care for their spiritual well-being?
JS: I think we underestimate the importance of our souls. When pastors get together, we often ask, "How big is your church?" But we never ask, "How is your soul?" We talk about numbers and programs, but we rarely open up about our thoughts, emotions, and weaknesses. Honesty makes us vulnerable, and that's uncomfortable. And yet it is essential.
There is a feeling among pastors and leaders that we aren't supposed to have flaws or failures. We stand in front of the church every week telling people how to live in victory, and there is an unspoken expectation that we are further along in the journey. So we don't have permission to be weak or to ask for help.
Here's the crazy part: we created this monster. Yes, other people often place wrong expectations on us-but I think most often, we do it to ourselves. Ultimately we are the ones responsible for creating an environment where people can request and find help, including us. We all need each other, we all need Jesus, and we all need grace. We have to be clear with ourselves and others that we are on this journey too.
GH: What are some steps pastors can take to rest and nurture their souls?
JS: Simply recognizing the need to have a healthy soul is a massive step forward. Also, we can cultivate environments and value systems that allow us to take the time we need to invest in our souls. Of course we need a solid, biblical understanding of Jesus' work on the cross and how that affects our ministry responsibilities and our personal lives.
Here is maybe the most ignored thing-we need good friends. Isolation is a soul killer. That's why asking the question, "How's you soul?" is so helpful. If you don't have anyone in your life who can ask you that question, you need to find someone. Your ability to be vulnerable with others actually says a lot about your theology.
GH: How can church members help pastors who may be experiencing burnout and spiritual fatigue? How can they help prevent such exhaustion from occurring?
JS: Church members can allow their pastors to rest. They can let their pastors set their own pace. That might mean building a preaching team rather than expecting one person to always fill the pulpit. It definitely means giving pastors regular, extended vacations; paying generous salaries; and not making them carry impossible work loads.
Professional counseling is also a good option. Again, that runs counter to what we've often heard or taught. For some reason we think a pastor has to be a psychologist, therapist, marriage counselor, child behavior specialist, theologian, businessperson, administrator, and more. Church members can allow their pastors to get the help they need to stay healthy over the long haul.
GH: Have you ever personally experienced burnout?
JS: When my dad passed away, I experienced a period of deep emotional turmoil that is hard to describe. That is probably the closest I've come to actual burnout. My staff and elders generously gave me an extended period of time to recover, and I came back healthier than ever. I hate to imagine what would have happened had I just tried to forge ahead when my soul was in so much distress.
I'm a very emotional person in general. Sometimes that is a problem-just ask my wife-but it does help me recognize when I am pushing too hard. I've learned to clear my schedule and take a few days off with my family to reset my soul. One of my life goals is to be "better at seventy." I want to finish strong, and in order to do that, I have to pace myself right now.
I don't think any pastor or any person needs to experience burnout. Instead, we need to listen to our souls and allow God to keep us healthy on the inside.