A Defense against Pastoral Burnout

Plurality of shepherds in a local congregation is the model of leadership we find in the New Testament church, which is a model first established in the Old Testament. Just as Jethro made it clear to Moses that solo shepherding of the people of God was “not good” then, so it is not good now. Jethro’s reasons are just as pertinent today as they were then: “You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (Exodus 18:18). Without a plurality of shepherds, both the teaching pastor and the people suffer and do not experience the best the Lord has for them. Certainly there are times when solo shepherding may be the only option, but it should be viewed as temporary and men should be being intentionally discipled toward leadership qualification, roles, and responsibilities.

Our elders recently read Timothy Witmer’s exceptional book, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church, and spent many hours discussing its implementation recommendations at an all-day elders’ retreat. We are really excited about the intentional shared-shepherding strategy we are embarking upon!

Since pastoral burnout is a widespread problem in the Western church, as well as a current topic of discussion among many, I thought I’d pass on the following portion from Witmer’s book, which reminds us that shared shepherding is one practical defense against pastoral burnout.

One of the practical outcomes of the identification of those who give themselves to preaching and teaching is that these individuals have often become viewed as primus inter pares—first among equals. This may have practical benefits in terms of providing initiative and direction in the local church. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that the biblical picture of leadership is ‘team’ leadership. All elders, including teaching elders (pastors), are called to shepherd the flock, but not all elders have the gift of teaching, though they should be apt to teach.

The point of this discussion isn’t who should or should not be compensated for their ministry but to focus on the fact that all who are called to be elders are called to the sheep-intensive work of shepherding. They are called to exercise their leadership together for the benefit of the flock. In many cases, probably because he is the one receiving the paycheck, the work of shepherding the people of God has fallen exclusively to the teaching elder or pastor. He is the one who visits the people. He is the one to whom people look for counsel. He is the one who is viewed as the ‘shepherd’ of the local congregation. However, given what we have seen about the centrality of the work of shepherding to those who are called to be elders, this makes no sense! How is the teaching elder supposed to have the time to give careful attention to the preaching and teaching ministry of the Word if he is charged with shepherding the entire flock as well? No, the biblical picture is of a shared responsibility among all of the elders for shepherding the flock. If anything, the teaching elder should have less responsibility in some shepherding functions so as to have sufficient time to carry out his responsibilities in preaching and teaching the flock.

We look at the plethora of reports that come out year after year about pastoral burnout and the alarming number of clergy leaving their churches or leaving the ministry altogether. Might not one of the contributing factors be that they are not receiving the help they need in shepherding the flock prescribed in the Scriptures? Not only will our churches be healthier, but the work of the pastor will also be more manageable if all elders take seriously the work that Christ has called them to do in sharing the responsibility to shepherd the flock.

Our elders were thrilled with this book. It reinforced what we already believed in principle, but have found so hard to put into practice. So we are really thankful for the really practical counsel we received that we will begin to implement immediately in the strength and grace of our patient Lord.

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