Mad Church Disease and Why I’m Not Necessarily Mad

Anne Jackson‘s getting a lot of blog press these days with her request for stories and data to support a book she’s writing titled Mad Church Disease.  But more importantly, she’s a regular commenter on themattchews’ blog, and Mr. Mattchews is one of my best buddies.  He knows my story, and has been oh so gently twisting my arm to get me to participate in the surveys Anne’s conducting as part of her research.

Well, last night I gave up and just did it.  I’m writing this article to explain why I didn’t want to.

My initial response to the Mattchews was “I fear my present perspective would skew the sample too much,” and I really mean it.  My experiences as a church staff member have left me fairly jaded and cynical about the church, and though I know I’ll recover, I also know that now is not a good time for me to be talking church stuff with anyone.

To which the Mattchews replied, “That’s why you need to take the survey.  Your story needs to be told.”

My second reason goes a little deeper:  I don’t want to pile on and give undue weight and credence to the “poor pastor who gets abused and screwed up by his congregation” mythology.  I don’t know what direction Anne Jackson will take in her tome, but I hope it won’t go that way because I don’t buy it anymore.  It feels good every October during Pastor Appreciation month to hear the stats about pastors leaving “the ministry” and be petted and pitied and given an encouraging gift certificate because “church work is such hard work and our pastors are all depressed because we’re so hard on them,” but something tells me that the whole story isn’t being told.

Yes, churches are hard on their leaders.  Yes, pastors do flame out, often spectacularly.  Yes, church people can be unbelievably cruel to pastors and their families.  I have earned all those merit badges and I get it.

But what I’m not buying anymore is the idea that it’s the church’s fault that church work eats pastors alive.  Pastors are not passive agents in the formation of their congregations.  When a churchy person bites the arm off a pastor or refuses to serve in children’s church or clucks her tongue when the pastor’s kids aren’t exactly perfect, there’s something going on beyond a simple victim/perp story.  Congregations take on the characteristics of their leadership, and they learn how to express disagreements with their leadership from how their leadership expresses disagreements with those outside the church.

Really, it reminds me of those stories that pop up on the news every now and again about the guy who breeds pit bulls and is shocked when one of them mauls his visiting Aunt Margaret.  The breeder is always surprised when pit bulls do what they’ve been bred to do.

Ever heard the “I’m a (insert denominational label here) because we’re more biblical than everyone else” sermon?  Trust me, Baptists aren’t the only ones doing this–it’s pandemic in the church.  These sermons teach congregations that people who disagree with us aren’t just mistaken, they’re less committed to truth than we are.  It shouldn’t surprise us, then, when people in these congregations are unable to disagree with a pastor in a loving, accepting way without presupposing malicious motives or deficient morals.  All of a sudden, the inclusion of an electric guitar on the worship stage isn’t a stylistic issue, it’s a moral issue because I disagree with the decision and don’t know how else to handle it.

The same dynamic occurs with the “10 Reasons Why Dan Brown (of DaVinci Code fame) is Wrong and Going to Hell” sermon and the “Why the Homosexuals are Coming for Your Children” sermon and the “People Who Have Faith Give Extra Money to Missions” sermon.

Until the gospel becomes less about the preaching and defense of certain propositions (biblical inerrancy, original sin, substitutionary atonement, etc.) and more about how Jesus enables us to actually love each other and get along with each other (Jesus is in the business of reconciling all things together again in himself), church is going to continue to be a dangerous place to be and a suicidal place to presume to lead. 

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2 Responses to “Mad Church Disease and Why I’m Not Necessarily Mad”


  1. 1 anne jackson July 11, 2007 at 1:22 am

    Hey Byron,

    thanks for giving into the mattchews & taking the survey. i promise you this is NOT a book about oh, poor us – but of telling the stories of burnout – why it happens – and most importantly – redemption.

    as far as my tone, i wrote a post a long time ago about killing my “superpastor” – although the environment i was in contributed and encouraged my decisions to burnout, i ultimately learned it was my choice to say yes–or no.

    and i finally said no.

    so, although i haven’t read it yet, and i dont know it is yours when i do read it, i thank you for sharing your story.

    -anne 🙂

  2. 2 David Swink August 11, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    Great post. Your right, it is so easy to lose sight of the truth when we get wrapped up in the “it’s because they’re all really heathens” mindset. Which I am prone to do. Then I remember that I am a heathen as well by simply entertaining such hateful thoughts! Peace be with you.


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