After 30 years of preaching over 5,000 sermons, Reverend Howard-John Wesley, senior pastor at a megachurch in the US surprised his congregation earlier this month with an announcement that he is stepping away from his ministry for a season because he feels far from God, tired in his soul and needed to recuperate mentally and physically.
In an address to his congregation, Rev. Wesley made his admission to his congregation: “I am tired in my soul.”
Wesley has been a pastor of the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, for the past 11 years, leading four services every weekend, averaging 4,500 in attendance and 50,000 viewers online.
“There’s a weight a pastor bears in their soul and their emotions that is inescapable,” he said. “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, through the great moments of celebration and in the valley of death.”
He said he had been on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but will be on sabbatical from Jan. 1 to April 12, returning on Easter.
“I wrestle with God, and it leaves me tired,” he said in preparation for his sermons.
He estimated that he has preached at least 5,000 times, including in front of Barack and Michelle Obama, who attended his church on some Easter Sundays.
“How many Sundays of four worship services do I have?” he said. “It leaves me tired. And a nap ain’t going to fix it.”
Wesley said he believes the call to rest is coming from God.
“The Lord is pulling me away because I’m in this struggle and I’m not surrendered. And the Lord’s trying to change me y’all. Fifty is coming. And I gotta leave some stuff in the 40 that I’m not carrying in the 50. I’ve just got to walk differently and in order to do it, I’ve got to step away. I hear the Lord saying ‘be still.’ So I’m going on a sabbatical,” he said.
In recent years, other high-profile pastors have admitted to burnout and depression.
This year, California megachurch pastor Jarrid Wilson, who was a prominent advocate for mental health outreach, died by suicide. His death prompted evangelicals to hold summits where leaders shared their experiences with mental health issues.
A fourth-generation Baptist preacher, Wesley said he’s not burned out and that’s he’s still excited about the job, but that he’s tired and needs “an intermission.”
“I feel so distant from God,” he said. “One of the greatest mistakes of pastoring is to think that because you work for God, you’re close to God.”
Wesley noted how when he tells people he’s going on sabbatical, they want to know what he’s going to do.
“I believe in boundaries, and some of my personal life is none of your business,” he said to shouts of “Amen.”
In an interview, he said he’ll be “in beaches and in woods” but declined to say where. He will turn his phone off for several hours at a time, he said, except to check on his teenage sons.
He said he has some spiritual goals while he is away.
“I want to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation without trying to write a sermon,” he said. “I want to travel and go sit in the back of somebody’s church and hear the word of God and not be worried about what time we got to get out for the next crowd.”
At 47, Wesley said he has physical goals he wants to meet while he’s away.
Many black preachers are in bad physical condition, he noted. He said when he had his annual physical this year, his doctor told him, “Your numbers are pointing in the wrong direction.”
“I ain’t going to die in this pulpit,” he told his congregants. “You’re not going to roll me out of here in a wheelchair. . . . I’ve got life to live. I’ve got golf courses to play.”
He said in an interview that he is hoping to sleep eight hours a day instead of four or five. He plans to shift to a plant-based diet, somewhere between vegan and pescatarian, working out five to six days a week.
“When I started, I was working seven days a week, A member of the church at the time — an older lady — said, ‘Why do you work every day?’ I said, “The devil doesn’t take a day off.’ She said, ‘Why is the devil your role model?’ ” he said. “Jesus models that we need to rest.”
Some of the challenges Rev. Wesley faces are not unique or new to pastors across the nation. But expectations for black pastors are especially high, said Nichole Phillips, director of Black Church Studies at Emory’s School of Theology.
“The black pastor is expected to be a problem solver,” Phillips said. “To be a black pastor is to be a community leader.”
David Mellott, president of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis said some people are critical of sabbaticals because they are not available in many other workplace settings, said.
“Pastoring churches have gotten more complicated,” he said. “In his position, it’s like a chief executive as much as it is a head pastor. Even in smaller churches, pastors are faced with a variety of issues around church survival.”
The challenges Wesley faces are common among pastors, but his address was unique in how he shared his feelings.
“Strong leaders know that being vulnerable is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness,” he said. “He was clear about drawing clear boundaries.”
Alex Johnson, who has been a pastor for 12 years in Renton, Washington, and is researching pastoral failure and restoration for a PhD noted that there was an emphasis right now among many churches to find charismatic leaders who can manage multimillion-dollar budgets.
“There is a real addiction of the approval that comes from being a pastor,” he said. “I don’t think one person is capable of fulfilling all these roles people have in their heads for them.”
Watch the full “Selah” sermon by Rev. Dr Howard – John Wesley below:
Additional reporting from Christian Post & The Washington Post
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