051 | John Mark Comer on COVID and Burnout, the Root of Fear, Healthy Rhythms and How to Respond to Criticism
March 11, 2021
As pastors and church leaders across the nation continue to respond to the crises of the past year, they are being deeply formed in both external and internal ways.
In a recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode, host Carey Nieuwhof sits down with returning podcast guest John Mark Comer, writer and pastor of Bridgetown Church in Portland, to talk about spiritual formation during a crisis-filled year, setting healthy pastoral rhythms and speaking into a polarized world.
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Releasing Control as a Leader
Comer reflects on the ways in which this past year has forced him to recognize how little control he has over circumstances, especially when it comes to the impossibility of pleasing everyone as a leader. He reflects, “It is literally impossible to lead through a year like 2020 and 2021 and not have a whole bunch of people upset about you. There’s such a broad range of opinion issues—social distancing and masks, right and left, people who want you to be political and others who don’t.”
One of the invitations Comer sees for leaders in this difficult season is the ability to accept reality and limitations as they are and move from a place of fear into love. Comer notes, “When we are fearful of something, we need the world to go a certain way, we need people to act toward us in a certain way in order to act toward them in love. As long as we [desire control], we’ll always sabotage our growth into people of faith, hope and love. As the mystics would say, at the root of fear is a need for control.”
He adds, “The last year has exposed the illusion that we’re more in control of our life than we actually are. It has given all of us an invitation to either freak out and rant or to actually begin to accept reality and move to a place of trusting love.”
Developing Healthy Pastoral Rhythms
As demands continue to be placed on him as a leader, Comer is intentional to set careful boundaries and rhythms for himself. He points out that as a leader, “If you’re not careful, your whole life can become tyranny of the urgent. I could literally just sit in front of my computer, answer emails and deal with problems 12 hours a day if I let it carry me away.”
Comer finds a digital rule of life to be an essential tool in helping him avoid the urgency of demands on him as a leader. He refers to one of these practices as “parenting your phone,” a concept he got from Andy Crouch. Comer notes, “My phone ‘goes to bed’ at 8:30 PM. This means that at 8:30, the phone is off, closed and on a charger in the closet in the hallway, and I don’t look at it (with a few exceptions) until 9:30 AM the following morning.” This discipline has given him ample time in his mornings to pray, read and begin on deep sermon and strategic work that is required of him.
Comer emphasizes the importance about clearly communicating your parameters with the people around you, even if it is met with pushback and frustration. He notes, “It’s a mythical idea that you’re going to be able to please every single person’s expectations of you for communication, time or pastoral availability. As long as your strategy is like whack-a-mole, trying to meet everybody’s pastoral expectations, you will fail and burnout because you’re not meeting these unrealistic goals you’re aiming for.”
Responding to a Polarized World
Recent Barna data showed that only one in five pastors (21%) says they feel confident that their community views them as a trustworthy source of wisdom. Confidence for trustworthiness was even lower in post-Christian regions of the United States.
As a pastor in the progressive city of Portland, Comer is well-acquainted with the difficulties church leaders face when speaking into a polarized world. He shares, “One of the great tragedies of the social media era is that it is eradicating an entire generation’s capacity for slow, kind, thoughtful, nuanced, in-depth debate and conversation.”
In order to foster meaningful conversations around difficult topics (such as race and politics), Comer tries to first listen to leaders in those specific fields of expertise. He then seeks to respond in relationally embodied, long form mediums instead of adding in small sound bites on social media. He says, “You can’t react to [long form mediums] in the same way that you do to a one-line tweet or Instagram post with a hashtag and click-baity language.”
Even when people do respond poorly, Comer looks to address the underlying emotions at play. He adds, “Anger is a self-protective emotion… So often behind anger is actually an extraordinary level of anxiety and sadness. If I can discipline myself to set aside some of the angry rhetoric and the projection that’s coming to me, we can help people attend to their anxiety and grief.”
About the Research
Pastor data: This data was collected via an online survey of 408 U.S. Protestant pastors, conducted September 16–October 8, 2020. The sample error is plus or minus 4.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2021