By Wes Beavis
What relevance does Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, have to the Restoration Movement? A lot. As a clinical psychologist, I spend most of my time counseling RM ministry leaders. I can attest to the relevancy of Darwin’s oft-quoted phrase, “survival of the fittest.” Simply put, those organisms that can adjust favorably to their environment are the ones that survive. If they can’t adapt, they die out.
Finding Support in Autonomous Churches
This “survival of the fittest” concept is very much a part of our movement’s construct. Pastors who can adapt and overcome their prevailing difficulties are the ones who will survive in ministry. Restoration Movement pastors who face challenging circumstances may find support from ministry colleagues, elders, or parachurch ministries, but they will not find support from a denominational headquarters, because there is none. That makes us unique.
Foundational to the Restoration Movement identity is the autonomy of the local church. This allows great freedom for each congregation to minister in whatever way the church believes the Lord is directing. However, when a pastor is struggling, it’s up to that individual to figure it out. No denominational safety net or support resource is available.
In their book, Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry, authors and researchers Dean Hoge and Jacqueline Wenger ask, “What can denominational officials do to help ministers who find themselves in trouble?” They even say, “Denominations to which these ministers belong, ‘owe it to them’ to try and provide support.” However, Hoge and Wenger were assuming every pastor is part of a structured denomination, but that is not the case with our churches.
In The New Testament Church, R.C. Shannon said the early 19th-century founders of the Restoration Movement were opposed to denominational government, and so they established that each church should be autonomous. In that era, denominational hierarchies issued edicts for all their member churches to follow, so the founders of the Restoration Movement had good reason to advocate for local church autonomy.
Surviving Ministry Challenges
Research for my doctoral dissertation on “The Precipitating Factors that Lead to Stress and Burnout in Restoration Movement Church Pastors” (published in 2019) revealed that there were 5,320 U.S.-based independent Christian churches/churches of Christ at the time, 9,033 RM pastors, and 1,274,665 congregants attending these churches (0.4 percent of the U.S. population).
The COVID-19 pandemic likely has changed those numbers, but the pandemic also has changed the stress levels of our ministers . . . and not in a good way. One might wonder whether the “autonomy of the local church” makes it more difficult for pastors to navigate catastrophes like a global pandemic.
While it is liberating to minister without interference from a centralized denominational body, Restoration Movement ministers have no obvious place to turn when they are facing problems, conflicts, and doubts about their ministry journey. There is no designated protocol for providing mental health support to pastors who are in crisis or trending toward ministry burnout.
It is in this respect that the “survival of the fittest” tenet of Darwinism seems relevant. From my experience counseling RM ministry leaders, I have learned that they are a hardy lot. They trust in God to get them through. They reach out to trusted ministry colleagues. They seek help from friends. A great many of them tough it out and, despite many ministry challenges, continue to serve in ministry. They are survivors. God gives them strength and enables them to carry on despite the suffering. But some research also indicates we are losing ministers at levels that are concerning.
The Role of Counseling
My clinical practice reveals that many pastors who leave ministry do so for reasons that can be remedied with some counseling support and guidance. It requires a great investment to prepare a person for vocational ministry. It’s sobering that so many can leave after only a handful of years in full-time ministry. So, it must be asked, “If God wants us to steward our resources, shouldn’t our ministry leaders be included on that list?” After all, those ministers spiritually lead more than a million Americans.
I’m not suggesting the Restoration Movement set up a central body to provide support to pastors in crisis. Still, increased awareness and support are needed. It is encouraging to report that, from my professional experience, RM churches and elderships are increasingly making provision for pastors to receive confidential counseling.
I’ve noticed our movement’s leaders are beginning to include pastor emotional health and well-being in their conversation of stewardship of spiritual resources. If not for confidentiality laws, I could share many examples of how counseling has restored pastors to optimum health and ministry vitality.
Providing support to pastors who are enduring personal crisis is a worthwhile effort. As I wrote in the final lines of my doctoral dissertation, “To revive and restore distressed pastors seems to fit with the mission of Christ, who declared that he was sent by the Father to heal the brokenhearted” (see Luke 4:18, King James Version).