A recent emotional revelation by Pastor Howard-John Wesley, the head of the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, for 11 years, shows that there hasn’t been enough conversation regarding the emotional state of pastors around the country.
Following the suicide of Jarid Wilson, a popular pastor who struggled with depression and burnout for years, Wesley opened up to his congregation on Sunday, December 1, informing them that he would take a much-needed reprieve from the pulpit. From January 1 to April 12, Wesley will be on sabbatical, returning on Easter Sunday.
“There’s a weight a pastor bears in their soul and their emotions that is inescapable,” he said in the sermon. “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 lows of life, through the great moments of celebration and in the valley of death.”
From the outside looking in, Wesley is lauded as a success. He preaches to over 4,500 attendees every week, and has an online presence of 50,000 viewers during his sermon. He bore witness in front of The Obamas, as the former First family has visited his church on multiple occasions for Easter Sunday services.
But there are new challenges modern-day pastors face. With technology and social media, pastors are now essentially accessible and on-call 24 hours a day, something that Wesley says has been his lived experience. Some pastors also serve as wellness advisors by offering counseling services for their congregation members.
“How many Sundays of four worship services do I have?” It leaves me tired. And a nap ain’t going to fix it,” he continued.
Most importantly, he’s done the work of shepherding his flock, which requires an exuberant amount of energy. And specifically, the role of the pastor in Black communities is inherently interlinked in various ways – socially, economically, as well as spiritually. Wesley acknowledges the intense pressure has created a disconnection from the God he serves.
“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.”
To help with the transition Wesley says that he expects some privacy, and set clear boundaries for his request in an interview with The Washington Post. In the gap, he intends to spend more time with his sons, sleep eight hours a day, instead of four or five, and will also take some time away from the public and social media. He will also only attend one service on Sunday’s during his sabbatical.
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“After church I want to experience this miraculous phenomenon you talk about called brunch.” he continued. “I want to know what a mimosa tastes like on a Sunday.”
Wesley also wants focus on improving his physical health due to a recent doctor visit where he learned he was in poor condition.
“I ain’t going to die in this pulpit, he said. “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.”
Wesley’s sermon inspired words of encouragement on social media.
But foremost, Wesley hopes to reconnect with God.
“I want to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation without trying to write a sermon. 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.”
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