When Pastor John Girton, affectionately known as Pastor G., became lead pastor at Christ Missionary Baptist Church (CMBCIndy) nearly five years ago, he had 17 congregants. Now, after celebrating the church’s 100th anniversary in April and growing the congregation to 150 regular attendees, Girton is ready to step down from the pulpit.
Girton announced his resignation in September, and the church's New Year's Eve sermon on Dec. 31 will be his last as pastor.
“You never think you’ll end up being a pastor at the church you were baptized at,” Girton said, referencing his baptism years earlier at CMBCIndy, when his uncle, Melvin Girton, was lead pastor.
Girton left Indianapolis in the early 1990s and returned in 2009 to teach journalism and communications at Ball State University. After a year of teaching, Girton found himself leading the church that he grew up in when his uncle retired.
“It wasn’t my idea that I would be there as the lead pastor,” Girton said. “But because I’m a man of faith, I knew there was a reason I was there.”
Part of his mission, Girton feels, was to restore the physical structure of the church and form connections with community organizations outside of the church. During his tenure as pastor, CMBCIndy celebrated a century in Indianapolis, fixed many issues within the building and developed a relationship with several community organizations, including Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. While successful in his mission, Girton admits the workload took a physical toll on him and his staff.
“We did 10-15 years’ worth of work into five years,” Girton said. “I’m exhausted … We had to reach out to the community, refocus to make positive changes in the community. We had to work to get the church out of debt, to get us grant-ready, build classrooms, put new paint on the walls. We had to fix the boiler. These were things that we just had to do … and it wore us out."
Mental well-being was also a reason for Girton's resignation.
“It takes a tremendous toll on your mental health,” Girton said of pastoring. “The hardest thing I had to do as a pastor was funeralize four girls who died in a fire in Flora,” Girton said. “When the Bible talks about us relying on God to fill our mouth with words, to enter into you and animate you and give you what to say and do, that’s real. I couldn’t have stood there without being empowered by the Spirit that was operating outside of myself.”
As a pastor, it is expected of you to make hospital visits, give eulogies and assist people in times of need. This does not come without a toll on one’s mental well-being.
“There’s no way for people to truly understand [the mental toll],” Girton said. “My wife just visited a friend who is funeralizing her son, and she told me, ‘I don’t understand how you can do this,’ and she’s my wife.”
Girton became an advocate for mental health after his own bout with depression and suicidal thoughts in the past. While a depressive episode wasn’t a factor in his resignation, Girton is familiar enough with the warning signs to know what was coming.
“I slowly started to disengage because I could tell I was empty.” Girton said. “Because of how informed I am about mental health, I knew that if I didn’t do something I was going to break.” According to a study conducted by the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School, pastors are twice as likely to experience depression than the general population. Services to help men and women of the cloth deal with mental illness, however, are scarce.
However, pastors, like their congregants, are becoming more aware of the importance of mental health and are endeavoring to prioritize self-care.
Earlier this year, Eastern Star Church announced Pastor Jeffrey Johnson will take a six-month sabbatical starting in 2021. In a video posted to the church's website, Johnson refers to the upcoming break as a time of rest and a "wonderful expression of gratitude" from the church.
Pastor Keith McQueen, who has led Powerhouse Church of Deliverance for eight years, knows firsthand the importance of balancing professional responsibilities with self-care.
After an anxiety attack caused him to spend Christmas in a hospital, McQueen decided to make mental health a focus at his church and in the community.
“Pastoral ministry is very mentally intense,” McQueen said. “You have to be something that you really didn’t sign up for because people put unrealistic expectations on you ... We often aren’t seen as human beings but as machines, and it takes a huge toll on your mental health.”
Citing his own health scare and the recent uptick of pastors around the country who have died by suicide, McQueen and Powerhouse Church of Deliverance will host an event in January to discuss mental health amongst congregants and the clergy. The event is free and open to the public.
“I didn’t take a vacation for my first six years of being a pastor,” McQueen said. “And I had to learn how to rest. God rested on the Sabbath, so who are we to think that we don’t need to rest? This is a critical conversation, and I haven’t seen or heard enough about pastoral mental health.”
McQueen hopes the conversations that come from the event will inspire pastors to speak openly about their struggles.
“Pastors need to be able to say they’re struggling,” McQueen said. “Struggling to be present, hurting because of things that have happened while leading the church. We need to be open to this vulnerability.”
The stress of leading a church wasn’t the only factor that played into Girton’s decision to resign. He also believes the church would benefit from a younger pastor. Girton believes a younger pastor will not only bring a younger generation of congregants to the church but will change the model of ministry that he finds outdated.
“I knew I had to move so that a younger person could come in and pick up the ball and advance the church,” he said. “There’s a conflict in a lot of churches, because … in many of your traditional churches, particularly in the urban community, they have leadership and laity in the elderly community. I’m 51, so to a lot of them, I’m young. But I’m really not. Many of our urban churches are still operating on models from the 1960s, so many churches have not evolved or incorporated some of the necessary changes in order for them to meet the challenges that modern social justice issues bring.”
While Girton’s time as lead pastor of CMBCIndy is over, his work isn’t done. He will be available to help find a new pastor who can cast a unique vision for the church and plans to continue to work as an advocate for the community.
“I think what my resignation represents is a pivotal moment in the church to find a better model moving forward,” Girton said. “A new model must emerge, and I think social entrepreneurship is that model. Entrepreneurial ventures must include social impact, and social impact must include our churches."
Despite rumors, Girton assures that he has no immediate plans to run for any political office, but he is planning on remaining an advocate for the people in his community, specifically when it comes to how businesses impact the neighborhoods where they settle.
"We need to ask enterprises what their impact is on the community," Girton said. "Where is that impact being felt for job creation, health disparities, who are you supporting? What are you doing to support the people who are supporting your business? This is what my next chapter will be focused on."
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.