A recent blog post by Philip Wagner on "The Secret Pain of Pastors" has created some good--and really necessary--conversation about the challenge of pastoral leadership today. I'll add my two cents with a few re-posts of blogs I wrote after the NY Times ran a similar article in 2010. These posts were written right at the time that I started coaching pastors and working on a book on leadership development. Today, after 200 conversations with pastors, I'm more convinced than ever that there is a clergy leadership crisis that is only increasing.
"The antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness." David Whyte
A recent article in the New York Times on clergy burnout has been getting lots of attention amongst my pastor friends (and some kind church members who are concerned about me). The article suggests (I think, accurately) that the cause is in large part the unhealthy professional boundaries between pastors and their congregations. It also points to the reality that in our highly connected technological world, it is extremely difficult for a pastor to ever truly “vacation” from the congregation (Indeed, recently, I received word of the death of an infant in our congregation while I was at 30,000 feet winging my way to Italy on a family vacation.) The article wisely encourages pastors to get better and more regular rest and offers some good resources. And I wholeheartedly agree.But, all the while affirming the need for regular days off, vacations, and sabbaticals (indeed: I enjoyed a glorious one four years ago), I want to ask my colleagues: Is that really what’s causing the burnout?
The fact is that clergy and congregations have always had bad boundaries. In previous generations, being eager to work all-hours and having one’s ego fed by the need to be needed was practically a pre-requisite to a call from God to ordination (not that I am affirming that!) The truth is that most of us LOVE a good pastoral care crisis. It is the place where we are most competent and add the most value. We pastors thrive on people being spiritual open to the presence of God in life and love nothing better than walking with searching souls in a journey of genuine authenticity. Most Pastors will never admit this publicly but most of us would rather being officiating funerals than weddings. (At a funeral people are far more open to spiritual things; at a wedding everybody wants to get on to the reception as quickly as possible.)
So is the cause of burnout really too many souls in need of care?
A follow up article by a minister suggested that the cause of burnout is congregational consumerism. People now demand that their pastors be part shrewd cultural commentator and part comic. We must entertain, inspire and instruct a little, all the while never really challenging the worldview or tribal instincts that make us Christians seem little different than anyone else. Mostly, people come to church to be affirmed, encouraged and given some tips to get God on their side in their self-improvement strivings for the good life. We pastors, as my friend Charlie says, are expected to be Tony Robbins with prayer.
Again, I agree and this unhealthy expectation on the part of church-goers is undeniably part of the problem. But is that the root cause? Or are pastors and congregations not only suffering from bad boundaries, but also colluding to alleviate a deeper anxiety that plagues us all?
Here is my hunch:
Poet David Whyte famously wrote, “The antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness.”
We clergy are burning out because we have lost our wholeheartedness about pastoral ministry.
By this, I DON’T mean our passion for the gospel or our commitment to the Kingdom of heaven (though that may be true for some). I also DON’T mean our sense of call to serve people, to preach, teach, counsel, or care (though again, that may be true for some). What I mean is that most of us are now asked to do a job that we didn’t sign up for, in circumstances that are far different than we expected. The culture is changing and the church is in crisis and most of us were not trained for this. And so we are less wholehearted than we once were and are unsure if we are up for the task that has been thrust upon us.
A couple of years ago I spoke for a group of Methodist Christian Educators in Maine. After three lectures on the Kingdom of God and the Community of Faith, I was asked to do a “speaker talk-back” where anyone could come and ask me questions. Of the 200 attenders of the conference, 60 came to my talk-back session. I polled the room to ask what kind of questions they came to ask and soon found that one question was being asked by virtually everyone in the room. It wasn’t a topic I had raised in my lectures. It wasn’t a subject that the organizers had even planned to address. But for the pastors, lay leaders and teachers in the room it was the only one they wanted to talk about: “How can we keep our churches from dying?” You could practically see the discouragement written on their faces. We pastors are working harder than ever and not seeing results. It’s like we are stuck in an aerobics class from hell. We just keep running in place.
We pastors are exhausted because we are ambivalent. We are ambivalent because we are sincerely called by God, deeply committed to minister to souls and eager to speak to the spiritual condition of life and, at the same time, we know that we are rapidly becoming irrelevant to many.
Most of us were unprepared for how rapidly and demonstrably our culture was changing. Most churches (with a few obvious exceptions) are dying. We pastors wanted to be at the helms of ships that would head bravely into the adventure of an open sea and a beautiful distant land. Nobody told us that we were training to become captains of ships that are all slowly going down or being abandoned. We are ambivalent because this isn’t the ministry or the context that we signed up for and we are burning out because we just don’t know what to do.
Youth club sports is considered by most parents to be more important for forming the character of our children than the church. Spirituality has become wildly popular but so deeply individualistic that the fastest growing “religious affiliations” amongst college students are “none” and “spiritual-not-religious”. We pastors who were trained to teach those who show up, to care for those who call for help, to lead those who will volunteer and to administer the resources of those who willingly give are now called upon to minister to a passing parade of people who treat us like we are but one option in their personal salad-bar of spirituality.
We are in uncharted terrain trying to lead mostly dying churches into a post-Christian culture that now considers the church as an optional, out of touch and irrelevant relic of the past. Most people think of pastors not as experts of the soul for the big questions of life, but as curators of the flat earth society or pawns for a political action committee. To make matters worse, we pastors who used to be held in such high-esteem are now just assumed to be charlatans or pedophiles or widow-fleecing fundraisers. When masses of ordinary people want spiritual insight they turn to Oprah, not the church. And committed church goers and church leaders are panicked about it.
Burnout comes from not only bad boundaries and trying to meet unhealthy expectations, but also from an ambivalence born of uncertainty about our own competence and relevance.
Most of us got into this because of the Bible and people. We wanted to teach the Bible and care for people. We felt called to nurture the souls of people and communities of faith. So when we are doing those things (even with some not-so-good boundaries) we are mostly fine. Most of us also understand and acknowledge that there is a difference between felt needs and real needs and that there is always a degree of work involved in reaching often distracted people with our messages. (Isn’t that why we work so hard on getting good illustrations, jokes, even videos for our sermons?)But, most of us weren’t called and don’t feel equipped to be change-leaders in a rapidly changing world. But that is the reality and that is our call. Until we wholeheartedly dedicate ourselves to that reality and that call and all the ways that we pastors are going to need to learn, and grow and change ourselves (grieve our own losses along the way) to be relevant in that changing world, we will just continue to live on the verge of burning out and giving up.