Ruminations on Burnout: “Should clergy really be ‘working?’”

Clergy burnout is a hot topic now. My two most popular posts of late have been been Pastors in Peril, and the snarky satirical Ten Highly Efficient Strategies for Crushing Your Pastors Morale.

And when the New York Times notices religion at all it is usually some aspect of it that is aberrant or weird, but, lo, there have been a couple of articles this month on clergy burnout. For a compendium of recent articles on burnout in the media and blogosphere you can go here to Jason Goroncy’s ever-dependable site Per Crucem ad Lucem, where he is doing a series on clergy burnout.

It is a vast topic to cover, but here is one of my small ruminations:

I think the whole category of “burnout,” although quite real, is also a bit of a red herring. All the articles agree that clergy are overworked. And when cast in terms of “work” that is undoubtedly true. My question is simple: “Should clergy really be working?” Or to put it another way, “When did what clergy do come to be understood as work?” Clergy have always been busy doing what clergy do, visiting the sick, attending to the dying, preaching and administering the sacraments and the scholarly preparation for same. The “work” clergy are now expected to do is a category drawn from the industrial and post industrial West, and seen in terms of their terms of efficiency, productivity, and professionalism.

I submit that this is a category error, and that the expectations of this category are one of the causes for burnout. On reflection I realize that an embarrassing amount of the “work” I did in my over thirty years in pastoral ministry was designed to give the appearance of being effective, productive and professional, to my congregants, the greater community, and to myself.

And I think many clergy share this loss of confidence about their core identity and engage in “the sin of bustle” (P.T. Forsyth) to convince the world that they are useful, valued, and worthy of the high social status to which they aspire.

Years ago one of my GE manager types got on my oversight board and hounded me into doing detailed hourly logs of what I do as part of a compensation review (I know this sounds like Dante, but it really happened.) I was insecure enough to hold my doubts and my tongue, and dutifully filled them out, but a good deal of the time I found myself in comic reflection. For example, when I was thinking about whether Paul’s radical theology of justification in Romans led to antinomianism while soaping up in the shower, was I “working?”  Or am I working right now while I ruminate, for I have no position and am not being compensated for it?

My point is that the role of clergy is not something you put on and take off like a cloak. The clergyperson was once the “the parson” (person), and embodied the church in some way. We reject that model because it was patriarchal and hierarchical, and with good reason, but we have lost something as well. Ordination was never about the intrinsic qualities of the ordained. All the way back to the Donatist crisis the church asserted, “The efficacy of the sacrament does not depend on the sanctity of the celebrant.”

That is to say that ordination was never about the gifts and graces of the ordained, no matter how impressive. Rather ordination was the church conferring authority and its requisite graces on the ordained for the good of the church. When we lost the model of embodiment for clergy we turned to function, and looked around for models from the society. That is where we are today. Now there have been many good things to come out of the professionalism of the clergy, but much has been lost.

It seems to me no accident that the declining mainline clergy are much more preoccupied with compensation and various “work” related protocols than the more robust evangelical and Pentecostal churches. In my own United Church of Christ we have compensation recommendations based on seniority, experience, size of congregations, and all the measures that corporate America would value. The result of this is that we have priced many small congregations out of full-time ministry, and discouraged  many talented clergy who feel called to serve these churches from doing so.

We also have guidelines for how many hours (divided into parts of days called “units”) that pastors should be “working.” Like so many things in our churches these suggestions are right-minded but wrongheaded. Because ministry can’t be cut into tranches like pate.

The category of burnout is a symptom of what happens when you take on these models. If your criteria for “success” is efficiency and productivity you will always fall short, because ministry is neither efficient nor productive in the terms of the world.

The real measure of ministry is faithfulness, because the ministry belongs to God, and God is famously difficult to evaluate. Paul said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth.” Ministry is about planting and watering. We seldom see our results.

The attempt to quantify the “work” of ministry fails before it begins, because it is based on a secular model. Look at how we talk about it: The pastor goes to the “office” (not the study), and keeps “office hours.” And how is the pastor deemed “successful?” By how much money is raised? By how many new members are brought in? Are these the real measure of the dominion of God?

How many faithful mainline ministers in demographically unfruitful vineyards have cast a covetous eye on thriving churches in more fertile spots? Or at their evangelical brothers and sisters? How many have secretly perused a brochure for a Willow Creek or Schuller workshop on church growth when the door to their “office” was closed. And how many have accepted growth strategies and practices that neither their hearts nor their theologies truly believe in?

This is some of the climate in which clergy burnout, by whatever name, flourishes. Because if one ceases to believe in the integrity and importance of what you are doing, than it doesn’t take too much “work” for it to seem like too much. And conversely, clergy who know what they are doing and love doing it would seldom describe their busy lives by the word burnout. Paul describes his various trials and tribulations, which could match any modern pastor for being overworked and undervalued. But he saw his ministry as a sharing in the ministry of Christ, including his cross, and rather than being burned out he could rejoice in his afflictions.

So it is not just about how much a cost we pay to do our ministry, for faithful ministry always comes with a personal cost, but whether we believe in what we are called to do, and know what we are doing and why we are doing it.

It is like the old joke about the pilot who comes on the intercom and announces to the passengers, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news! The good news is that we are making great time. The bad news is that we are lost.”

The good news is that clergy are working harder than ever. The bad news is that they are burned out. Because when you don’t know what you are doing, you don’t know when you have done it.

5 thoughts on “Ruminations on Burnout: “Should clergy really be ‘working?’”

  1. >When I was interviewing for a new position, the profile for the position said that the church expected that the rector would pray on his/her own time! I wasn't called and I am now thankful that I cannot even remember what parish it was.What we do as clergy is always something of a mystery – even to ourselves. There have been models that have been pretty debilitating, models which don't take into account the personal qualities of individuals. There is an interesting book from a Church of England parson that asserts that C of E clergy are ill-served by holding up George Herbert as THE model ("If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him").Some years ago, Robert Farrar Capon suggested that Episcopal parishes needed a minimum of three or four clergy as the only way to figure out how to be and what to do was in community. Not, perhaps, as serious suggestion, but worth some thought.

  2. >When I was six, I wrote a letter to my retiring pastor, and he wrote me a lovely response on church stationery. I have carried that letter with me from that day to this (fifty years now) and I still read it at times and take comfort from it. So I guess although he has been dead for many years, Reverend Damp (his real name) is still at work. And I trust he is being compensated properly….

  3. >As a seminarian struggling through a nightmarish in-care process, I'm glad to read someone has the same concerns. The church & ministry committee here is obviously operating under the functional model of ministry–their greatest concern being that as a 1st career student I don't bring 'business sense.' No real concern for my theology, spirituality. The UCC conference guidelines for compensation are a mess. In one way, they help prevent the gross underpayment of clergy, but they base it in such a way to ignore a congregation's vitality or need for revitalization. In the end, such congregations that can't afford quality pastors are left on the vine to die, abandoned by their denomination.

  4. >The best minister I've ever had, bar none, was a fundamentalist Baptist who baptized me in high school. Do I remember his sermons or official performances? Not a single one. What I remember was his sense of joy in life, his hanging out with the youth group on beach trips, his sharing about life and moral advice on the fly while we were having fun–he told great stories about people he liked. I also remember we argued about things like evolution, and though, we never persuaded each other to the other side, he seemed to think a hearty debate was a great thing for all concerned. He always seemed to have time for people, not as a paternalistic care giver or counselor, but as an encouraging friend who wasn't afraid to challenge and criticize when he thought it was warranted. I also know that he always had a stack of books in his office and at his house that he was reading–probably Francis Shaffer and the like, but he read a lot, including, of course, the Bible. If I would say what made him so good, it was that he did not perform a role or do a job; he inhabited a vocation that he loved so he was fully present when he was with us, not distracted, not somewhere else in his psyche, not self-important or self-conscious. Though I strayed far from his version of Christianity, he and I stayed friends until he died of cancer.

  5. >Thanks for a great post. I have long hesitated at describing time spent in ministry as "work." Yes, it is often hard work, but it is hard to describe spending time with church person in hospice care or going bowling with the youth group or participating in a congregational meeting as "work." Even though those can be some of the hardest things to do.One thing to add on the "functional" or "productive" aspects of ministry: I think it is connected to one's gifts and callings for ministry. I happen to be one of those people who likes developing leadership, working with committees, attending to process and discernment and helping the church systems function well. Those are the parts of ministry that feel the least like "work" and the most rewarding. For me, they are a part of my ministry. For others, those are the productivity standards that lead to burnout. I am much more likely to get burned out by too many nursing home visits or pastoral care needs, while colleagues can engage in that aspect of ministry for a long time without feeling burned out. I feel a strong sense of call when I participate in those tasks, and I know God is using my gifts for ministry there. I think burnout follows when we feel our gifts are not being used, or (as you point out) we are doing what is visible/productive/efficient rather than what is faithful. Thanks again for the post.

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