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.