Book Review: “Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and Not-So-Young) Ministers” by Anthony B. Robinson

Book Review: “Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and Not-so-Young) Ministers” by Anthony B. Robinson, Cascade Books, 2020. (Link to the book at Wipf and Stock here.)

By Richard L. Floyd

This little book is well-titled, for it is both useful and wise. In the interest of transparency, let me say that I have known Tony Robinson as a friend and interlocutor for decades. During that time, I have admired his many writings, which are clearly and concisely written, and grow out of his pastoral experience and long years as a church consultant. Continue reading

My Blog is Ten Years’ Old: A Retrospective

In the Beginning: 2009-2010

I’d like to thank all of you who have dropped by this blog over the years. It is hard for me to believe a decade has passed since I began it. I started to write again as a personal act of healing which in time morphed into a new chapter of my ministry. Continue reading

Remembering Andrew F. Wissemann (1928-2014)

Andrwe F. WissemanMartha and I went down to Springfield on Monday for the funeral of our friend Andrew Wissemann. I had not talked to him recently and so his death caught me very much by surprise. The Service of Thanksgiving at Christ Church Cathedral was quite lovely and would please him.

Before he became bishop he was my colleague next door at St Stephen’s Church in Pittsfield, where he was rector. I came to be the pastor of First Church of Christ, Congregational, in Pittsfield on December 1, 1982. I was taking books out of boxes and putting them on shelves in my new study when a lively bearded gentleman in clericals appeared at my door. He introduced himself and welcomed me and before he left the room we were friends.

We started an ecumenical study group at St Stephen’s that met in the late afternoon on Tuesdays and then we would all go to the chapel for Evening Prayer. We would read the assigned texts from the lectionary and talk about them to prepare for our sermons. I felt such joyful collegiality from that group. There was Fr. Fran the Roman priest, Julie the Methodist, Ed the Lutheran, and Andrew, David and Tom the Episcopalians. We had frank and spirited discussions and then we would pray together. I don’t know how many other churches anywhere had a ecumenical rota of ministers leading Evening Prayer in an Episcopal church but we did over 30 years ago.

Andrew had gravitas, but he also loved to laugh and as he aged the smile lines in his face grew more profound. He was not a big man, more thin and spry, but he had a great big laugh that took over his body.

And he loved to make others laugh. One day we followed him into the chapel and he was standing straight with his back against the wall and his hands folded at his chest as if he were a statue of a saint or an apostle. He had put an offering plate behind his head like a halo. He cracked us up.

In 1983 he was elected bishop, and in 1984 he was consecrated. He called me and asked if I would do him a favor. Would I come forward with the bishops and ask an ecumenical question in addition to the several canonical questions the bishops would be asking? He had secured permission from the Presiding Bishop to have this done. Andrew said the consecration would be in a Roman Catholic Church and it was an important ecumenical sign for there also to be someone there from the Reformed side of the family.

I was honored. And so it came to pass that I lined up with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and (was it 5?) other bishops. I, in my black Geneva gown, and they splendidly arrayed in copes and mitres. I felt a crow among peacocks. My wife Martha took communion from Andrew’s hand. She was nine months pregnant, my daughter Rebecca arriving a few days later. It was just thirty years ago in April and Rebecca herself is now an ordained minister.

Andrew was my model of a faithful parish minister, hardworking, diligent, prayerful, and loving. He brought those habits and qualities to his episcopacy. For years we would meet to have lunch in Springfield (at the Student Prince) or in Lee (at the Morgan House.) We talked theology and ministry and shared personal joys and challenges. Since we weren’t in the same franchise he could be more priest and confessor to me than my own leaders.

He was one of the first people to tell me about P.T. Forsyth, for which I am most grateful. He claimed he wasn’t a scholar, just a good reader and he loved to read (and buy) books. He once joked, “of the buying of books there is no end.”

When I had to leave my pastorate for health reasons ten years ago he came to my goodbye service and spoke at the dinner.

Last week my friend and colleague Jane Dunning sent me the news that Andrew had died, and I called her and asked if it was OK for me to vest and process. She said, “Of course.”

So I did. I vested on Monday and processed with the clergy, and I am especially glad I did, because I think I may have been the only one in the procession who wasn’t an Episcopalian. That sense of what Forsyth called the “Great Church” was so important to Andrew, and an essential part of his belief in the life we share in Jesus Christ.

Before we entered the cathedral Bishop Fisher had a prayer with us. He prefaced it by asking us all to speak one word that came to mind about Andrew. Mine was “kind.”

I could have added many others. One is “humble.” He and I once drove to Hartford to hear N.T. Wright, with whom I studied briefly at Oxford years before. After the seminar I wanted to introduce him to Tom Wright, but he demurred.

Another time we were together at an ecumenical banquet for the judicatory heads from Massachusetts, an annual event for the Massachusetts Commission on Christian Unity (MCCU.) I was the United Church of Christ’s representative. We wanted to sit together and he led me to the far end of the table. He looked around at all the clerical dignitaries and said, sotto voce, “When you are invited to a feast, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.” (from Luke 12) He smiled that twinkly smile.

Andrew always wrote these encouraging notes in his fine handwriting. I have a bunch of them which I treasure. Rebecca got one last year at her ordination. His fine hand was still the same.

I am blessed to have many dear friends, but Andrew’s death leaves a certain hole in my life, for he was such an extraordinary person and so good at being a friend. He had such a steady faith that I would dishonor him by only grieving, for he believed, as I do, that “we do not sorrow as those who have no hope.”

So I give thanks to God that he was my friend. I give thanks for him. May he rest in peace, and rise in glory.



“From Here to There and Back Again” The Journey from Text to Sermon

On the other hand

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

   it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  (Isaiah 55:10-11)

The title for today’s gathering was announced as “Getting from There to Here.” As I reflected on it I wondered if perhaps “getting from here to there” might be more apt. “Here” being the text in front of you, to “there, ” the sermon. That works.

But as I thought more about it I saw the wisdom of  “from there to here.” From “there,” “the strange new world of the Bible,” to “here,” the world we live in. And I thought of some of the various locutions we have used over the years to capture this movement from text to sermon, such as “from text to context” or “from Word to world.”

Then I considered the many ways I have approached the writing and preaching of sermons, and I realized this movement from text to sermon was more dialectical and less linear than any of these ways of speaking about it.

As I thought about it, the more I liked the sub-title of The Hobbit, which as you may know is “There and back again.” So perhaps “here to there and back again” is more like it.

From here to there and back again describes a journey that is not just a straight line, but rather more like a journey without a  map or even a predetermined end. And I like this way of thinking, because it captures how I have experienced sermon preparation in my four decades as a preacher.

I start with a Biblical text, and then I live with that text throughout the week on my journey, revisiting it and wrestling with it and worrying it until I begin to hear something of the voice of God in it, and by then the contours of the journey begin to show themselves, as do even the purpose of the journey and it’s destination.

The process seems to take on a life of its own, which is another way of saying that the Word of God is alive. I like today’s Isaiah text where God uses the agricultural metaphor of rain and snow watering the earth and making it produce to describe the way his Word works, “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

And I want to say a bit about what I mean when I say “the Word of God,” which can mean one thing or another, even sometimes one thing and another, or even three things depending on the context.

One way of thinking about this that has helped me comes from Karl Barth. He wrote about the threefold understanding of the Word of God.  First, there are the written words of the Bible, then there are the spoken words of the preacher, and finally, and most importantly, there is the living Word, Jesus Christ.

This living Word is mediated through both the written words and the spoken words. The prayer I began my sermon with today is based on this idea: “Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we behold the living Word, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”

And that is not to say every text needs to be understood Christologically (although it can be), as in the text we have from Isaiah today. But to say there is a living Word is to say that whenever we hear the Word of God as direct address to us, it is the same Word of the same God, who came to us and for us and became the Word made flesh.

So when I talk about the Word of God in sermon preparation, it may be a reference to the text itself, the words, or to the proclamation in the form of a sermon, the Word preached, or to both, but the goal of the journey is, through the finite human words of the text, and the finite human words of the preacher, to transcend this finitude to hear the living Word of God. And I believe this is the primary task and challenge of preachers, and of the church, for that matter.

Let me say a little bit more about the words of the text and the words of the preacher as the Word of God. I think of them by analogy to the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. Jesus is truly human and truly divine, not half and half or some other percentage.

And in much the same way (although not identically) the words of our Scriptures, the Old Testament and the New Testament, are truly human and truly divine. Human in every way, written (and edited) by human beings, and truly divine through the agency of the Holy Spirit of God who inspired the writers to write them, the same Holy Spirit the church invokes when we read them.

And the same thing can be said about the words of the preacher. A sermon is not written in some special spiritual words, but in the same human words that we use in everyday speech. Since everyone in this room is a preacher I don’t have to belabor the point that we are all human, even all-too human. Yet the Holy Spirit that inspired the writers of Scripture is the same Holy Spirit that inspires the preacher, and the same Holy Spirit that the church invokes and invites as it prepares to hear the Living Word of God from the frail words of scripture and the frail words of the preacher.

This is admittedly a high view of preaching, and some might say it claims too much for the preacher. I would say quite the opposite. It is the views of preaching that put emphasis on the personality and performance of the preacher that claim too much for the preacher.

The claim that the preacher is to be a minister of the Word of God is much like the church’s understanding of the celebrant at the eucharist. The principal was established early in the church during the Donatist controversy. The Donatists were heretics, so the question arose whether the baptisms they performed were valid. And the church agreed that “the efficacy of the sacrament does not depend on the sanctity of the celebrant.” So the preacher may be more or less gifted with the homiletical arts, but it is not those gifts that are decisive. What is decisive for the preacher is that he or she has been set apart to deliver the church’s proclamation, so that the church may hear in it the living Word of God. It is not about the preacher. It is about the church hearing the Word of God.

This is a (nearly) sacramental view of preaching, that the preacher should say what the sacrament shows. And in both cases neither the preacher nor the celebrant has control over the Holy Spirit of God, as if we somehow could control God. No, Christ is not truly present in the sacrament nor truly alive in the preached Word because we invoke his name, but rather because he himself commanded us to do these things and promised to be present with us when we did.

So with this high view before us, and a text in front of us, how do we get from there to here or from here to there and back again?

The first thing I want to say about approaching a text is the expectation that God will speak through it. Which is to say that the high view I propose operates out of trust. I think it was Richard Hayes who wrote about a “hermeneutic of trust.” For decades we have been talking and hearing about “a hermeneutic of suspicion,” and that has had its place as an corrective to the Scriptures being misused as instruments of oppression and injustice, “texts of terror,” as my teacher Phyllis Trible so eloquently called them. But there has been a heavy price to pay for the widespread “hermeneutic of suspicion” that has so pervaded the academy for decades, in that many preachers now reflexively distrust the texts.

And I think it is sometimes necessary and appropriate to distrust a text, but it shouldn’t be where we start. Sometimes distrusting a text along the way will lead you to the Word of God.

So the text is in front of us. Perhaps it is an assigned text from the lectionary. I like that, because I can be a lazy sinner who is inclined to make my favorite texts do tricks for me, but that is just me.

Perhaps the Bible is open on our desk, perhaps it is on our computer screen or smartphone, but there it is. First things first: read the text.

Read it in expectation that God’s Word can be heard in it, but don’t rush to decide what it means or even what it has to say. Texts need time. They need to be listened to. I have always described my sermon preparation as inhabiting a text. Living in it.

Another good way to think about it is to “stand under” the text so as to understand it. And the preacher stands under the text along with the rest of the church.

I am really talking about hermeneutics now more than the homiletical side of things. So you all know the various ways to worry a text into view. Read it in the original languages if you have them. Read it in several translations. Look up any key words or phrases in a Bible Dictionary. Take a stroll through some commentaries. Find out its genre and its original context. In other words do your homework. I once preached a sermon that involved Herod, and added “you remember him from the Christmas story.” My dear friend Luther Pierce, a retired UCC minister, shook my hand at the door and said, “Good sermon, Rick, but you conflated Herod the Great with Herod Antipas. Different Herod.” Oops!

So once you’ve done your due diligence and you have the text in your grasp, reflect on the context. Those of you who were preaching in the weeks after 9/11 may recall that the Common Lectionary texts were from Jeremiah and Lamentations, texts we had all avoided in the past because they are horrible cries of despair for the destruction of Jerusalem. All of a sudden after 9/11 texts about the city of devastation and the burning tower became eerily contemporary.

Which is to say contexts change. The immediate context of any preacher is the life of the congregation, and when I talk of inhabiting a text, I am referring to going about one’s pastoral duties with the text in mind. From here to there and back again.

Then there are the larger contexts of the communities in which we live and the country and world we are a part of. Sometimes contexts demand our attention.

We rarely get the kind of compelling clarity about the relationship between text and context that we got after 9/11, but keeping the text in mind as we think about the multiple contexts will often show us the way to go, the particular context that needs to be addressed by the Word of God.

The dialectic of the journey of text to context and context to text means straddling two worlds with the hope we can find in them the same story.

I had the privilege of preaching my daughter’s ordination sermon back in June, and afterwards Mary Luti said, “I like the way you went back and forth from the story in the scriptures to your story now.” And her comment made me realize that I preach that way because to me it is the same story.

I immediately thought of Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, a wonderful and important book. Frei’s thesis is that prior to the Enlightenment Christians inhabited the Biblical Story. They understood it as their story. They were part of it. The Enlightenment changed that as we held the story at arm’s length like any other observable phenomenon.

The task of the preacher is to repair the breach; to make the Christian Story our story again. I am reminded of Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment, where he argues for the re-enchantment of the world for children through fairy tales.

Letting the words of scripture and the words of the preacher be the Word of God for God’s people requires a similar kind of re-enchantment. It means the church realizing that the Story isn’t just back there, but is still going on and we are characters in it.

Let’s look quickly at our Isaiah text for today to see how this might be done. The text is from Isaiah of the Exile and the context is a people who have no reason to be hopeful, since they have lost the three pillars of their identity, their temple, their land and their nation.

The promises made to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob seem null and void. Their prospects seem dim, their possibilities few.

Into this context God speaks through the prophet. “My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts.” “You know that rain and snow we sometimes get in the desert? That is what my word is like. It will not come up empty. It will make happen that which I promised.”

And that is what the Word of God sounds like.

And when we hear this story, can it speak to us, where our prospects seem dim and our possibilities few? Can it speak to a declining church too often eager to call it a day? Can it speak to a nation full of grave injustices and inequalities? Can it speak to a world of death and terror?

When Isaiah speaks the Word of God to the exiles he lets them see what can’t be seen, and makes them believe what they can only know by trust in the one who speaks to them. The Word makes them part of the story again, the story that began at the beginning when God said “light” and there was light, the story that saw their ancestors freed from bondage, the story that seemed to come to an end, but now God says to them, “No, it’s not ending. Not at all. I will lead you through the desert of your journey into my own future.” And what will it be like? It will be like this:

“You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

And let the people say: Amen.

I preached this sermon at the New England Pastor’s Meeting of Confessing Christ, West Boylston, Massachusetts, on September 26, 2013.

Clergy evaluation committees and why they are a bad idea

multiple fingers pointing blame at man

Every relationship needs thoughtful reflection and mutual careful feedback, and the relationship between a clergy person and a congregation is no different from any other in this respect. But stand-alone committees formed only for the purpose of evaluating clergy are a bad idea. I call such a committee a posse, by analogy with those hastily gathered bands of citizens that helped the sheriff look for the fleeing miscreants in old Westerns.

Most clergy have existing structures within which mutual conversation and evaluation can take place. They may be parish councils, diaconates, elders, vestries, consistories, or whatever depending on one’s denomination and its polity. The one thing that separates these from the clergy evaluation committee is that they have other work they do, and collaborate with the clergy person in doing it. Around that work mutual trust is formed, and so the evaluative function is just one of many and not the sole focus of the committee.

I have written elsewhere about the commodification of ministry, and the poor models for ministry that come more and more out of the corporate world with little theological undergirding or even much thought.

It is true that the relationship between the ordained leader of a congregation and that congregation partakes of some of the same dynamics as a business relationship, accountability, transparency, trust, but at its best is more like a marriage than a job. As in a marriage there is an “us-ness” about the enterprise, the old word is covenant, and the relationship is characterized by mutuality, forgiveness, affection, and grace. You don’t work for each other but with each other.

So the clergy evaluation committee, the posse, invites trouble because it has no other function than to criticize the clergy person, and, as we all know, an “idle mind is the Devil’s playground.”

If there is nothing for them to do things will find them. In any congregation there are disgruntled people, and a constant stream of criticism is corrosive to clergy morale and not helpful in assessing what is really going on in the congregation. Thus begins what I call “death by a thousand cuts.” The posse is a bad model. It just is.

By way of illustration, try setting up an evaluation committee for your spouse and let me know how that works out for you.

A better model is to let the appropriate body, which shouldn’t be too big, have regular mutual conversations about what each party needs more or less of to make the congregation and its leader flourish. Then the focus is off real and imagined wrongs and shortcomings, and on the task of assessing the mission and ministry of the congregation.

The very worst model is when the posse gets formed to address “a crisis” with the clergy person. This is usually the beginning of the end of the relationship, and often signals that they want you gone, but are too ashamed of their part in the dysfunction to tell you the truth. The signs of this are demands for micro-bookkeeping, and regular “progress” reports. It is akin to getting to the marriage counselor so late that the only task left is amicable divorce.

If you see this beginning to happen to you, a new committee forming to “help” you, please protest right away and find a better model. Because (Floyd’s axiom): Once the posse gets formed, you will never outrun them.

Retired Clergy in the Pews

Retired clergyI was blessed during my several pastorates to have  a number of clergy sitting in the pews. Some were retired, some were pastoral counselors, and several were seminary professors from nearby schools. With very few exceptions these colleagues were always encouraging and supportive, and I valued their comments, conversation and friendship.

Now I am a pew sitter myself for the most part, except for the odd pulpit supply invitation. I enjoy hearing a good sermon and have been blessed to hear many in recent years.

But not everyone finds the presence of clergy in the pews a blessing (see cartoon above). I have active colleagues who tell me that some of their retired clergy colleagues can be a burden to them, that they know they will be critical of them and they make them nervous.

When this happens it is a failure of a basic kind of collegiality that should prevail among the ordained clergy, the ministry of encouragement. Our role as pew sitters is to support our pastors. We of all people know the nature of the job. And out of that knowledge should come from us a great measure of appreciation for all they have to do. We should be praying for them regularly. We were once where they are and were blessed with elder teachers, mentors, and friends.

I have learned these past few years that it is a difficult transition to go from being regularly in the pulpit for decades to finding oneself in the new role of congregant. It takes patience and humility.

But the thing we retired clergy have in common with the one who now leads our community in worship is worship itself, and the reality that pastor and people stand under the Word of God, and the grace and love that is proclaimed in it. And there is a blessing in being a worshipper without the responsibility of presiding, a chance to open oneself to God’s presence and power without having to wonder if the absent-minded reader will find the right lesson or whether the kids will be so sugared up that they will hijack your children’s message.

So sit back my friends and let the new kids on the block take their turn. As our brother Paul said to the church in Corinth, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth.”

(I would give attribution to the cartoonist if I knew who they were. If you know let me know.)

(Update on the cartoon from Dave Macy:

“The cartoon appeared on a Church Pension Group (Episcopal Church) calendar. The cartoonist is The Rev. Jay Sidebotham. From this year’s calendar: “Fr. Sidebotham serves as rector of Church of the Holy Spirit, Lake Forest, Illinois. Before hearing a call to ordained ministry, he worked in New York in the fields of animation, illustration and advertising. (Some would say he is still working in advertising.) He is grateful not only for the opportunity that parish work affords to continue expressing himself through his drawing, but also for the abundant supply of cartoon material that emerges in parish life.””

Thanks, Dave.)

Grace among the bedpans

Pastors spend a lot of time in hospitals. There they meet their congregants in trying moments, ill or hurt, facing or recovering from procedures that frighten and confuse. The most formidable lay pope, the one who thwarted your every dream at the last trustee’s meeting, now looks diminished in a “johnny” gown. Even in the best of hospitals the smell of mortality is ambient.

Which is why hospitals are such fertile spaces for grace to make an appearance, and why ministers do well to be present there as often as they can. Most people get better and come back into the life and flow of the congregation, but they will not forget that in one of life’s delicate moments you were there, and through you, their congregation was there, and through you, by grace, God was there.

Once again my late friend Arnold Kenseth, a Congregational minister who died in 2003, captures the truth of this in another of his exquisite poems:

In the Hospitals

In the hospitals trussed up to blood;
Or heaving breath so that the pulse can count,
The heart re-beat; or leaving the damp food
Untouched; or stuffed into the oxygen tent:
The sick, sexless as death, are fondled by
Machines, are stroked, pummeled, impaled, and Oh!
Ecstasies in the valley of the shadow,
The morphine murmur under the lost sigh!

And I think how we may die down down down
In the needle haze, in the white mercy
Of nurses, after the seance of x-ray,
Our souls stringed, buttocked in the bleak nightgown;
How dignity, dreaming, passion, faith, all
Will need God to retrieve them as we fall.

Arnold Kenseth (Seasons and Sceneries, Windover Press, 2002)

Is clergy burnout a symptom of a crisis of identity and vocation?

One of the hottest topics in the church right now is clergy burnout. Everyone is in agreement that it is a problem, but when it comes to the solution, not so much. There are a lot of wise, commonsense admonishments about self-care and spiritual disciplines. They should be heeded, but they tend to address the symptoms without asking why burnout is so widespread. And I have yet to see much in the way of an insightful theological analysis.

While it is true that a person in any profession can experience burnout,  I am convinced that there are unique features to the current epidemic of clergy burnout.   And I have been ruminating lately whether clergy burnout is so widespread not merely because of the stresses and demands of the job, which have to some extent always accompanied ministerial vocations, but because of an identity crisis in the mainline church, and a vocational crisis among its ministers.

As I have written elsewhere, the evaluative criteria borrowed from the modern commercial sector, chiefly productivity and efficiency, are inadequate instruments for measuring the success of ministry. In the first place, they do their analysis without factoring in God. In this regard, as in so much of the modern church, they are functionally atheistic, no matter how much God-talk is sprinkled into the discourse. But ministry is largely about God, more precisely, how God uses frail and flawed humans as bearers of his Word.

To understand ministerial vocation this way requires a dialectical approach that sees at the same time the grandeur and misery of ministry, both the possibility and impossibility of the minister’s role and tasks.

I turn to Karl Barth for a model of how this might be done, for he does this with his assessment of religion. I recently reread sections of Barth’s Commentary on Romans, and I was struck (again) at how brilliant Barth’s take on religion is. To Barth, like Calvin before him, humans are great makers of idols, and one of our favorite idols to make is religion. All religion is to some extent idolatrous, the Christian religion not excepted, but for Barth, Christian religion, though idolatrous, is also where humanity hears about God, and so is indispensable in the divine economy. God uses what is foolish to shame the wise. He calls it the impossible possibility.

It seems to me, and I speak from 30 plus years in the pastoral ministry, that ministry is best understood employing a similar kind of dialectic. The minister, no matter how talented, is a flawed human being, but God can use him or her to accomplish marvelous things, not least of which is as a bearer of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Here is another “impossible possibility.”

But sadly, that understanding, and the honesty and humility it requires, finds little purchase in today’s church. For example, I have always been struck by how brazenly worldly our “search and call process” is, and how it so undermines our best theology about the church and its ministry.

To begin with, we have this instrument (now available on-line) called “the Minister’s Professional Profile.” This literary genre (a rare combination of fact and fiction) is used to display a breathtaking panorama of gifts and graces on the part of the minister. One is driven nearly to the point of prevarication in displaying one’s wares to a prospective “employer.” “Who is this grand creature?” one is tempted to ask upon reading the completed product.

Although nothing on the profile is untrue, it is not the whole truth. What is missing is an accurate assessment of one’s feet of clay, and thereby a betrayal of the biblical axiom that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God, and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4: 7)

It is hard, of course, to imagine a process that could accurately do this, and God uses the present flawed one to match up foolish and broken ministers with foolish and broken congregations (they don’t tell the whole truth either), where graceful and gracious happenings can and do occur. That is the point. If this grand creature, the minister, could make them happen, they wouldn’t be grace, but expected, even promised.

And I think one of the outcomes of the kind of mutual deception (and self-deception) that is happening between ministers and congregations is genuine disappointment when the claims and promises explicit or implicit in this circle of self-promotion turn out not to be quite true. The result is often graceless mutual recriminations. Sometimes one is fired, or, more often, demoralized into moving on. It is epidemic, and it is not good for the church or its ministers.

So I am convinced that much of what passes for burnout is merely the symptoms of an untenable arrangement.  Clergy have both sold and been sold a bill of goods that they can neither deliver to the church nor receive delivery from the church. And since the mainline churches (at least in America) are an institution experiencing a half-century of precipitous institutional decline the opportunities for failure and disappointment are almost limitless.

The measures of success the world values will most likely elude the minister. Indeed, a “successful minister” is an anomaly in a faith with a cross at its center.  It takes a hearty sense of Christian vocation to handle this. For many the very nature of the task will get you quickly to burnout. And, as the models for ministry has become increasingly professionalized, more and more ministers will find themselves wondering what they have got themselves into.

The prescriptions for burnout typically ignore this fundamental disconnect between Christian vocation and cultural expectation. They only address the symptoms.

And how do they address the symptoms? In reading the literature about clergy burnout I am struck that the prevailing prescriptive model is “wellness,” a useful term borrowed from the health field. Now I am married to a public health nurse and have a great respect for the wisdom and applicability of the idea of wellness. I’m all for wellness.

And I think the argument is sound that seeking wellness, physically and mentally, is good Christian stewardship.

BUT, wellness isn’t a category that can carry all the Christian freight. If wellness is the new secularized salvation, it suffers from its inability to address fundamental human predicaments such as sin, death and the persistence of evil. A century ago P. T. Forsyth criticized the church of his day for having a religion of amelioration, and it seems to me that wellness is the personalized version of that. Our mainline churches continue in a religion of amelioration, they want to make things better (more peaceful and just and green), and I am all for that, too. But both social amelioration and personal wellness are implicates of the Gospel, and not foundations. That is, they are fruits and not roots.

The real root is God’s love for us and for all creation, acted out in the grand Christian narrative from garden to New Jerusalem, with its very center and core in the atoning cross of Jesus Christ “for us and for all men.” Where that is not preached and heard the fruits will be sparse.

So clergy burnout seems to me to be largely about the identity crisis of the mainline church, and the vocational crisis of its ministers. And a realistic assessment of the situation from a worldly point of view offers little to be hopeful about.

But those who believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead wait eagerly for new possibilities yet unimagined.

For more of my ruminations on the stresses of pastoral ministry see these posts:

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.

Ten Highly Effective Strategies for Crushing your Pastor’s Morale

In the past most congregations’ attempts to demoralize their ordained leadership have been haphazard and ad hoc, although still surprisingly effective. In the interest of bringing more rigorous and systematic approaches to these efforts here are some of my modest proposals:

1. Schedule a weekly meeting for your pastor to sit down with the treasurer (or, better yet, the assistant treasurer) to “go over” every business expense. Be sure to inquire if certain expenses are legitimate, such as the purchase of a Marilynne Robinson or Gail Godwin novel from the pastor’s book allowance (“Should we really be paying for your chick-lit?”) Or a long-distance call to a neighboring pastor friend from seminary. Do such expenses really profit the church? And what about this big expense for 14 volumes by this Barth guy? Do you really need all of these? And his title sounds so, well, dogmatic!

2. Plan a regular talk-back session after worship so that members can query the pastor about her sermon, or the worship service, or about anything else, for that matter. It is always good to question why the pastor chose scripture lessons that are so negative, referring to such old fashioned concepts as sin, unrighteousness and repentance. Suggest more uplifting themes in the future. “And, by the way, why don’t we ever sing Christmas carols in Advent?”

3. Make sure to have an annual customer satisfaction survey where every member of the congregation fills out an anonymous questionnaire about their views of the pastor’s performance during the previous year. Make sure all the negative (or ambiguous) comments are read aloud at several meetings, and publish them without attribution in the church newsletter.

4. Vote to hold all meetings in the living room of the parsonage during the winter as a way to save money on heat, but be sure to pitch the idea as good stewardship of God’s creation so your pastor will feel too guilty to protest.

5. Cut the mission budget to balance the budget. Better yet, ask your pastor to choose between a raise in salary or an increase in the mission budget. This would be a good subject for an extended conversation at a congregational meeting. You can never talk too much about clergy compensation at a congregational meeting.

6. Set up a pastoral oversight committee to regularly monitor the pastor’s performance. Focus attention on any negative (or ambiguous) comments from the questionnaire (see # 3). Make sure to put into place measurable metrics and target goals for new members received and money raised. Hourly work logs are always effective as well.

7. Whenever your pastor goes away and returns from denominational meetings or continuing education events never miss an opportunity to ask, “How was your vacation?”

8. Make sure the pastor is made aware of the two biggest complaints, namely, that he is never in the office, and he doesn’t make enough home visits. That the two cannot both be true will not diminish their use as morale crushers.

9. Tell the pastor that there are anonymous complaints that a. your sermons are too long; b. your voice is too soft to be heard (especially by the deaf); c. your spouse is not involved enough (or too involved) in the life of the congregation; d. your child shouldn’t have been given the lead in the Christmas pageant; e. your lawn needs mowing; and f. you were seen in shorts at the supermarket. This is just a sample list. Use your imagination.

10. Constantly compare your pastor to his long-tenured saintly predecessor, with special attention made to his never asking for a raise for himself or his staff.

If your pastor balks at any of these attempts, just mutter words such as “accountability,” “transparency,” “standards,” or “professionalism. Pastors are loath to appear to be against any of these concepts so cherished by the managerial class.

(Picture:  “The Scream” by Edvard Munch)