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)

Where I Ruminate on My Ordination on this its Anniversary

I was ordained to the Christian ministry on this day in 1975 at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts, by the Metropolitan Boston Association of the United Church of Christ. Dudne Breeze, the pastor, preached the sermon, and a good one it was. Jerry Handspicker, my teacher at Andover Newton Theological School and the associate pastor, offered the ordaining prayer, which asked God to endow me with all manner of things for my ministry, and he seemed in deadly earnest. After thirty-four years I now understand why. Jerry, ironically, also presided at the service of thanksgiving for my ministry when I retired five years ago, so he book-ended my three decades of active ministry. We sang “Holy, holy, holy,” and “Be Thou My Vision.” My then girlfriend, now wife, Martha, made me a handsome set of liturgical stoles. Good food was served. There were probably grape leaves.

There were no tongues of fire or other obvious signs and wonders, although the whole event was wondrous to me, and when the clergy laid their hands on me I felt an enormous weight, a feeling about ordination that has never entirely left me.

I got to my first parish in rural Maine and realized soon enough that I didn’t know what I was doing, and that feeling has never entirely left me either. My first congregations (I had two) taught me how to be a minister every bit as much as seminary, and I will always be grateful to them. God blessed me throughout my ministry with wonderful saints of the church who encouraged and sustained me, and put up with me even when I was acting like a damn fool.

Early in my ministry I refused all honoraria, and thereby offended nearly everyone that offered me one. I was shopping for clothes the week before my wedding, and the good Roman Catholic salesman at the haberdashery rang me up with a ten percent clergy discount. I tried to explain all the high-minded reasons I couldn’t accept it and watched his face fall. I called my mentor Fred Robie, the sage of Sanford, who simply said, “My Daddy taught me that when someone gives you something, you say ‘thank you.’” Lesson learned. Would that everything I needed to learn was that simple.

What else did I learn?

  • I learned that a wedding rehearsal is the meeting of two clans, and that at any moment violence might break out.
  • I learned that a pastor needs a tender heart, but a thick skin.
  • I learned that when you are relating to broken people some of their brokenness may get aimed at you. I learned that you aren’t supposed to take this personally, although I invariably did.
  • I learned that the faithful aren’t much impressed by the BEM document, especially if you want to move around the furniture in the chancel.
  • I learned that for some folks it’s not the height, depth, or breadth of a sermon that is decisive, but its length.
  • I learned that exercising discipline around baptism involves water, and lots of it is hot.
  • I learned that what I said in the pulpit and what people heard were not necessarily the same.
  • I learned that sometimes peoples lives were moved and even changed by what they heard even when it wasn’t what I said.
  • I learned to love some difficult people.
  • I learned that around pledging time Chicken Little competes with Jesus Christ as head of the church.
  • I learned that we clergy preach salvation by grace to the people, but act as if it were by works for us.
  • I learned that it is a high privilege to spend time with dying people.
  • I learned that struggling with a text all week, and then breaking it open for the congregation on Sunday sometimes felt like the best job in the world. And sometimes it didn’t.
  • I learned that God is good all the time.

Like everyone else I had my good days and my bad days. And like any moderately self-aware person who prays I know my failings better than anyone except God (and perhaps Martha). But I learned it really is all about grace. I am proud (in a good way) to have been a minister.

“Prepare Three Envelopes:” A Parable about Pastoral Ministry

In a certain city there lived a young pastor who was starting her first day at her first solo pastorate. She had met the staff, put all her books on the shelves, and was arranging her desk when a curious thing happened. She opened the desk drawer, and there were three sealed envelopes, numbered one, two, and three, encircled with a rubber band, and with a note attached.

She eagerly unfolded the note, and this is what it said: “Dear Successor. Welcome to the Old Church on the Green. When I arrived here many years ago I found three envelopes in my desk as you just have. They were from my predecessor and his note told me to open each of them in turn whenever I found myself in difficulty in the parish. This was very helpful to me, so I am providing you with three numbered envelopes to open when you need them. Blessings on your ministry. Your Predecessor.”

She didn’t know what to make of this, but soon forgot about the envelopes amidst the whirlwind of starting a new ministry, meeting new people, putting names with faces, in the general excitement and anxiety of the first months. And truth to tell, she had a joyful honeymoon period where she learned to love the congregation and they learned to love her, and everybody was very happy and content.

But in the fullness of time some discontents could be discerned among the faithful. Well-meaning advisors came to her to tell her things they had heard, not that they felt that way, but others did. None of the complaints were major, but they ate at her morale. Some said she had annoying mannerisms in the pulpit, that she was never in the office, that she didn’t do enough pastoral visitation, that she had been seen coming out of a yoga class during the daytime when honest hard-working people are at their jobs.

All these things got her down, and one day she spotted the forgotten envelopes in her desk drawer. She wondered if she should open the first one, and after some struggling and prayer about it, she did so. Inside was a single sheet of paper and on it were the words: “Blame your predecessor.”

She had once taken interim ministry training so she knew how to do this and immediately put the strategy into play. She told her boards and committee that congregations were really dysfunctional family systems and the dysfunction was caused by the former pastor. They all nodded their heads and agreed to be healthier, and they forgot all about their complaints against her, since it is always easier to judge someone that isn’t around. And once again everybody was happy and content.

There came a time, however, when new discontents emerged. The economy went South, pledges were down, fuel cost were up, the endowment which many worshipped had taken a hit, new members were slow to arrive to help pay the bills. She was no longer the new pastor, and there were hints and rumors that a different kind of a leader might fix the problems. She didn’t know what to do. She tried everything she could think of. She went to a centering prayer workshop, she got a Day-Timer, and she attended the Alban Institute conference called “When your Job Sucks.” But none of it seemed to help, so one day, after much struggle and prayer, she opened the second envelope. Once again it was a single sheet of paper and on it were the words: “Reorganize.”

So she convinced her board to create a long-term planning committee, write a new mission statement, and re-write the by-laws. And everybody got very busy, and worked hard together, and there wasn’t enough energy left to complain, and the church thrived for many seasons, and everybody in the congregation felt proud of themselves for having such a well-organized church and such a clever pastor. And, once again, everybody was happy and content.

By this time our pastor was frankly getting a little bored, and not a little burned-out, and wondered just how long she could put out the energy it was taking to keep such a well-organized church going. And her soul was disquited within her.

Once again she tried everything she could think of. She joined a pastor’s support group, she went on a Conference Committee on pastoral excellence, she bought herself a smart-phone and started a blog. But none of it seemed to help, so finally one day in desperation she went to her desk drawer and she opened the third envelope. Once again inside was a single sheet of paper and on it were the words: “Prepare three envelopes.”