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:

The Ministry and its Discontents: Pastors in Peril

I know a lot of ministers.   That might seem like a statement of the obvious coming from one who has been a minister for over thirty years, but I know even more ministers than you might think. For one thing, I was a seminary chaplain for several years and all my former students are ministers.  And I had three sabbaticals in British universities where ministers were being trained.  And I was in a D.Min. degree program where all my classmates were ministers.  Add it up and it is a lot of ministers!

And since early in my ministry I have been asking them to put me on their church newsletter mailing list, and a number of them have.  Many of those have converted to e-letters lately, but still, I get a pretty steady stream of newsletters from congregations, and it is fun to see what my ministerial friends are up to.

Except when it isn’t fun, and that seems to be happening more and more lately.  I will grab and read a newsletter and immediately start noticing little hints of trouble.  I then typically say to my wife, “Uh oh.  So and so is having a disturbance in the Force in his or her congregation!”

Now I recognize that the ministry has always been a perilous profession.  I recently read George Marsden’s fine biography of Jonathan Edwards, and was reminded that Edwards was handed his walking papers in Northampton before he came over here to the Berkshires.  This is the same Edwards that not too many years before had been the toast of the Reformed world for his participation in and reporting of the awakenings in New England.  So it can happen to even the best and the brightest (and as in Edwards case, the wounds are often at least partly self-inflicted.)

So pastors in peril are nothing new, but I have been noticing a discouraging pattern in my newsletter reading lately.  And I must interject here that I have known lazy and incompetent ministers, and others who were just in over their heads, but that is not what I am talking about here.  Several of my friends who are smart, wise, bright, hard-working and faithful have suddenly found themselves in peril.

Typically it starts with some sort of a parish self-study or pastoral assessment.  That should be harmless enough, right?  Who can be against transparency and accountability?  But my heart sinks when I read in the newsletter about the formation of such a group, because sure enough, when the results come in there are “concerns” about the pastor, and a special committee is created to “address the concerns.”  The newsletters typically report such grave findings in a kind of code, but you don’t have to be a genius to read between the lines

So “steps are put in place” to address the concerns.  The committee may or may not be led by a sympathetic leader but it doesn’t really matter that much because the process itself has a certain trajectory.   If there is a lay “antagonist” in the congregation he or she (or they) will certainly find a way to get involved.

There soon follows what I call “leadership death by a thousand cuts.” The ministry is quantified by every measure, by hours spent, by visits made, by hours in the office.  Careful time logs are kept.  Business expenses are microscopically scrutinized.

At this point the healthy trusting covenantal relationship between pastor and people has been replaced by a suspicious contractual arrangement that will almost inevitably end in mutual blame and bitterness.  Some pastors will buckle under and keep their “job,” others will devise an exit strategy; one of my good friends just left the ministry, to the church’s loss.

Here are some observations and thoughts from my ruminations on this trend.

1. The roles and assumptions behind this scenario betray a flawed understanding of the church and its ministry. First of all, an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament is not an employee of the church.  Ministers work in the church and with the church but not for the church.  Ministers are not hired, they are called, and nothing betrays the flawed ecclesiology behind pastors in peril as much as the contractual language of  the modern corporation that is frequently employed.  “We pay your salary, you work for us.”  And behind that view is the idea that the minister’s “job” is to do the work of the congregation, and the laity’s “job” is to oversee that work, which is quite the reverse of the minister providing leadership to the laity to let them be the church of Christ in their community.

2. When the congregation understands its mission as the maintenance of its own institutional life, the pastor’s role is to be the general factotum who facilitates that life.  The flawed model here is that the church is to be a chapel to the culture, which is a Constantinian model left over from a Christian society.  This is why the place where pastors are most in peril is in “tall steeple” churches that by virtue of their social and economic location have been able to pretend that the Constantinian church is still alive and well.

3. But the truth is that that model of church is not alive and well, and the current recession has hit even prosperous congregations hard enough to expose the institutional weakness of a church that needs big infusions of cash to maintain its place as the chapel to culture.  When the numbers (members and money) slump, than the lay leadership turns to corporate models to remedy decline, ie. change the CEO.  Or at least demand better numbers (“metrics”) soon if the relationship is to continue.

4. To meet the new expectation of better numbers the imperiled pastor must show vigorous signs of improvement that are quantifiable.  More visibilty in the community, more calls and visits, recruitment (not evangelism) to get more members to come and help prop up the sagging finances.  But “what profiteth a man if he gains the numbers and loses his soul?”  By ramping up an already frenetic pace to show results the pastor is depriving himself or herself of what is really needed in the situation, which is holy imagination.  I would argue that more time in the study and at prayer would be better use of the pastor’s time than more energetic involvement in what P.T. Forsyth once called “the sin of bustle.”

5. An ill-conceived pastoral evaluation will almost certainly bring out some discontents among the congregation.  These discontents may be based on the minister’s real or imagined failings or they may result from a variety of mutually exclusive understandings of the pastor’s role.  Clarity about that role, and about  the congregation’s mission, will help avoid such situations.  I once heard Roy Owald of the Alban Institute say a pastor should never be evaluated apart from an evaluation of the congregation.  That sounds wise to me.  And the dreaded congregatonal questionnaire evaluation should be avoided at all costs.  Oswald suggests that both pastor and congregation ask each other, “What do you need more of from me, and what do you need less of?”  This mitigates the adversarial tone of the evaluation processes.

6. The rigors of pastoral evaluations are the final proof that even though pastors may preach salvation by faith they are often held to a standard of salvation by works.  This is yet another triumph of law over Gospel.

7. Finally, the church of Jesus Christ is not a religious club.  Its mission and ministry is Christ’s own, which is the reconciliation of humanity to God and to one another.  Christ has already accomplished that work of holy love in his atoning cross, and so, to quote Forsyth again, it doesn’t have to be “produced so much as introduced.”

Like Christ, his church does not live for itself.  A congregation that understands that will no longer focus on its own institutional life, but reach out of its walls to embody Christ in its community and the world.  The pastor’s role is to help them do that through Word and sacrament and visionary leadership.  The good pastor sows and waters, feeds and encourages.  If the congregation demands that he or she just run errands for them they will dampen the pastor’s morale and distract both the pastor and themselves from their true and glorious vocation to be the church.  And whenever that happens it is a shame, and will please no one but the devil.