A great many clergy colleagues in the US are linking to the NY Times op-ed piece on why clergy are burning out. I’m partly sympathetic to the case Jeffrey MacDonald makes; he alleges that congregations want their clergy to be entertainers and cheerleaders more than genuine pastors (it is greatly to MacDonald’s credit that he doesn’t claim the much-abused designation of “prophet”).
Yes, sort of, but an array of linked problems and influences have wrought the present discontent. I’ll oversimplify in identifying these — it’s time for me to cook dinner — but I’ll make the effort anyway.
First, the resistance to “clericalism” in the States effected several related baneful reactions. Once it became conventional wisdom that clergy were not vaguely superhuman angelic beings who deserve special treatment by virtue of their sanctity, many people hopped directly to an opposite point of view: that anybody whatsoever should have an equal say on any ecclesiastical topic, regardless of the depth of their familiarity with the nuances of theological or ecclesiastical knowledge. While it’s OK to laud a specialist or scholar who advocates your point of view, woe to the clergy leader, or scholar, or well-trained layperson from some other side. Any unwelcome appeal to depth may be denounced as authoritarian; any unwelcome appeal to authority may be denounced as tyrannical.
Likewise, clergy who knew that the old “yes, Father” model was corrupt rushed to assert their ordinariness. There’s nothing special about ordination, they assure people; we’re just one of the gang. This both denies the basis for a theology of calling and trivialises the training that the seminarian/divinity student-cum-minister has just devoted a great deal of time and money to pursuing. Both these reasons tend to undermine the standing of the minister relative to the congregation. If she’s just one of the gang, and the rest of the gang wants levity and feel-good nostrums, then who is she to oppose us? If his training doesn’t equip him distinctively to lead the church’s deliberations, why listen to him at all?
And since the familiar basis for clerical leadership was crumbling, ministers sought other warrants to shore up the basis for their congregational role. They were uniquely prepared to be leaders, or they were better at small office management, or they were more spiritual, or they were more welcoming (or personally attractive). All of these can certainly be good characteristics for a clergy leader — no question about it. But they don’t speak to the role of the ordained minister in the congregation. Any congregation might have a couple dozen business or civic leaders, managers, prayerfully meditative faithful, or congenial hosts, or magnetic personalities. It’s good if the clergyperson brings those qualities to their vocation, but they don’t constitute the vocation.
Add to that the power of consumer ideology (which MacDonald does mention), the idolatrous veneration of success, and a general cultural mistrust of the veracity of anything theological, and the stage is set for clergy to enter an ill-defined role with no institutional backing subject to capricious demands from decreasingly well-informed congregations (since clergy who partook of trivialised education are less well-prepared and very much less inclined to imagine that knowing something about the faith in any way contributes to the well-being of the church) — and now you really do have a recipe for failure. But it’s not the clergy’s failure alone; it’s the systemic failure of a malnourished, obdurate patient who refuses to acknowledge the value of cutting down on junk food, quitting addictions, getting regular exercise, and learning to understand the how the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth. And as the churches manifest less and less interest in respecting excellence in leadership, leaders with a commitment to ecclesiastical excellence will be rarer. And as churches treat their leaders as less and less special people (not “special” because of a mystified clericalism, but special because they’re well-prepared, hard-working servants at an exhausting, demanding, under-rewarded job), the expectation that clergy will nonetheless charm, impress, guide, and delight their congregations will take an ever-increasing toll on those who venture into ministry.
The churches need excellence in ministry — but without any shared, clear idea of what that is, or how it develops from the shared practices and identity of centuries of predecessors, both clergy and congregations risk flopping from one guess to another, one casual preference or faddish enthusiasm to another; and few congregations or clergy will attain excellence apart from by sheer luck or providential blessing. The taproot of excellence — serious, perhaps even arduous preparation and understanding, such that a certain degree of authority is earned and acknowledged — has been hacked away. The medicine tastes bad, so the patient would rather just dwindle and wheeze and watch TV.
(Please note — I’m not saying this describes every congregation, leader, minister, congregant, congregation, denomination, or whatever. There are situations in which deep-rooted theological, ecclesiastical wisdom governs bodies of the faithful. But I doubt the NY Times was describing those situations, either.)