Burning Out

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.)


14 thoughts on “Burning Out

  1. For years burnout has been a problem in the “German Evangelical Free Church” – community. My Pastor holds seminars once in a while on the subject and it is something that we try to guard against. At times I’ve attributed it to the “willow creek” mindset withing the evangelical movement, which heightens the expectation of church-goers to be “entertained.” Now, I’m wondering if there is a broader cause. I surmise that the expectations on Pastors and/or Clergy is something of a phenomenon in western culture as a whole.

  2. My opinion as a layman should probably count for little on this topic, but I would be surprised if clergy burnout isn’t directly related to the therapeutic model of church so prevalent over the last generation or so. Church attenders are often encouraged to think that church is the place to bring their troubles and to find healing of some sort. My impression is that today’s pastors spend a LOT of time counseling people through their difficulties (in addition to visiting the sick and dying).

    I don’t want to say those are bad things at all, but I would think that they would be taxing after a while.

    Obviously any other problems within a particular church (dissension over worship style, etc.) are also going to be taxing as well.

  3. Well said. I tend to think, however, two additional matters contribute to burn-out. The first, most would agree with – would ‘ability to stay joined to the source’ say it? I didn’t want to say ‘relationship’ because, too often, that says now something it should not. People who do not stay where the ‘living waters refresh’ burn out. Period. (I know. Life is complicated.)

    The other, perhaps is not so easily said in Anglican/Episcopal corners…that the Adversary has a special eye on clergy & that they live daily under a vastly coordinated attack plan. Singled out, as it were…(I know. We don’t believe in such things any more.)

    Now then. What did you cook for supper??

  4. Alas, I took the easy way out and made chips and burgers. I stocked up on ingredients for curry, but by the time I was done writing I didn’t want to protract the cooking process. I’ll make curry tomorrow night after I invigilate a resit in the afternoon.
    Relative to your two further reasons, I expect both are spot-on. Whereas clergy were formerly expected to spend much time in prayer, now many congregations would not regard that as what they were paying for. When people agonise about the amount of time that churches stand idle, they usually propose that other sorts of meetings and events use the space — rather than imagining that the church actually hold more frequent services (for instance).
    Relative to the second point, I do not question your assertion, but since it lies outwith our capacity to measure or control, and since many would dispute it, it seemed unproductive to introduce it into my argument.

  5. The other day I heard a talk by a lay Catholic who studied for the priesthood in Rome, but became a teacher instead of a cleric. He made a point that many in the audience related to: that Catholicism somewhere along the way decided that infantilization was the appropriate means of teaching the faithful. “At 13, you’re confirmed, and you’re done,” – done learning, discovering, engaging intellectually with the very thing you say is the peculiar identifier of the cleric – the teaching and traditions of the faith.

    As I and others who attended my Jesuit high school can attest, four years of “theology” meant arts and crafts and dumbed down sociology at the level of Barney (the purple one). I suppose there might be some intellectual exchange at certain universities, but it seems alien to religious services in my experience. It’s as if the Church at a certain point simply allowed the possibility of mature theological communication with the laity to go dormant.

    The fellow giving the talk suggested that Protestantism (at least in certain parts of the spectrum) is quite different – the emphasis is upon reflective and dialogic engagement, rather than upon a checklist of sacramental steps.

    I don’t mean to demean the Catholic clergy, which has many ardent and extraordinary members. It just seems that if you wish to tie the particular specialness of the profession to the preparation for dialog, teaching, interpretive work, and more, it seems the Catholics had moved away from that well before the massive USian consumer ideology had anything like the hold it enjoys today. The distinguishing features of your Protestant clergy might be indistinguishable for many Catholic semblables.

  6. Well said, indeed. As an NSM, I’m not subjected to these pressures to the same degree, but I do grieve for full-time colleagues, more than one of whom have been dangerously close to burn-out.

  7. Akma, do you think that the problem that you identify is part of a larger cultural trend of anti-intellectualism? I’m thinking of the frequent assertion that Americans often vote for the candidate they can imagine drinking a beer with rather than the candidate they think is intelligent and educated enough to find creative solutions to the problems we face.

    I will add, anecdotally, that I’ve certainly seen a good deal of this anti-intellectualism among clergy-in-training, and yet I’ve seen many clergy post-graduation think of themselves as very intellectual indeed, based on a few seminary courses that they resented taking at the time. What I have in turn resented is being talked down to by a few clergy who have less education than I do but who claim a sanctified ontological status based on their ordination — most annoying to the educated layperson. (Having now fled to a UCC congregation, I finally am hearing thoughtful, well-reasoned and well-written, meaningful sermons — a true pleasure — but of course my experience is a small sample size indeed!)

  8. Oops, I forgot to include my website in that last post — sorry about that. And sorry also if I seem cranky (I’m now eating dinner, which may help); I just have years of built-up resentment about shoddy sermons!

  9. First, the resistance to “clericalism” in the States effected several related baneful reactions.

    The most recent baneful reaction coming in a bar visit this past month. I was talking with a patron about church in general when he asked, “How can you justify taking money from people based on their own spiritual insecurities?” — maybe not verbatim, but close enough to get the idea across that he obviously thought clergy were yet another class of huckster.

  10. Paul Tillich wrote: “There are in Protestantism only laymen; the minister is a layman with a special function within the congregation…”

    I see in Tillich’s theology, and postmodernism in general, the germ of your additional point regarding clericalism missed by the NYT article. Thoughts?

  11. @What Now? — (I always hear Michael Feldman saying “WHAK-NOW” when I think of your Net-nym) — Oh, you bet I think it’s part of anti-intellectualism, and of antitheologism, too, if I may coin that neologism to point toward “resistance to thinking deeply about theological topics” as distinct from atheism or anti-Christianity. Antitheologism and anti-intellectualism have warm and capacious homes within the church, almost all churches of which I am aware (though some flavours of church do better than others).
    @Tom — the kind of derogation of thinking certainly inhabits Roman Catholicism as well as Protestantism. I remember a particular bishop who addressed the Catholic Biblical Association with a sermon that seemed both to try to prove he was able to play ball with the scholarly big kids and at the same time to defend the ideology that the most important things didn’t depend on deliberation or contemplation anyway. On the other hand, there subsists in hierarchical systems at least a vestigial sense that the leader ought to be a thoughtful and articulate spokesperson. I have encountered among my RC colleagues a greater sense that anti-intellectualism among pastors is to some extent counterbalanced by an appreciation of intellectual deliberation among the religious orders and in the infrastructure of the hierarchy. Bishop Anthony Fisher, O.P., has in a recent address said, “Some clergy talk of seminary studies as something they endured so as to get to do what really matters: pastoral work. I have heard seminarians brag proudly that they’ll never again open a book after their ordination day, let alone undertake a course of study. Hopefully they speak in jest or eventually discover their mind needs feeding. But no true Dominican could say such a thing.” I don’t hear as much of that pro-intellectual rhetoric among Protestants, alas.
    @Ref — And not just because word about you has gotten around the town? But indeed, clergy have been associated with hucksters since the days of Elmer Gantry and Bible salesmen, and now also with paedophilia. Thanks a lot, fallen colleagues — you’ve sure made it easier for the rest of us to do our jobs.
    @Daniel — Well, I try to tread delicately when I write about Protestant/Catholic issues online, lest someone miss the twinkle in my eye, and I hate to seem to agree with Tillich, but I do have some systemic objections to certain Protestant axioms. As to the “postmodernism” angle, I’ll simply note that in the exposition of postmodernism that I’ve been developing for the past (moan) twenty-plus years, the context-saturation of truth-claims involves the character and role of the speaker, which would include a speaker’s status as lay or ordained, as informed and articulate or as uninformed and folksy-ignorant.
    Overall, there is in many currents of Christian corporate life an “I’m-all-right-Jack,” low-ceiling, anti-intellectual, anti-deliberative ideology that corrupts the health and integrity of the body. That’s not a sustainable ecclesial way of life — and economising by slashing educational funding is no more coherent in church life than it is in civic life. If that makes someone feel bad cause they’re not apt at intellectual endeavours, I’m sorry. Leadership in the church is not reserved to intellectuals, it never has been — but much less can the church survive if it favours leaders who boast in their ignorance, and whose policies deliberately suppresses the pursuit of wisdom.

  12. I think that supernaturalism is simply no longer something that is important in our world. People still go to church because it is a cultural/social thing to do in the USA. In addition, people generally don’t listen to other people, so the idea that someone is going to go to church and then listen to someone tell them things about the supernatural, I think is just simply dead. Can you see the CEO or Google, or even a CPA sitting in a church listening to someone talking about the supernatural. What MUST go on inside their head has GOT to be… “and this sod gets paid to rant like this”. Supernaturalism is simply dead. So the idea of paying someone to be a supernatural specialist, is going to be low down on people’s list.

    Cheers! webulite.com

  13. Hi AKMA. You note that the issue of clergy burnout is quite complex. You might be interested in a feature article from the magazine of The Presbyterian Church in Canada from February 2009 which was responding to a study on mental health issues in Canadian clergy (see http://www.presbyterianrecord.ca/2009/02/01/breaking-the-silence/ ) Basically it argues that the incredible high incidence of mental illnesses such as depression among ministers (compared to the Canadian population as a whole) comes from a confluence of congregational expectation, institutional culture, and what ministers think their vocation entails from week to week (very few days off, expectation of strength, etc.). It also implies that few resources (financial or theological) have been dedicated to the problem. There are many implications of the article worth thinking about, one important one (at least to me) being reflection upon whether theological colleges and seminaries and any institution seeking to train clergy have addressed this issue. Has anyone?

    Much of your reflections on this topic, though, point to ecclesiological problems gnawing away at vocational endeavours. My first teacher of systematic theology, in a lecture entitled ‘The Treason of the Clerics’, reasoned that a good deal of present vocational confusion in mainline Protestant churches comes from the way that they measure success–by the number of congregants and the size of the budget rather than by the much harder to measure idea of how a community struggles with the meaning of the gospel for the lives of people in a particular place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *