Carol Howard Merritt’s recent piece on What Causes Pastors to Burnout? concludes with a sobering challenge: ‘It is clear’, she writes, ‘that we cannot continue to train so many people and have them leaving the profession after a couple of years’. And then she asks: ‘So can we begin to imagine churches in which pastors can flourish? How can we communicate these problems to our congregations? What can we do for pastors who are starting out that might ease some of these tensions? What do you wish someone had done for you?’
I recently posed these questions to a group of fellow Presbyterian ministers here in Aotearoa New Zealand. They spoke of churches having a ‘Christendom mindset, rather than a missional one’, of the need for better leadership development, of the benefit of team ministry and of the indispensability of collegiality, of not taking oneself too seriously and remembering that ‘ministry is not all about you and what you do, but about who God is and what God is doing in Christ’, about having a realistic sense of the time and of the times we live in, about the fact that ‘ministry is not at people but with people’, and about why conflict with, and grumbles about, others and ‘the church’ often escalate because of a leader’s ‘trying to bully people into something different rather than working alongside, building trust, and finding a way ahead that is appropriate for the people of that place and time’, and that ‘too often ministers (and sometimes the people) embark on a totally unrealistic set of expectations’. Others spoke of the need for time out, of study leave provisions fostering learning, reflection and refreshment in ministry, and of the requirement for professional supervision which ‘provides a useful context in which to reflect and if need be to vent off some of the pressures and experiences we have in ministry’. There was also the suggestion that there might be value in gathering ministers together in order to reflect together on ministry: ‘I wonder if a facilitated discussion might be a useful way to give us an insight into wider ministry and to identify common difficulties and challenges. Perhaps a small investment in this may be a real value to people in ministry and help avoid the personal loss they and their families feel, and the cost to the wider church of people leaving ministry because of burnout’. This latter point picks up on something else that I’ve been giving some brainstorming energy to of late; namely, the desirability of developing regional or presbytery-based workshops (say 3 times/year) for re-fuelling teaching/ruling elders and other leaders via facilitated discussions which address pastoral, theological, devotional and missiological topics and upskilling. I saw this work with much benefit in Victoria where the Baptist Union ran semi-regular Rev Up! seminars, and wherein the real value (as I saw it) was in the way the gatherings sponsored a stronger sense of community and mutual accountability in the church (and clergy) family, and discouraged the professional isolation, burnout, disconnectness, and what we might call a lack of stimulation or imagination in pastoral ministry. It also was concerned to encourage an increase in theological literacy among church leaders. All around copious amounts of good coffee and fresh muffins.
But I digress. One of the ministry interns that I have the privilege of teaching and learning from also weighed in on the conversation. He was concerned particularly with a quote that appeared in another piece that I had drawn attention to – Paul Vitello’s article ‘Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work’, which ran in The New York Times. This intern was particularly concerned with Vitello’s claim that pastors ‘tend to be driven by a sense of a duty to God to answer every call for help from anybody, and they are virtually called upon all the time, 24/7’. It is the sense of ‘call’, here secularised as ‘duty’, that grabbed his attention: ‘That word [call], I’m sure, has been central to all of us as we wrestle with what it means to be a minister of Word and Sacrament. My experience so far in my internship placement is that while a slightly nebulous understanding of call is spoken about with regards to ministers, members of my congregation at least do not associate that word with their own journeys. Rather they speak often about their Christian duty (and that of others). Now, I’m not meaning to suggest that “call” and “duty” are mutually exclusive concepts, but I do wonder how much a sense of the call of God to all believers (ministers included) is replaced with a sense of individual duty where the roles of clergy and laity are qualitatively and quantitatively different’. Another suggested that Vitello moves ‘much too easily from the disputed and diverse causes of the problem to the very individualistic solution of “time out”‘, and that ‘often the pragmatic solution is the way to avoid the broader issues which surround the whole institution of ordination and the perspective on the world assumed by it’. These fellow ministers are onto something really important here; something that I think that Hauerwas too may be able to help us with (this recent address is just one example), and to which I hope to return to in a later post.
According to Brad Greenberg, ‘Part of the problem … stems from the fact that once a pastor has invested in his or her career, it’s exceptionally difficult to make a career change when burnout occurs. You don’t have to believe the law is just to be a high-earning attorney. But when a pastor’s faith slips, there really isn’t anywhere for them to turn’. By the way, Rowland Croucher has a helpful piece on Stress and Burnout in Ministry that’s worth checking out.
Another minister shared some findings from his own research on this topic undertaken a few years ago which suggested that there is a high likelihood of burnout when (i) the workload doesn’t meet the expectation/capability; (ii) there is a lack of reward (not just financial); (iii) there is a lack of control and autonomy; and (iv) there is a loss of a sense of community. Also, iIn her study leave project, ‘Ministry unplugged and restrung: Making time a sacrament – interior practice for ministry in the world’, Diane Gilliam-Weeks, a Presbyterian minister, argued that unless we build sound spiritual disciplines into our expectation of ministry then church leaders will continue to collapse under the pressure that these disciplines were given to combat: ‘The disciplined practice of contemplative prayer provides not only opportunity for increased intimacy with God, but daily time and space in an attitude of consent and surrender in which to rest, refocus and recharge batteries while God works on us’. She continues:
‘I observe that many of my brothers and sisters in ministry continue to be unknowingly driven, not by the model of Jesus who frequently went off by himself to a quiet place, but by cultural and familial programmes for approval and security. Consequently many feel haggard and victimised by the considerable demands of ministry and some are forced to take time off to recover from burn out or leave ministry in despair and disappointment.
Today our theological and ministry formation in the PCANZ is in my view outstanding. However, it’s my observation that while our ministers have a well integrated intellectual appreciation of the faith, they may lack the disciplines for developing an ever deeper intimacy with God that transforms the whole person. They have little or no familiarity with what the ancient church used to call ‘the three Vias’. [via purgativa, via illuminativa, and via unitiva.]
This is why I’ve come to the conclusion that any curriculum for ministry formation which does not have a place for the history and practice of contemplative prayer is incomplete and inadequate’.
Other posts in this series:
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part I
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part II
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part III
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part IV
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part VI
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part VII
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part VIII
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part IX
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part X
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XI
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XII
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XIII
- On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XIV