On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part V

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:


  1. Our parish has a Safe Ministry Rep. (a retired psychologist/school counsellor) who has run sessions for parishioners/minister which I personally (as a parishioner who teaches scripture) have found enlightening. Our minister said at one of these sessions “I don’t want to be on a pedestal. Don’t put me there”. And the vast majority of us don’t – I hope we are sensitive that he has just as many problems as we do and we try to support him as he supports us. I think showing parishioners your vulnerability is a sign of strength.


  2. Thanks for the series to date, Jason. But I wonder. I wonder if all these concerns and studies about ministerial stress aren’t both overdetermined and missing the main theological point, though some, to be sure, have targeted it, viz. vocation. The problem, as I see it, isn’t stress. Woe unto the minister who isn’t stressed! The issue is what you are stressed about. I suspect that many ministers actually allow the stress of “the job” to displace the one stress needful, the stress of the burden of bearing the gospel (with the double-meaning of the word “burden”), almost as a defence mechanism, because the former actually gives them a breather from the latter. Barth called grace “the axe laid at the root of the good conscience”; the gospel is surely also the axe laid at the root of the mentally and emotionally balanced minister. Rowan Williams observes that “the most central and disturbing and genuinely theological question we could ask [is], ‘How do I know it’s God I’m talking about?'” Let us be afflicted and haunted by that question and the peace – and joy – of God will sustain us in the rest. And if we need any case studies to demonstrate the point, how about the driven figure of Jesus and the hunted figure of Paul?

    Finally, two things on a personal note. (1) When I get stressed out about church life, I read Paul’s Corinthian correspondednce (Barth referred to “that long-drawn-out harassed groan, which is the Second Epistle to the Corinthians”): it puts my stress into a helluva perspective. And finally (2): In my copy of Barth’s Romans, on p. 448, there is a date in the margin – 2/10/77 – and a sentence underlined: “The theme of the clergy is the disturbance which has been prepared by God for men, and the promise which he has given them.” If there was a moment and meaning in my own sense of vocation, that’s it. I have never expected ministry to have a “Miller time”; I have always expected ministry to be a relentless Royal pain in the ass. Only an idiot would be a minister.


  3. Oh – I forgot to add a name you’ll appreciate in this context: Donald MacKinnon. Why should we expect ministry to be without an inexorably tragic dimension? Tragedies end with bodies all over the stage.


  4. Ah Kim. Thank you so very much for your comments. You have anticipated a place to which I am (eventually) heading in this series of posts. There’s still a few to come. ‘Only an idiot would be a minister’: Praise God for fools!


  5. Perhaps alongside the Kids Friendly programme the Presbyterians have in many of their churches throughout NZ, we could have a Ministers Friendly program too? :)


  6. 28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ Matt. 11:28-30

    Perhaps even ministers too?


  7. “Only an idiot would be a minister.” “Praise God for fools”. Imagine other professions navel-gazing in that way! A bit self-indulgent I think.


  8. And I have something else to say. I made a comment yesterday but wasn’t replied to – I guess because I’m just a parishioner, that unimportant person in parish ministry. Or maybe my comments aren’t intellectual enough. Whatever. I’m glad Jesus gave recognition to ‘little people’.


  9. I think, Pam, the silence probably indicates consent. I am absolutely sure it is not meant as a snub. As for your comment about self-indulgence, in one sense, ironically, that’s precisely my point.


  10. I’ve only just read these responses Pam, so can’t be guilty of ignoring you. I think Jesus understood the tendancy of pedastalling very well, for he not only condemned religious leaders for taking prime place, he also warned the ‘parishioners’ to ‘call no one father’. In my view this is part and parcel of Jesus eschatological calling. It is part of the social dynamic of our fallenness that we create idols and scapegoats of those we call ‘leaders’. To look for a community without pedastals is to look forward to the kingdom of god where the lamb is redefining the throne. What signs we see are a source of great hope.
    I am one of those ministers who hates being thought of as a professional.


  11. Thanks for your comments Kim… They make me think that the two S-words need to be treated similarly. Whether safety is a priority and whether stress is to be avoided both depend on what we want to be safe from and what we want to be stressed about.


  12. Is Jason not able to speak for himself? I think it is a dangerous assumption to think that “silence means consent” (in any number of situations). I also believe honesty and respect for each other is important in any pastoral relationship – high ideals but worth fighting for. I know I respect absolutely the autonomy of the children I teach, I don’t always get it right but they are precious to me. As for Bruce’s comment “I am one of those ministers who hates being thought of as a professional” – I’m afraid that luxury may not be possible. The behaviour of some Catholic clergy (and leadership) toward their flock removed a lot of illusions.


  13. Pam, bear in mind Jason probably doesn’t check his blog everyday so replies may take a while, and your comment wasn’t really opening up debate but giving a verdict so he may not have felt the need to reply, he may even have agreed, personally I think many pastors could do with being more self aware, but then so could everyone else, if that necessitates some navel gazing, so be it! :-)


  14. Thoughtful Jonathan – “Jason probably doesn’t check his blog everyday” – yet he has posted since my comment, and replied to the comment after mine. And I can only look forward to a reply when I “open up debate” rather than “giving a verdict”. Thanks for the tip. Sometimes, situations have undercurrents that you don’t know about Jonathan – happy navel gazing!!


  15. Pam, If illusions are present they should be removed. I’m all for disillusionment. It seems to me that illusions are, in part the product of the notion of professional. Professional denotes a ‘class’ structure. If professional merely meant having ethical standards, or behaving as a Christian i would be all for it. There may be a class structure and ‘power issues’ that I should not be naive about. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t reject them and fight against them.


  16. Thanks for your comment(s) Pam (and others). I don’t feel it necessary to reply to every comment. Some comments should just be allowed to stand. Others invite me to wait a while and give space for other readers to weigh in. Some others should be, and sometimes are, simply deleted. I thought that your initial comment landed somewhere between category 1 and 2. If you’re seeking a reply, mine would simply concern your last sentence; namely that ‘I think showing parishioners your vulnerability is a sign of strength’. While this may at times be true, my observation would not generally support such a claim. It may simply be a sign of immature and self-centred attention seeking. Either way, we ought be concerned that whatever the circumstances, they serve to advance the gospel (Phil 1:12), that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached (1:18) and that the ‘progress and joy in the faith’ of all the people is advanced (1:25).


  17. Well, thank you Bruce & Jason for your replies. I can assure you this scenario will not happen again. I look at the pastoral relationship with my minister from a different perspective than both of you. When our (Anglican) minister left our parish recently after nine years with us, and there were tears from him during his final service with us (and tears from us), it didn’t cross my mind he was showing “a sign of immature and self-centred attention seeking”. Interesting your reference to Philippians – a friend made me a quilt a couple of years ago and on the back of the quilt is a reference to Phil. 4:4-9. btw, glad I landed somewhere between category 1 and 2.


  18. Regarding exposing one’s weaknesses to one’s parishioners, Bonhoeffer writes, ‘The pastor should not–out of a misguided idea of solidarity–speak about personal unworthiness or sin. As a rule this is not helpful for the other person. By doing this, we interpose ourselves and our own problems between the other person and Christ. It could also be an evasion of the mission of spiritual care… The office of spiritual care does not exist to declare solidarity but to listen and to proclaim the gospel. Proper distance helps establish proper closeness’ (Spiritual Care, p. 37).

    I’ve been tempted — and I think that’s the right word — to believe my credibility and effectiveness as a minister depends upon having my care, my solidarity, felt and so believed by those I’m caring for. Bonhoeffer helped me understand as important as sympathy and solidarity might be, they are not the ground of pastoral credibility; after all, it isn’t me they need to believe! All of this needs nuancing, of course, but I thought it a point worth raising, nonetheless.


  19. Liked what you said Chris. But – I’d like a pastor who is deeply motivated by and struggling with a sense of the sacredness and mystery of people and of existence. A tall order.


Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.