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’.


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On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part IV

Andrew Irvine’s book Between Two Worlds: Understanding and Managing Clergy Stress (London: Mowbray, 1997) is a helpful study on a number of fronts. As the book’s title suggests, Irvine argues that ‘often behind the “masks” of office hides a person caught in two worlds between the authenticity of personhood and the role and expectation of office’. He asks, ‘With whom can this tension be shared? To whom can the inner doubts, fears and even “sins” be disclosed? Are others, whose masks seem more authentic than ours, invaded by these same realities in their lives?’ (p. xiii). The book examines the personal world of pastors and the factors which contribute to a ‘profession fraught with tension and subject to excess stress’ (p. xiii).

Irvine begins, in the first chapter, by identifying and discussing some of the biblical, historical, societal, and personal factors that shape the foundation for pastoral ministry before turning, in Chapter Two, to discuss both the positive and negative, and internal and external, features of stress. Among the internal features he names ‘success issues’, ‘sexuality’, ‘guilt’, ‘perfectionism’, ‘theological issues’, ‘identity issues’ and ‘authority dynamics’. I found his observations on the last two in this list, in particular, to be the most significant.

Irvine, who completed his PhD dissertation on ‘Isolation and Pastoral Ministry’ (St Andrews, Unpublished, 1984), had already hinted at the magnitude of identity in his Introduction where he noted that often, caught up in the trappings of office, it is the minister who, forgetting his/her own humanity, imposes the stress of non-being. And here he draws on the work of Carl Jung, who in two articles on the ego, warns of ‘the danger of over-identification with the “role” of an office and, in that act, the forgetting of the identity of the total self with all the intrinsic value of the inner person’ (p. xii). Later on, Irvine cites again from Jung’s well-known 1953 essay ‘The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious’ (published in Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Collected Works 7; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul), recalling how, for Jung, an individual can become trapped behind mask of a persona and thereby ‘takes a name, earns a title, represents an office, he is this or that’ (Jung, p. 156, para. 246). In other words, there is the danger of one’s identity becoming to greater or lesser degree ‘synonymous with the “role” of office, from which many cannot escape. In all functions of life, at least those visible to the outside observer, the clergy may be “Reverend So-and-So” or “the minister at Saint James”, the “woman minister from St David’s”, and so on’ (p. 28). In support, Irvine cites from psychiatrist Robert McAllister who, in 1965, penned the following observation:

The clergyman seems to me to be constantly involved in his environment in a way that does not characterize any other profession or vocation. He develops an overworked sense of identity with his clerical role. He cannot be anything but a clergyman at anytime, whether he is on vacation or at work or in the privacy of his room. A physician, a lawyer, a bricklayer, a carpenter … can be something else, can get completely away from his profession or trade.

And Irvine suggests that the problem ‘is even greater for the spouse of the clergyperson who becomes a second-string description, “the husband/wife of the/our minister”’ (p. 28). He continues: ‘All of this raises a multiplicity of questions of identity for the clergy. Not least of these questions is how the individual, that person behind the mask/persona, can find true relationship which nurtures and strengthens. In the loss of personal identity which occurs when relationship is predominantly based on office or role there is the anxiety of unfulfilment and the inner self becomes starved for healthy depth interaction. A false identity is established based on role, where in desperation the individual seeks fulfilment and relationship. Not only is the stress of loss of personal identity great in itself, but it disallows opportunity to alleviate pressure through expression of inner need, desires, doubts and fears’ (p. 28).

On the related-matter of authority dynamics (relating to issues of control and loss), Irvine notes that ‘this is not an easy question to address with clergy, for pietism looks unfavourably on such things in ministry’ (p. 29). He confesses that the desire for power and authority is a part, if not a controlling aspect, of our make-up, and that the milieu of the Church does not guarantee an exception to this. The question of authority – and its loss – is especially pressing, he writes, ‘in a world where more and more people are highly educated’ and where ‘a greater responsibility for decision making is encouraged in the workplace and a more “businesslike” way of doing things has evaded and in some cases replaced the “spiritual” procedures of the past’ (p. 29).

These all constitute what Irvine calls ‘internal features of stress’. The mirror side – the ‘external features of stress’ – are also named: ‘personal space’, ‘societal pressures’, ‘relational dynamics’, ‘colleague dynamics’, ‘vocational demands’, ‘family issues’ and ‘theological issues’. Concerning the latter, I shall say more in later posts. But here I wish to draw attention to what Irvine says about ‘vocational demands’. Irvine notes that it seems as though pastors  are particularly at risk of over-identification with the tasks of ministry which mean that life’s stresses converge with vocational stresses and the all-consuming tasks of ministry. When this occurs, the issues of family, societal demands and other personal requirements intersect and may become ‘overshadowed by the factors of vocation’ (p. 35). He proceeds to identify three separate sets of expectations which serve as a source of conflict: (i) the actual expectations of the faith community; (ii) those that lie within the pastor themselves; and (iii) imaginary expectations.

On the first of these, Irvine notes that the expectations of church communities are both diverse and dependent on those things which have served to shape its membership. ‘In fact, the diversity of expectations is so great’, he suggests, ‘that the task of fulfilling all, in most cases, would be nigh to humanly impossible. Even the more official expectations of the church, those which originate from the appointed boards of the church, originate from those things which have shaped the board/committee and their vision for ministry through that church in that community’ (p. 35).

On the second, namely those expectations that lie within pastoral practitioners themselves, Irvine contends that each pastor will ‘have their own expectation as to what constitutes ministry and the way in which they see their personal gifts for ministry being utilized specifically within that church and community. Again this originates from those factors which have shaped their vision of ministry and probably to a large degree their training and experience’ (p. 35).

The imaginary expectations, the third named, are the ‘assumed expectations that the clergy thinks the church expects of them’. These may, Irvine insists, ‘be based on the comments or insinuations of a few, an isolated occurrence or may be purely illusory. These are often the factors which drive the clergy the hardest and prompt the comment “He/she is his/her own worst enemy”’ (p. 35).

Irvine also suggests that despite the middle-class nature of Christian communities, pastors are ‘often placed in a position of living beneath the level of both parishioners and community’. The continuing tradition of church-provided housing places ministers in ‘a position of having no equity in the real-estate market, often making retirement, and the anxiety of approaching retirement, difficult. The whole monetary aspect of the ministry brings with it considerable difficulty’ (p. 36).

As tempted as I am to do so, I don’t want to précis the entire book here. The remainder of the book, which I commend, attends to the following topics: The stresses that attend a lost and changing identity, the unique stresses that attend being a woman in ministry, the risks that attend various levels of relationship, the problem, types and root causes of isolation, issues of sexuality and identity, of stress in the vicarage and the dynamics that attend family life and needs, the quest for identity and wholeness, issues of integrating perspectives of exteriority and interiority, spiritual development, models and systems of support, and matters of self-assessment and balance.

I do, however, want to draw attention to Irvine’s very basic words on the discipline of journaling, some of which I found helpful, not least because I have recently taken up journaling again after many years of looking at a closed book and of discerning that blogging is no substitute for the practice.

Irvine begins by noting that journaling is an ancient Christian practice – from the apostles who kept records of their journeys, encounters and conversations, to Augustine’s masterful Confessions. Irvine understands journaling as ‘a tool of self-measurement which, when properly used, chronicles for us the place of beginning against which we measure progress and, ultimately, ending. Without this measure, movement becomes indiscernible except in broad terms and predominately external components. For instance, we can recall early years of ministry in terms of major events and movement, but lose much of the sharpness of the cutting edge of our thought which motivated those actions during that time period. So soon we forget the impact of the moment with all its joys and pain’ (p. 192).

And journaling, he insists, helps in other ways too: ‘There is always a discrepancy between what we think we do or have done, and what actually has transpired. For instance I may think I balance my time well on sabbatical between the research, writing, speaking engagements, conference presentations, goal setting with colleagues and the sabbath rest badly needed. My journal records soon revealed that my tendency towards being a workaholic has short-changed the sabbath rest and that there is need for readjustment’. Journaling can, therefore, be both ‘brutally revealing’ and ‘absolutely essential’. He continues:

Journal keeping also records significant thoughts, emotions and reactions as one interacts with the diversity of life. Written in the aftermath of such actions it records how one’s life and faith interacted. It is in that interaction within our own lives that depth of understanding comes, enabling us to provide care and concern for others. It is the record of our journey, common with all humanity, which allows the empathy to interface with the lives of others. (p. 193)

Irvine then offers some advice pertaining to setting up a journal. He talks – against the advice of some spiritual directors – about making journal keeping ‘a habit’, of seeing journaling as part of a daily spiritual exercise, and of keeping it simple: ‘Simplicity and a process that is user-friendly is the key to sustaining a journal. For the computer literate such records can be recorded and stored by that means. The more traditional method of utilizing a notebook works for some while for others the ease of writing on a computer and the tangible form of the hardcopy has led to the use of ringbinders for computer print-offs. Whatever works for the individual is best’ (p. 194). For what it’s worth, there’s no way that I could journal on a computer. I need paper, heavy paper, and preferably a fountain pen and/or a 4B pencil.

Whatever the process used, Irvine properly notes that confidentiality and security remain essential, and he also addresses the question of the final disposal of the journal, whether before or after one’s death: ‘each person will need to determine their own process for this. Some have commissioned a trusted friend to dispose of the documents in the case of death while others have recorded their request in a will along with all other dispersal of property. This is personal, but needs to be considered’ (p. 194).

Irvine also encourages that rather than keeping a ‘general journal’ that each time period be considered in the light of certain guided questions which, he believes, will ‘assist in identifying the matter of balance in each time period’ (p. 194). Similarly, he notes, specific sections of the journal may be kept for theological insights, biblical reflections, goal setting or any such area as is deemed helpful by the recorder: ‘The journal will contain both the record of the task of ministry and the personal journey of the individual. It should be remembered here that the assessment is of balance and a sense of wholeness of being. The record of doing is important, but equally so is the record of reflection and inner discovery’ (p. 194).

I confess to finding this stocktaking approach to journaling brutally sterile and promoting of a form of individualistic and anthropocentric navel-gazing that is, among other things, bad for the back, and I find myself reaching for the trump card that Irvine himself provides; namely, ‘Whatever works for the individual is best’. But Irvine offers the following framework as a guide, and that birthed from much experience, and so I reproduce it here by way of encouragement to those for whom such a template may be more inspiring:

Daily Journal

(Record under separate headings)

[1] What occupied most of your time today?

[2] What is/was your predominant feeling as the day came to a close?

[3] What provided you with the greatest sense of satisfaction?

[4] What was the greatest source of frustration/anxiety?

[5] Describe time spent with family and in personal relationships.

[6] Did you find time for your own personal space for relaxation, exercise and rest?

[7] What challenged your thinking?

[8] What was your source of spiritual renewal today?

[9] Other comments or observations on the day:

Weekly Journal

(Record a short weekly review at the end of each week)

[1] What seem to be the predominant factors/issues of the week?

[2] What, upon reflection, was the greatest accomplishment of the week?

[3] What provided the greatest sense of frustration?

[4] What building did you do during the week of relationships with family, friends and others?

[5] What spiritual renewal/strength did you receive during the week and from what source did this come?

[6] What stewardship was exercised over your physical being?

[7] Were there aspect(s) of your life neglected during the week? If so, which? Why?

[8] Other comments or observations on the week:

Monthly Summary

Using the weekly summaries for reflection, complete a short monthly review using the guide questions as outlined under the heading for Weekly Journal.

I conclude this post with Kafka: ‘I won’t give up the diary again. I must hold on here, it is the only place I can’. [Franz Kafka, I Am a Memory Come Alive: Autobiographical Writings (ed. Nahum Norbert Glatzer; New York: Schocken Books, 1974), 21]


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