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 III

Mistaken attitudes to the issue surrounding clergy burnout are not helped by the frequent interchangability of the terms ‘burnout’ and ‘stress’. While related phenomena, burnout and stress describe different realities. In his wee booklet Ministry Burnout (Grove Books, 2009), Geoff Read makes the point that ‘stress is essentially the physiological or psychological response to many different sorts of situations and demands … Burnout is one response to sustained exposure to certain sorts of stressors. A person reaches a state of burnout when the three factors of emotional exhaustion, detachment and sense of lack of achievement have reached a level of such severity that the person’s ability to function is significantly impaired’ (p. 6).

I was encouraged to see Read here drawing upon work undertaken by Leslie Francis whose own research in the area of psychological health and professional burnout has yielded very important findings. Francis’ research suggests that personality is the strongest predictor of burnout; that ‘personality factors provide a better prediction of burnout than personal, contextual, family or ministry factors raise important questions for selection, formation and support of those called to ordained ministry’ (p. 20). Two studies conducted in 2004 among Anglican and Roman Catholic ministers highlighted ‘the centrality of extraversion and of neuroticism in predicting clergy susceptibility to burnout … Put crudely, neurotic introverts are much more likely to become victims of burnout than stable extroverts, and this holds true across a range of different ministry contexts’. (Leslie Francis and D.W. Turton. ‘Recognizing and Understanding Burnout Among Clergy: A Perspective from Empirical Theology’, in Building Bridges Over Troubled Waters: Enhancing Pastoral Care and Guidance. Edited by David Herl and Mark L. Berman. Lima: Wyndham Hall, 2004, 315). Francis also co-authored (with Rodger Charlton, Jenny Rolph, Paul Rolph, and Mandy Robbins) the report ‘Clergy Work-Related Psychological Health: Listening to the Ministers of Word and Sacrament within the United Reformed Church in England’, published in Pastoral Psychology 58/2 (2009): 133–149. The report was the first ever published study of work-related psychological health of United Reformed Church (URC) ministers, and drew upon conversations with 58 URC ministers serving in the West Midland Synod. The report drew a number of noteworthy conclusions:

  1. Those surveyed are ‘aware of suffering from high levels of negative affect and who yet succeed in deriving high levels of satisfaction from their ministry. A responsible Church should not, however, allow the high level of positive affect acknowledged by the ministers to mask the deleterious effects of high levels of negative affect. The problems of high levels of negative affect, poor work-related psychological health and professional burnout among ministers of word and sacrament within the United Reformed Church are too serious to be ignored’.
  2. Although there are clearly many areas in common between the experiences of URC ministers and those serving in other denominations in England, there may be some areas of stress that are being highlighted in distinctive ways by URC ministers. ‘These areas included the pressures generated by serving in a denomination which has experienced significant decline both in membership and in ordained ministers, but which has not reduced its number of churches in comparable ways. Ministers are serving multiple churches characterised by dwindling and ageing congregations. There is a feeling of uncertainty in the air regarding the long-term sustainability of the United Reformed Church and such uncertainty is bad for the morale of ministers’.
  3. Overall, ministers have low expectations regarding the ability of the URC to support their needs and to protect their work-related psychological health. ‘Such low expectations may or may not be an accurate reflection of the real state of things, but it is nonetheless a worrying reflection on how the denomination itself addresses the psychological health needs of its ministers’.
  4. Overall, ministers welcomed the survey, and ‘saw it as a positive sign that the wider Church was concerned about and committed to addressing the issues of clergy stress, professional burnout and poor work-related psychological health among ministers. Awareness of these issues, the ministers argued, needs to be urgently raised throughout the Church as a whole’.

But back to Read. Read writes about the need for clarity around ministry roles, and the need for pastors to be able to answer the vocational question, ‘Why do I do what I do?’ That this question is taken seriously is essential, he insists, for being able to make meaningful decisions about the use of time in the how and what of ministry. ‘It empowers clergy to shift from a reactive ministry, driven by the expectations and demands of others, to one that is proactive, intentional and driven by conviction’ (p. 16). And he names three areas which merit particular attention in relation to burnout: the now-but-not-yet gap between the ontological and eschatological realities in which we live and life as it is experienced in the here and now; living with conflict and criticism; and the ambiguity of role.

One thing that I really appreciate about Read’s booklet is the stress that he places upon the question of our identity in Christ. Drawing upon Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, and Wendell Freist’s article ‘Understanding and Prevention of Missionary Burnout’ (Taiwan Mission Quarterly, 1992), Read argues that while the question of our identity in Christ is one which all Christians share, ‘the representative dimension of priesthood and profile of other “professional Christians” does mean that any deficits will be under particular and sustained pressure’ (p. 13). He points to the way that Jesus’ own ministry began as ‘highly significant and instructive’ insofar as it followed the pattern of identity, vocation and only then ministry, and suggests that ‘without a clear sense of identity and purpose, clergy are subject to the stress of either the chronic effort to fulfil [others’] expectations – acting like a plate spinner dashing to keep numerous plates in the air – or living with the chronic pain of never truly being themselves – like a left-handed person forced to write with the right hand’ (pp. 13–4). He continues:

In his work on burnout originally addressed to OMF missionaries, Dr Wendell Friest describes two distinct missionary types. Type A is characterized by a sense of self worth and self-acceptance based on achievement. Type B finds identity in giving and meeting the needs of others. Both lead to driven lives that Friest characterizes as achievement fatigue (Type A) and compassion fatigue (Type B). Like Nouwen, Friest believes that reconnecting with the freedom that is rooted in our identity in Christ is a crucial resource for the Christian in combating burnout, for both Type A and B temperaments. This involves not just the theological but also experiential movement from slave to sin, to son/daughter of God, and then on to a freely chosen slavery or servanthood.

The heart of the good news is the restoration of God the Father’s original purposes for his children: the status of sonship rather than slavery (Gal 4.4–7). But, so often, experience lags behind the theological reality and so acceptance and identity can remain rooted in slavery or addiction to achievement or meeting others’ expectations. Burnout can be not only a result of such slavery but also a key opportunity to face this disconnect between what we preach and what we experience. Burnout can become an invitation to connect experientially with the transforming power of grace in terms of our identity. Freedom simply to ‘be’ replaces the drive to have to ‘do’ to prove something (Type A) or assuage the guilt of being unable to fulfil all the needs of others (Type B). This newfound freedom finds expression in ministry, enabling one ‘… to get back into the slave modality without losing the son-daughter modality.’ Friest calls this Slave Modality 2, what I prefer to call servanthood. In Christ we see this voluntary self-emptying as described in Philippians 2.5–11. Paul’s prized status as ‘slave’ (1 Cor 9.19) is one he freely adopts. It is clear from Romans 12.1 that this is a voluntary decision on the part of the individual, a free response to God’s merciful adoption of us as sons and daughters.

Friest comments, ‘If we are slaves to God unwillingly because we feel this is God’s demand, something he has imposed or exacted, there will never be joy in our lives – only complaining (maybe repressed), resentment, and bitterness … [But] in being both a child of God and a slave of God we are identifying with Jesus. We are free “to be abased, and … to abound” (Phil 4.12).’ We can enjoy life without guilt, and we can serve without drivenness or compulsion, and without a need for achievement or recognition.

Both models of identity also invite conscious reconnecting with the one who calls and, prior to that, who simply loves us. This is a spirituality that is relational, about me as me rather than just me as a minister. What is my God like? Have I unconsciously distorted my perception of him too? Is there a disconnect between the God of grace I say I believe in and proclaim and the image of him that I actually live and take into my vocation and on into my functioning in ministry? Allowing God to be God to us enables a growing experience of one’s identity in Christ to re-emerge. This is rooted in grace and unconditional love rather than just existing with an identity dependent on performance and the opinion of others. (pp. 15–6)


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On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part I

‘The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy’. – G. Jeffrey MacDonald, ‘Congregations Gone Wild’.

As one charged with both a responsibility for the training and supervision of pastors, and who has himself crashed – and watched many colleagues crash – against the rocks of burnout and depression, this is a topic of particular interest to me. To be sure, I am no expert on these issues, but I thought that I might use this forum to do some tentative thinking out loud about this topic over coming months. [Recent weeks have seen some attention in the media and around blogdom given to the matter of clergy burnout: see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. This is, of course, no new news to clergy, though others seems to be interested.]

As sobering as much of the reading and statistics are, on their own they are more paralysing than aiding. Still, they do point to part of the story, and so are worth recalling. So, for example, consider the conclusions found in the USA and published recently by Pastoral Care Inc., namely that:

  • 90% of the pastors report working between 55 to 75 hours per week.
  • 80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families. Many pastor’s children do not attend church now because of what the church has done to their parents.
  • 95% of pastors do not regularly pray with their spouses.
  • 33% state that being in the ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
  • 75% report significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry.
  • 90% feel they are inadequately trained to cope with the ministry demands.
  • 80% of pastors and 84% of their spouses feel unqualified and discouraged as role of pastors.
  • 90% of pastors said the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be like before they entered the ministry.
  • 50% feel unable to meet the demands of the job.
  • 70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
  • 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.
  • 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend.
  • 40% report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
  • 33% confess having involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in the church.
  • 50% of pastors feel so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
  • 70% of pastors feel grossly underpaid.
  • 50% of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years.
  • 10% of ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.
  • 94% of clergy families feel the pressures of the pastor’s ministry.
  • 80% of spouses feel the pastor is overworked.
  • 80% spouses feel left out and underappreciated by church members.
  • 80% of pastors’ spouses wish their spouse would choose a different profession.
  • 66% of church members expect a minister and family to live at a higher moral standard than themselves.
  • The profession of ‘Pastor’ is near the bottom of a survey of the most-respected professions, just above ‘car salesman’.
  • 4,000 new churches begin each year and 7,000 churches close.
  • Over 1,700 pastors left the ministry every month last year.
  • Over 1,300 pastors were terminated by the local church each month, many without cause.
  • Over 3,500 people a day left the church last year.
  • Many denominations report an “empty pulpit crisis”. They cannot find ministers willing to fill positions.

And the #1 reason listed in that survey for why pastors leave the ministry was that ‘Church people are not willing to go the same direction and goal of the pastor. Pastor’s believe God wants them to go in one direction but the people are not willing to follow or change’. Perhaps this reflects MacDonald’s statement above.

[NB: Pastoral Care Inc. attribute these figures to research carried out by themselves, by The Fuller Institute and by George Barna. Mick Crowl has rightly, to my mind, flagged some concern about the accuracy of these statistics. Still, their general tone is confirmed in other findings.]

And Anne Jackson, in her recently published Mad Church Disease: Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic (pp. 48–9), lists the following (sobering) figures on (US) clergy health:

  • 71 percent of all ministers admitted to being overweight by an average of 32.1 pounds [14.59 kg]. One-third of all ministers were overweight by at least 25 pounds [11.36 kg], including 15 percent who were overweight by 50 pounds [22.73 kg] or more.
  • Two-thirds of all pastors skip a meal at least one day a week, and 39 percent skip meals three or more days a week.
  • 83 percent eat food once a week that they know they know they shouldn’t because it is unhealthy, including 41 percent who do this three or more days a week.
  • 88 percent eat fast food at least one day a week, and 33 percent eat fast food three or more days a week.
  • 50 percent get the recommended minimum amount of exercise (30 minutes per day, three times a week); 28 percent don’t exercise at all.
  • Four out of ten ministers (approximately 39 percent) reported digestive problems once a week, with 14 percent having chronic digestive problems (three days per week).
  • 87 percent don’t get enough sleep at least once a week, with almost half (47 percent) getting less sleep than they need at least three nights a week. Only 16 percent regularly get the recommendation of eight hours or more per night.
  • 52 percent experience physical symptoms of stress at least once a week, and nearly one out of four experiences physical symptoms three or more times a week.

I am not interested here to engage with the details of these statistics. To be sure, they indicate important and painful realties for many pastors, their partners and their children. I am interested here, however, in thinking more generally about this prevalent reality, and to exploring some theological and other resources that witness to more life-giving ways for pastors … and for the rest of us.


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