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 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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