Thursday, August 19, 2010

Burn Out

A couple weeks ago the New York Times published this article on clergy burnout. Among other things, it mentions, "Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could."

In response to the article, a minister in the United Church of Christ offered his thoughts on the issue in an op-ed piece, saying: "In this transformation, clergy have seen their job descriptions rewritten. They’re no longer expected to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy. Church leaders who continue such ministerial traditions pay dearly. A few years ago, thousands of parishioners quit Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., and Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., when their respective preachers refused to bless the congregations’ preferred political agendas and consumerist lifestyles.

I have faced similar pressures myself. In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else."

I've thought about both pieces since they came out and wondered how to respond. I've had many people comment in my short career as a minister that they don't want to see me get burned out and that I should conserve my energy. At the same time, I love my job and holding back (on anything) isn't in my nature. I think ministerial burnout comes from two directions.

The first is something that I can prevent. I'm supposed to be in 16-mile mountain race/walk/hike in two days. I'm marginally trained, but looking forward to the effort and to feeling that my body is my own after 9 months of pregnancy and 12 of breast-feeding. However, my one-year-old has had a stomach bug (now clearing up) this week and I stayed home for 3 days with him. My husband's truck went into the shop this morning and I just heard that we should weigh our options between getting a new (to us) vehicle and repairing this one. And an hour ago, I received a call about a congregation member in the hospital- nothing major, but still at 90...

I could easily say that it just doesn't seem like I should go on Saturday. I shouldn't spend the night away from home. I should stick around in case I'm needed. But I'll always be needed. There will always be something. And if I yield to the somethings every time, then I will never do things I want to do for myself. I will never get rest from a job that doesn't quit. I'll never refresh my mind, body and spirit. I'll push the wax of my energy until the wick sputters out and then I'll sit in darkness, wondering how I got there.

In this sense, I have the power to prevent burnout and I have to claim that power.

The other way to prevent clergy burnout is for laity to realize their role and part in ministry. Often we can lose sight of the fact that the pastor is supposed to be working alongside the faithful for the good of God's creation. In particular, pastors are to hold out the example and offer guidance, assurance and consolation as people of faith move forward in their vocations and avocations, in imitation of Christ.

If the pastor does all the work, the congregation can become like children, believing that it will all be done for them, or they make become angry, because they are never allowed to enter fully into the covenant with God through their own actions. Burnout can be prevented by clergy stepping back and allowing the laity to step forward and do some of the work of the church. Faithful people can help their pastors by doing that work.

And it's not simply the work of visitation or occasionally helping with worship. It's the work of praying for the ministry of the church, of making bold decisions for missional direction, of welcoming people, of stopping gossip and criticism, of engaging in Biblical work and outreach.

Clergy must find joy in their ordination vows and realize the God-given limitations of their human nature. Laity must realize the joy of their baptismal promises and the growth that comes in working toward fulfilling them.

Only you can prevent forest fires. And burnout.