Dear Church: It’s Not You, It’s Us

It is no secret: vocational ministers are burning out, leaving the Church,  and experiencing a rise in stress-related health problems.  I’m grateful that this issue is getting some attention lately in mainstream media, and also for the good work of organizations like The Lilly Endowment.  These folks are taking proactive measures to curb the trend. They not only help raise awareness; they help equip congregations and pastors with resources, better practices, and networks of support to keep everyone healthy and happy.

And while churches have a great deal of liability in matters of “clergy killing,” I think it is important that pastors say out loud to our congregations: you are not entirely the problem. We are.

While I do not presume to speak for all clergy everywhere, I can tell you that, across the board, most people who feel called to pastoral ministry tend to be fixers, do-ers, and dreamers. Furthermore, at least in some small measure, we are performers and people-pleasers.

I’ll translate what all this means: We DREAM of being able to DO something that will FIX everything. And then, we’d like to be told that we did it all just right.

And i don’t mean we want to fix our respective congregations, or neighborhoods, or immediate friends and family.  What we’d REALLY like is for all those things be perfect already, so we can go about managing the rest of the world. Small things, really, like global warming, peace in the east, and poverty. Not necessarily in that order.

Perhaps I exaggerate. But i do think, at the heart of every minister’s calling, is a bit of a savior complex that not even Jesus can help us with. And there is the rub. The Church does not always want to be saved by us. And neither, it turns out, does the world.  Sometimes, believe it or not, our own friends and families do not want us to be the boss of them. Can you imagine?

These are painful truths to live with. Especially when we live with them, unaware of their pull on us.

To the end of promoting my life-balance and self-care, my church does everything right: they give me ample vacation time, sabbatical, retreat and continuing ed time; they even give me resources to fund all these things.  And I still manage to get run-down and exhausted several times a year.

So in many cases, the church cannot be blamed. It isn’t even that we, the pastors, are over-scheduling and extending ourselves.  It is that we carry a mental weight around all the while–and even in those blessed “off” times–making it hard to rest. We are always scanning the world for sermon material; always aware of that-which-is-broken (and furitively looking for glue); and at any given moment, gearing up for–or down from–a ‘performance’ moment.  The work of carrying that self-imposed burden around can render us fragile, exhausted, and vulnerable to the first hint of criticism.

A few other factors in fatigue that are not the fault of the congregation:

A growing ‘performance culture’ in every aspect of our shared lives. These days, it practically starts in the womb: people want, and expect, to be entertained at every moment. In the car, at work, in ‘waiting’ places, and–you’d better believe–on the weekends. Maybe it’s worse in an affluent suburb, but i feel an increasing pressure to make worship not just meaningful, but also fun and–i hate this word–“inspirational.” This is not a healthy dynamic for those of us who are already, shall we say, applause hounds.

A “Family Last” culture  While our politicians talk about “family values” (in the interest of being “inspirational”) there is little in our society that actually points to a shared valuing of families. Like affordable, accessible healthcare; affordable, accessible child care; generous family leave policies in the corporate world for the making of babies, or the care of aging parents. In fact, quite the opposite is true.  Much of life-as-we-know-it speaks to the tragic de-valuing of family. So, lord help us all when women ministers want to also be mothers; or male ministers have children, and also a wife with a career; or single pastors want to adopt children on their own. Even though my congregation has been extremely supportive of my evolving work/family balance, I still get strange looks from neighbors when i mention that my husband is a stay-home dad.  The church cannot control the effect that has on my psyche, nor should they be expected to. It is up to me to process how that makes me feel, and why.

Which brings me to, —a culture that looks at you funny when you say you’re a minister. In an age of increasing hostility towards organized religion–and all that represents in public imagination–it is getting alot harder to tell strangers that you are a  minister. You can see the wheels turning, you can see the judgements being made, you can see the walls going up… Not only does that make it hard to do “neighborhood outreach,” it is a painful reality for (did i mention?) we who are addicted to being loved and adored in every frame.

Knowing these truths about myself, and the world in which i live and serve, helps me to not blame my people–or the big-C “Church,” as a body–when i get frustrated, exhausted, or just weary of the world.  But awareness is only half the battle. We’ve also got to find healthier ways of coping with our big, complicated selves.

In Naked Spirituality, Brian McLaren shares a painful truth about the patterns of burn-out, the cycles of elation and defeat, that go with this pastoral territory.  And he talked about learning to shape his days, not in terms of what he could/must get done, but rather “what God is doing in the world, and how I can be a part of it.”

I felt like he was knocking on the door of my worn-out heart a little bit. I find that passage full of painful truth-telling, and powerful freedom.  If we–pastors and congregations–could learn this spiritual practice of moving through the world, perhaps we could all be saved a great deal of stress and heartbreak. And maybe, in some cases, the expense of anti-depressants and blood pressure meds. (BTW, it is not lost on me that the Lilly foundation, who perhaps stands to benefit most from all these drugs we’re needing, are the ones out in front of the charge to get us all healthier. Say what you will about evil pharmaceutical companies, but i dig that).

To be clear–there is no shame in needing professional help to deal with depression or anxiety. But perhaps, if we all work together, we can make sure that the Church is never, ever, about the business of inflicting pain that needs medicating. Even if that means we–do-ers, dreamers, performers–must quit inflicting it on ourselves, in the name of Jesus.

I think there’s a healthy equation to be learned from all this destructive love: Awareness+accountability=alive.

Which is to say, if pastors and churches live in awareness of the systems and personalities that contribute to the problem, we can set up healthy systems of accountability: and everyone comes out alive.

Again, I can only speak for myself, what I see and experience… But it isn’t about me; nor is it about You, big-C Church. This is about US–the great sacred, capital-U, all-encompassing US, that makes for the Body of Christ in the world. In the post-post-modern age, as the Church discerns what it wants to be when it grows up, we’ve got to be having these conversations about personal and social liabilities to ministry. With any luck–and with a great, whopping deal of grace–there will still be an Us to speak of, this side of glory. And we will all be doing our part to live, and live well, into this life of faith and discipleship.

Photo via flickr BlakJakDavy


9 comments on “Dear Church: It’s Not You, It’s Us

  1. God bless you for articulating what my heart beats and bleeds. What I wrestle with as I listen in silence…

  2. So much of what you wrote is so true in my life! Thank you for putting it in words.
    I think I do a fairly good job with self-care… but I just cannot always turn off my pastor brains. =) There are so many joys in what we do – but we truly do need to be aware that we are living in systems and making choices that make our lives difficult. I loved the piece about awareness+accountability=alive.

  3. Every time that I, a lay person, read about a minister who has left their vocation, I feel just a tiny bit responsible. I wonder what it was that caused this person to no longer feel the joy of representing Christ in the world. A calling to ministry is such a special, beautiful gift of the Spirit, and one which I have often coveted and prayed for but have never received. Each of us on the lay side of this equation must realize that our pastors and ministers are frail human beings just as we are. We cannot do very much to help them in this world, but we can do what Jesus told us all to do – to pray. Not some formulaic mumbo-jumbo but a deep, heartfelt, intercessory prayer for that person. We need to do this each and every day. I know that this sounds very 19th century church, but there is an evil one who goes about the earth, seeking to destroy every one who is a follower of Christ. We can, through prayer, help our ministers to fight this demon.

  4. I found this helpful. I framed it and hung it on the wall in front of my desk:

    “It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fullyexpresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one-day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.Amen.” Oscar Romero

  5. as a pastor who left the church, i can tell you that your comments are like the proverbial “tip of the iceburg.” the worst part is that denominations and local churches have terrible systems for supporting hurting pastors and their families. in fact, involving anyone from the denominational hierarchy is almost guaranteed to make the stress and anxiety worse for the pastor. been there. done that.

    • i agree that this is only a glimpse of the issue, and only speaking from my own experience…the factors are different in every context/with every person and family. all in all, you are right that our ‘systems’ for support and nurture are utterly broken, and out of keeping with the changing needs. blessings to you and your family. hope you find the healing that you need.

  6. As a middle-aged woman who has been feeling a pull to ministry, knowing all the while the impracticalityof the logistics, you really hit me in the face with a realization of what I want to do- I want to fix everything and have everyone love me for doing it!!! Not exactly sure where I thought God was supposed to have a hand in that situation. Thanks for giving me a dose of reality-and thank you for your amazing blogs- they are an important part of my spiritual life. ( not to mention they make me laugh!) Hang in there, sister, you are doing something right!

    • Thank you, Judy! Although let me say, just because some of this spoke truth to you, that doesn’t mean you aren’t called to ministry! In fact, God can do a great deal of good with that desire to fix things–as long as you are self-aware and continually align your expectations with the Spirit’s moving. I like to think that God is not done with any of us yet. If we weren’t a little bit broken, we couldn’t be ministers 😉

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