Earlier this month a pastor named Alexander Lang posted a letter about why he was leaving the ministry. I’m not sure if it originally appeared on Facebook or somewhere else, but it went “viral” getting a lot of “Amens” from other clergy.
The five factors he cites as leading to his burn-out and resignation are all familiar. I’ll pretty much just list them. For his elaboration, click on the link above.
- The emotional toll. You carry, as a pastor, the struggles, failures and suffering of people in the congregation. It is a burden. Lang refers to this stuff as “secrets.” I prefer the word “confidences,” but the idea is that you are carrying a lot other people’s “emotional stuff” around with you all the time and it takes a toll.
- Having 1,000 bosses (Lang’s was a congregation of 1,000 members). Not everyone is so presumptuous or clueless, but many are, especially when irritated about something.
- Unrealistic expectations. All things to all people. Work 24/7. Be perfect at everything. Be unfailingly loving and cheerful — even if you happen to be hurt, angry or bewildered.
- Partisan politics and polarization in the culture leading to rifts, tension and loss in a congregation.
- Growth vs. Fixed Mindsets. A lot of people (most?) want things to stay the same, while many clergy — including Lang — want growth, change in people’s lives and in the church. The old saw among church consultants catches it. “What people want you to do is fix everything but change nothing.”
I feel his pain. I too felt all those things during 30 years being a pastor in four congregations, although I’m sure #4 has been put on steroids in the last ten years. And I understand that the pandemic introduced added stress, wild learning curves, loss and loneliness for everyone, including clergy.
That said, I want to respond to what Lang described toward the end of his article as the crazy list of “major jobs” or roles pastors have, and how breadth and multiplicity contributes to burnout. Here’s the list of a minister’s many jobs according to Lang:
Human Resources Director
Master of Ceremonies
Pillar of Virtue
It is a daunting list. What struck me, though, is what’s not there.
For me job #1 was “preacher and teacher of the faith.” My model of ministry is a rabbinic one. Minister as a “community-based teacher or scholar.” You teach and interpret the faith in the midst of a community and for the times in which you live. I loved that job. I could do most of the others with some degree of competence because I was centered in that role as a “theologian-in-residence,” providing a theological center in the life of a congregation.
Lang’s list seems very much a list of tasks. But what funds a person to perform those tasks? What unifies the many roles? Without a deeper frame endless tasks lead to burn-out. For me it was being “a preacher and teacher of the faith.”
That job meant I had to be alive to Scripture and the Gospel, going deep in that living tradition, standing before God. It meant I had to read, to study, to be engaged with the challenges and events of the times. Barth’s thing — ministers are to have the Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other. All of that, in my experience, helped combat burnout because you were always learning, exploring, going back to the sources, listening deeply or trying to.
Ministry has to be something more than just doing a bunch of tasks. And that challenge is not limited to clergy. For all of us, life is full of tasks and can devolve into “one damn thing after another.” What gives the tasks deeper meaning? You get pulled in all sorts of directions. Is there a unifying thread, a compelling center? That’s a challenge for most every human being. One’s faith can (I would even say “should”) function as the centering and grounding element. Weekly worship can, should, be a “reset.”
Beyond that, clergy ought to relinquish the “pillar of virtue” role because it belies the faith (we are all sinners) and puts you in excruciating binds. No one is perfect. Try to be decent and humane, but admit your foibles and failures. It helps others to be honest about their own. If you’re trying to pretend to a perfection you don’t possess, it is not only exhausting, it encourages others to be rats on the same wheel. Church isn’t the community of “those-who-have-it-all-together.” It is “the community of the forgiven.”
To clergy I mentor I say that a part of your job is to teach people what ministers do. If you teach them that you will answer their every need, call or itch (the plight of the golden retriever at a whistler’s convention) then that’s what they will expect. You have a role in defining what ministry is and what people expect.
Lastly, ministry (like parenting, teaching, being a good employer, farmer, cop or politician) is a sacrificial vocation. It costs you something. It’s not all about you.
But we no longer live in a society that gets or values sacrifice. So being in a sacrificial vocation can lead you to feel used, even abused, unless you have a larger framework of meaning and are part of a community that understands, in the words of the Apostle Paul, that “we do not live unto ourselves alone.”