And why clergy burnout is something you should care about
“I haven’t heard from you since March!” one parishioner said to me accusingly on the phone when I called to check in. “You never called—I thought you didn’t care,” another commented bitterly. “Nobody reaches out, nobody is there to pray with us or ask how we are,” a third complained.
It’s the nature of ministry that a lot of what we do in leading a church is behind the scenes, quiet and unseen. At the best of times, it is common for clergy to be accused of not doing enough. The challenges of this past year (some coronavirus-related, of course, and others just the roll of the dice) have demanded more from me than at any other time in ministry. Each and every day, I am on the phone, email and any other pandemic-acceptable way of connecting with people, trying to respond to the pastoral care needs that have been brought to my attention, to reach out to those I imagine might be struggling. I am blessed to work with a team at our church, and each and every day, they do the same. It isn’t enough. No matter how much we try, these disappointed comments remind us that we have fallen short in the work.
“The church has faced questions of decline and survival for decades, and all too often, clergy are tasked with Messiah-like expectations of bailing out the sinking ship and saving the institutional church.”
These criticisms spark two simultaneous reactions in me. The first is defensiveness. I want to account for my time—prove to people that my schedule is full and then some, and that I am attending to a million and one details of church leadership each and every day. The second reaction, though, is guilt. When our congregations aren’t meeting, when I am not seeing people in the regular course of parish life in order to check in and connect, there just isn’t enough of me to go around. We have many and various connections built in and across the parish—phone trees and newsletters, mailings and regular emails, online services and a tablet lending library for those not online. But none of it guards against the abandonment someone feels when they are hurting and alone and don’t hear from their priest.
This is a problem. It’s a problem for the church—and it goes way beyond the challenges of lockdown living. It’s also a problem for me personally. I want to reflect on this bigger collective problem because I am seriously concerned about the health of the church. But I hope that in sharing something of my own personal struggle, too, that others who are in work that demands too much will feel less alone.
Clergy burnout: It’s a problem for the whole church
The church is in the midst of a leadership crisis, and it’s only going to get worse. As long ago as 2010, The New York Times was reporting that “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.” Pre-pandemic, clergy were already the focal point of highly anxious systems. The church has faced questions of decline and survival for decades, and all too often, clergy are tasked with Messiah-like expectations of bailing out the sinking ship and saving the institutional church. When things go well, they get put on a pedestal; when things don’t go as well as hoped, they get blamed. Either way, mental health of our clerics is often the fall-guy. And it’s not just in Christian communities, either. Rabbi Joel Meyers summarized in that same NY Times article the stress that many of us experience—pandemic or not: “Rabbis today are expected to be the C.E.O. of the congregation and the spiritual guide, and never be out of town if somebody dies. And reply instantly to every e-mail.”
When the article “Six Reasons Your Pastor is About to Quit” was published last summer, numerous friends forwarded it to me, along with the tired recognition that this piece reflected something of their own experience. The article names the uncertainty and anxiety of the post-pandemic church as factors in their weariness. But maybe more significantly, it outs congregations for their increased expectations on their pastors, the workload that never stops expanding, and the criticisms that keep coming, not matter how much time and effort the people in leadership expend.
One colleague shared with me the struggle of “dealing with my own depression and self-care and working to find a balance between being there for my parishioners and caring for myself. The normal ways in which I would reach out and connect with people are so restricted that I often feel quite ineffective in my pastoral work.” Another colleague noted that the constantly shifting public health protocols of COVID demand a superhuman output of energy, while the things that normally feed us in ministry are no longer part of the package. But she also identified the core problem of our work as being bigger than just a pandemic. Perhaps COVID is actually revealing what, as The New York Times article suggests, has long been the case. “The challenge at the best of times is that the work is boundaryless. There is always more work to do than a normal day will hold.”
The Christian Century published “Whose Problem is Clergy Burnout?” last year. The fact that it was one of the magazine’s most-read articles of 2020 signals something of the range of this problem. The author, Tracey Dawson, makes the incredibly important point that faith communities have a vested interest in the well-being of their priests and pastors. Part of her work is to train congregations in partnering with their leaders in ensuring their wellness.
“Don’t allow resentment to fester when you haven’t heard from your priest. If you need something, if you want to connect, have to talk, have stuff going on that you need them to know, then say so.”
Churches need healthy leaders. And our congregations can play a part in how their leadership feels motivated to stay the course. There are the obvious things like praying for your leaders, leading with kindness and saying “Thank you”—and thinking twice before saying or emailing something hurtful and accusatory. Dawson advocates for more technical and systemic fixes. “Congregations can be trained to recognize the signs of pastoral instability and to reach out for appropriate and effective supervision should the red flags of clergy burnout appear. An aware congregation can be the very tool struggling clergy need in times of burnout…. Clergy self-care is crucial to emotional and spiritual health, too—and with new demands on pastors to do ministry online and to provide pastoral care in a time of crisis, it’s become even more critical…. It’s important for there to be a wider awareness of the need.”
If I could alter one thing in my own congregation to lighten the load, it would be to clearly articulate that pastoral care must be a two-way street. Don’t allow resentment to fester when you haven’t heard from your priest. If you need something, if you want to connect, have to talk, have stuff going on that you need them to know, then say so. None of us are doing this for the fame and fortune. We really do care about our people. If you haven’t heard from us, assume that it’s not for lack of care, and that if you need something, we will do what we can to respond.
This is personal
I have fantasized about my own exit strategy at various times over the past year. I feel guilt about not being enough; hurt in knowing that my people are hurting and I haven’t been adequate in my response; resentment and defensiveness in being on the receiving end of hurt and anxiety that, at the end of the day, probably isn’t really about me, anyway. This feels personal, but there are a lot of us impacted by these exact dynamics—not just in the church. Clergy certainly are not the only ones who have to figure out how to be in jobs where the care we offer never seems to be enough.
And I guess that is the spiritual truth in all of this, the spiritual truth that I’m going to have to keep coming back to and centering myself in if I have a prayer of going forward. The truth is that I’m not enough.
I’m not enough. I am so blessed to work with an incredible team at St. George’s, and we aren’t enough. No matter how hard we work and how many hours we put in and how much passion and care we pour into our work, we simply can’t keep up with meeting the deep and wide-ranging needs of our people right now when we’re physically distanced from one another. We try our best, and there just isn’t enough of us to go around. Ultimately this is true not just in a pandemic, and coming to terms with this basic truth is one of the great spiritual quests of our lives. We must learn to allow God to meet us at the limits of our own broken and inadequate lives. The only way we can ever hope of sleeping at night and having a modicum of spiritual well-bring is in turning the church, our work, our whole lives back into the hands of the One to whom we all belong and who is enough.
Which brings me to the other truth. I am not enough, and also I am. I am enough when my life is held in the Life of God. That’s the only way that my imperfect offering has a chance of being some kind of blessing to the world, inadequate as it is. Somehow the love that God pours on us and the beauty that God sees in us makes the impossibility of trying to keep going in desperate and disappointing circumstances just a little more possible.
This is a truth that we all need to take a little more seriously: whether you’re leading a church, putting yourself on the line in any care profession, or the one who feels hurt that you haven’t heard from your parish leader lately. It is tough going, and we need to lean into God’s grace—for ourselves and for one another—if we are to have any hope going forward.
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 “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work” by Paul Vitello, New York Times (August 2010) https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html