Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why Ministers Burn Out

A feature story by Paul Vitello in the August 1 issue of the New York Times shared findings from several sources, among them a Duke University study, that showed the American clergy is unhealthy and unhappy. One study revealed that religious leaders suffer from depression, hypertension, diabetes, and obesity at higher than normal rates. (The study was silent on whether ministers are also more likely to contract St. Vitus’ Dance.)

The article went on to cite several reasons for clergy burnout. The chief reason cited was that religious leaders work long hours and don’t take enough vacation. Other factors mentioned in the article included cell phones and social networking sites that keep ministers from getting away; stress inducing cultural changes like changing patterns of volunteerism and fundraising struggles; and, “boundary issues” that lead clergy to over-function.

This article was already generating a lot of buzz in ministry circles and other papers were beginning to report on clergy burnout when G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a UCC (liberal Christian) pastor who serves a small congregation in Swampscott, Massachusetts, responded to Vitello’s reporting with an op-ed in the August 8 New York Times.

MacDonald argued that clergy burnout and illness had to do with a deeper issue than stress and overwork: churches put pressure on ministers to “forsake [their] highest calling.”
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. […]

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.
MacDonald continued,
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.
MacDonald called on lay leaders and members to expect and embrace the minister as a source of challenge and not merely comfort. Your religious leader didn’t sign up to be an entertainer. She is not a Country Club activities director. He is not your monkey. It is the job, MacDonald contends, of religious leaders to lead congregations of people to places they don’t really want to go. “They need churchgoers to ask for personal challenges, in areas like daily devotions and outreach ministries,” he wrote.

I can only imagine what MacDonald’s next board meeting in Swampscott will look like. Last night at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church I decided to share MacDonald’s op-ed with the members of my board, asking them to reflect on it. I also send my mom (LOVE YOU, MOM!!!) a link to the article. Both my mom, a former English teacher, and a member of the board, a former journalist, felt that the story resonated with their vocational experiences. Journalists are asked to forsake their vocational calling, to promote sensation over nuance and to avoid complexity.

Similarly, my mom pointed to the profession of teaching where, according to her, there is an increased emphasis on teachers to entertain, keep students and parents happy, award high grades, and not assign too much work – and raise test scores to boot!

I guess we might summarize the point this way: wisdom will not come without work and, to borrow a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, grace doesn’t come cheaply. Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance… [and] communion without confession.”

In a few weeks, on Thursday, August 26, I will be delivering a lecture on Unitarian Universalist and Theories of Faith Development. This lecture will partially touch on the question of how challenging and demanding a minister ought to be.

Earlier this year I read two books that were highly critical of the kind of culture that G. Jeffrey MacDonald describes. In both Empire of Illusion by Christopher Hedges and Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich, the authors strongly criticize churches that offer the experience of shiny surfaces entirely lacking in depth. This is partially the crisis of post-modernity. Some post-modern philosophers, theologians, and cultural critics have argued that everything is surface. While I find that objectionable, I do accept the necessity of surface. As a character in a novel by Jonathan Lethem put it, “You can’t be deep without a surface.” But, I also give my final word to a member of the SMUUCh board who said, “If you aren’t asking the really important questions at church, where can you?”

So, I’m interested in your thoughts:

What is your response to Jeffrey MacDonald’s op-ed?
Did his cultural analysis resonate with you?
Do you come to religious community holding onto any sacred truths that you would be upset to have challenged or confronted?