Sunday, September 12, 2010

Is clergy burnout a symptom of a crisis of identity and vocation?

One of the hottest topics in the church right now is clergy burnout. Everyone is in agreement that it is a problem, but when it comes to the solution, not so much. There are a lot of wise, commonsense admonishments about self-care and spiritual disciplines. They should be heeded, but they tend to address the symptoms without asking why burnout is so widespread. And I have yet to see much in the way of an insightful theological analysis.

While it is true that a person in any profession can experience burnout,  I am convinced that there are unique features to the current epidemic of clergy burnout.   And I have been ruminating lately whether clergy burnout is so widespread not merely because of the stresses and demands of the job, which have to some extent always accompanied ministerial vocations, but because of an identity crisis in the mainline church, and a vocational crisis among its ministers.

As I have written elsewhere, the evaluative criteria borrowed from the modern commercial sector, chiefly productivity and efficiency, are inadequate instruments for measuring the success of ministry. In the first place, they do their analysis without factoring in God. In this regard, as in so much of the modern church, they are functionally atheistic, no matter how much God-talk is sprinkled into the discourse. But ministry is largely about God, more precisely, how God uses frail and flawed humans as bearers of his Word.

To understand ministerial vocation this way requires a dialectical approach that sees at the same time the grandeur and misery of ministry, both the possibility and impossibility of the minister's role and tasks.

I turn to Karl Barth for a model of how this might be done, for he does this with his assessment of religion. I recently reread sections of Barth’s Commentary on Romans, and I was struck (again) at how brilliant Barth’s take on religion is. To Barth, like Calvin before him, humans are great makers of idols, and one of our favorite idols to make is religion. All religion is to some extent idolatrous, the Christian religion not excepted, but for Barth, Christian religion, though idolatrous, is also where humanity hears about God, and so is indispensable in the divine economy. God uses what is foolish to shame the wise. He calls it the impossible possibility.

It seems to me, and I speak from 30 plus years in the pastoral ministry, that ministry is best understood employing a similar kind of dialectic. The minister, no matter how talented, is a flawed human being, but God can use him or her to accomplish marvelous things, not least of which is as a bearer of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Here is another “impossible possibility.”

But sadly, that understanding, and the honesty and humility it requires, finds little purchase in today’s church. For example, I have always been struck by how brazenly worldly our “search and call process” is, and how it so undermines our best theology about the church and its ministry.

To begin with, we have this instrument (now available on-line) called “the Minister’s Professional Profile.” This literary genre (a rare combination of fact and fiction) is used to display a breathtaking panorama of gifts and graces on the part of the minister. One is driven nearly to the point of prevarication in displaying one’s wares to a prospective “employer.” “Who is this grand creature?” one is tempted to ask upon reading the completed product.

Although nothing on the profile is untrue, it is not the whole truth. What is missing is an accurate assessment of one’s feet of clay, and thereby a betrayal of the biblical axiom that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God, and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4: 7)

It is hard, of course, to imagine a process that could accurately do this, and God uses the present flawed one to match up foolish and broken ministers with foolish and broken congregations (they don’t tell the whole truth either), where graceful and gracious happenings can and do occur. That is the point. If this grand creature, the minister, could make them happen, they wouldn’t be grace, but expected, even promised.

And I think one of the outcomes of the kind of mutual deception (and self-deception) that is happening between ministers and congregations is genuine disappointment when the claims and promises explicit or implicit in this circle of self-promotion turn out not to be quite true. The result is often graceless mutual recriminations. Sometimes one is fired, or, more often, demoralized into moving on. It is epidemic, and it is not good for the church or its ministers.

So I am convinced that much of what passes for burnout is merely the symptoms of an untenable arrangement.  Clergy have both sold and been sold a bill of goods that they can neither deliver to the church nor receive delivery from the church. And since the mainline churches (at least in America) are an institution experiencing a half-century of precipitous institutional decline the opportunities for failure and disappointment are almost limitless.

The measures of success the world values will most likely elude the minister. Indeed, a “successful minister” is an anomaly in a faith with a cross at its center.  It takes a hearty sense of Christian vocation to handle this. For many the very nature of the task will get you quickly to burnout. And, as the models for ministry has become increasingly professionalized, more and more ministers will find themselves wondering what they have got themselves into.

The prescriptions for burnout typically ignore this fundamental disconnect between Christian vocation and cultural expectation. They only address the symptoms.

And how do they address the symptoms? In reading the literature about clergy burnout I am struck that the prevailing prescriptive model is “wellness,” a useful term borrowed from the health field. Now I am married to a public health nurse and have a great respect for the wisdom and applicability of the idea of wellness. I’m all for wellness.

And I think the argument is sound that seeking wellness, physically and mentally, is good Christian stewardship.

BUT, wellness isn’t a category that can carry all the Christian freight. If wellness is the new secularized salvation, it suffers from its inability to address fundamental human predicaments such as sin, death and the persistence of evil. A century ago P. T. Forsyth criticized the church of his day for having a religion of amelioration, and it seems to me that wellness is the personalized version of that. Our mainline churches continue in a religion of amelioration, they want to make things better (more peaceful and just and green), and I am all for that, too. But both social amelioration and personal wellness are implicates of the Gospel, and not foundations. That is, they are fruits and not roots.

The real root is God’s love for us and for all creation, acted out in the grand Christian narrative from garden to New Jerusalem, with its very center and core in the atoning cross of Jesus Christ “for us and for all men.” Where that is not preached and heard the fruits will be sparse.

So clergy burnout seems to me to be largely about the identity crisis of the mainline church, and the vocational crisis of its ministers. And a realistic assessment of the situation from a worldly point of view offers little to be hopeful about.

But those who believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead wait eagerly for new possibilities yet unimagined.

For more of my ruminations on the stresses of pastoral ministry see these posts: 


  1. Wow! Retired Pastor Richard, I stumbled across your blog and what a breath of fresh air your take on the issue of pastor burnout are! I think you are on to something here...imagine that we actually factor God into the equation. I would also add "spiritual warfare" as a piece of the puzzle as well.
    I have a shepherd's heart for the shepherd; a pastor's heart for the pastor, and I appreciate your well delivered thoughts on this subject.
    May God richly bless you in as you continue to ruminate!
    Enjoying the Journey,

  2. Thanks for another helpful and thought-provoking post Rick.