Clergy Burn-Out: The Current Crisis

Hello, folks. I’ve been meaning to get back to blogging but life intervened! But now I am on vacation and have time to dedicate to an important conversation about clergy resignations.

So many clergy have joined the Great Resignation and I think lay people need to know a lot more than they are being told about exactly why. Let’s start with this tweet series from @BelindaJoy79, from May 2022:

Literally every single fellow frontline pastor I speak to is pretty much at their end. The finger gets pointed at Covid for this one and I’d say that’s only a fraction of the issue. When I was called to ministry I didn’t expect to spend 80% of my time running a business.

“Shout out to the parish pastors – you are crushing it, while it is crushing you.” ~ @mytalkcolleen is making me feel very seen this morning. I’m not a business manager, but I’m required to be. I’m not a WHS expert, but I’m required to be. I’m not a HR manager, but I’m required to be. I’m not a fundraising guru, but I’m required to be. I’m not PR savvy, but I’m required to be.

I’m not an accountant, but I’m required to be. I’m not a handyman, but I’m required to be. You catch my drift right? We’re breaking under the weight of the administrative tasks that keep being placed upon us and we barely get to engage in the parts of ministry that we were called to and trained for. And when we do we’re so exhausted there’s little joy left in it. I spend most of my days operating outside of my area of expertise, skill and interest and it’s soul destroying. And most of my colleagues, if they didn’t fear recriminations of speaking freely would say the same thing.

We huddle around coffee tables and in prayer rooms and share our truths and try to bolster each other. But without systemic changes, nothing changes and the rate of pastors leaving is just going to increase.

PeaceBang here again. I can’t fix this problem.

But I can speak to it. I have an insider’s perspective and an interest not only in ministry right now, but in the history of ministry in the U.S., and in the evolution of clergy archetypes over time.

Of course there are myriad professional stresses on clergy right now, just as there are on workers in many sectors. The pandemic has required many of us to pick up advanced tech skills on the fly, fixing the sinking boat while it is out on the high seas in choppy waters. Many workers have been thrust into an entirely new way of doing their jobs.

I doubt, however, that many of them have taken sacred vows to love the community within which they do their job. I doubt that many of those other workers (educators perhaps excluded) are expected to be available 24-7 to accompany everyone in their workplace through medical, emotional and spiritual crisis.

This changes everything. This makes clergy fairly unique in the professional landscape. It’s that love thing. It’s that sacred vows thing. No one wants to think of clergy as being people in a job, but of course we are. Especially in the increasingly corporatized culture of churches, we are very much people with a job, and while the spiritual aspect of our calling is still central to our own sense of what we are doing and why, that aspect is increasingly being lost, glossed over or given very short shrift in our ministry settings. We are evaluated and reviewed according to job descriptions. We are subjected to satisfaction surveys (I’ll be writing a separate post on best and worst practices in clergy “performance” reviews — and surveys are among the worst and most damaging). We are treated as employees, or as I have heard again and again on calls with members of the clergy who have resigned from the parish or are considering doing so, “the help.” And as BelindaJoy tweeted, most clergy are operating completely outside their areas of expertise, skill and interest, and it’s soul-destroying. So what? you may ask. Why are ministers so precious that they can’t handle the kind of soul-destroying professional obligations the rest of us have to endure in our own jobs? Suck it up, buttercups!

Well, I get that. But ministers are only able to actually do our jobs when we are spiritually healthy and our souls are whole. I’m sorry. It’s just true. You cannot minister with a sick heart or have anything worthy to say when you have had insufficent time to reflect on what to say or how to say it. The fact is, behaviors, expectations and crushing pressures within the church these days are heart-breaking. Clergy are leaving because they cannot keep their hearts open.

We are all traumatized in this country. I need not enumerate the reasons but I’ll pop out a quick and very incomplete list: the earth is literally burning. Rising fascism in government, democracy under real threat. Gun violence, mass murders. Racism and the carceral state. Extrajudicial murders of Black people. Criminalization of immigrants. Women’s rights eroded and millions of lives imperiled as a result.

One of the trends I have observed among resigning clergy is that their leaders operated as though they were not in crisis or traumatized. This needs more analysis, but I find it really important to note that especially among majority-white, highly-educated congregations with management-class lay leaders, there has been particularly egregious scapegoating and bullying behaviors resulting in clergy resignations.

Church members who do not recognize that they are highly anxious, upset and frightened by the present and for the future often target clergy as the source of the feelings they cannot acknowledge. Going after the minister gives them a sense of purpose, and they often genuinely feel they are protecting or benefiting the church by their crusade.

If you belong to a congregation where your minister was suddenly and unexpectedly (to you) ousted, I hope you will thoughtfully raise the issue of scapegoating and bullying with your leaders (or better yet, become a leader if you can and make it a priority to engage in this community reckoning with a consultant). This dysfunctional dynamic is not rare but it is too rarely confronted.

What behaviors within our congregation, either institutional or individual, supported our minister in keeping their heart open for the work of ministry?

The role of the clergy is expected to be filled by someone who had a sense of calling, and whose calling was affirmed and confirmed by a community of faith. Clergy are those who are entrusted with the care of souls; only secondarily are they executive directors of institutions. They cannot care for souls or be present as spiritual companions and leaders if they are play-acting being okay, and many of them are doing exactly that. They quit their parish positions because they don’t want to keep acting like they’re okay — and they never felt safe enough to be honest.

Why couldn’t they be honest? Because although clergy archetypes vary somewhat from region to region and from tradition to tradition (the learned rabbi, the fiery evangelical, the warm rural pastor, etc.) they almost all have in common a Calm, Wise, Eternally Patient, Mature, Gentle, Loving (Most Always Straight, White) Man. This is the image actived in the deep recesses of the collective unconscious when one says the word “minister/priest/clergy.”

Surprise, surprise, very few actual ordained clergy serving churches naturally conform to this archetype. And because they do not, they face constant internal and external pressure by communities of faith that have often not examined their own fantasies and nostalgic notions of the clergy persona.

So, another key question for congregational reflection:

Was our minister able to be fully authentic with us during their term of service? Are we honest with each other in community? What are some of our unexamined assumptions about what a minister looks/sounds like socially, emotionally and personally? What are our unexamined assumptions about what kind of personality traits and emotional style people who belong to this church (and especially leaders) should have?

The mainline Protestant church (and in this I include UUs, who are theologically diverse but culturally extremely similar to mainline Protestants ) has often failed in its commission to be counter-cultural. The church is now a regarded by most people as a product that exists to meet their needs, or perhaps a fondly-regarded public utility. Church leaders and clergy are desperate to reconvene Covid-diminished congregations and/or to find new paths toward relevance and vitality. What no one wants to openly admit is that churches are spiritual communities, not service providers. Nor, unless this is an explicit aspect of their mission, are churches community program centers.

Is our church open and clear about the fact that the church exists to not to provide experiences or collect opinions but to make demands of love, service and care of the people who feel called into spiritual community?That each person beckoned by God/Conscience out of their aloneness to become part of this endeavor should be taking seriously their own spiritual growth? And that there is no “the church” that is not the current generation of active members and friends?

That is what it means to be counter-cultural in a consumer society.

Above all, ministers are responsible for helping the community identify, define, articulate and live out its mission in the community. With all of the other responsibilities now assigned to clergy, hundreds report that their time for the essential tasks of studying and preparing for programs, sermons, and time for pastoral conversations are being squeezed into days off or late nights. Their discernment of how to set priorities are being constantly questioned and undermined by chronic critics who have assigned themselves a position of great influence within the congregation and have often been allowed to rampage unchecked for decades.

Healthy congregations reward creativity, not negativity. What kind of person has the most influence in your congregation?

As churches experience more survival anxiety, the minister is often the one held responsible for attracting, nurturing, leading, maintaining what we still traditionally refer to as “members,” even as patterns of participation and engagement have changed so radically in the past few decades, the meaning of membership is vague and mostly unbinding for members of the community. The generation of elders who knew how to do traditional church have mostly moved away, are in nursing homes, or have died.

What tasks or jobs did our minister quietly take on as volunteer engagement diminished or changed entirely? Did we ask them? If they told us, whose responsibiity did we think it was to assume those tasks? Were our leaders willing to let things go, or was our former minister expected to keep the church “business as usual?”

Does our congregation have a robust, lay-led and designed program of mentorship? How can our new minister support the church in this, or do we expect them to initiate, create, recruit for and run these trainings on how to be and do church?

I hope this generates good and productive conversations in your congregation or your clergy group. A word to the ministers: please live more authentically with your people. I have so often attended collegial gatherings where sweet-faced ministers sneer and complain about their “people” when it is obvious that their veneer of holy affect interferes with their ability to share their genuine thoughts and feelings with their community. This is on us, too. If you are allergic to showing anger, frustration, disappointment, ignorance, fear, sadness, grief because you think you have an image to uphold, do not be surprised that your facade will crack under the extraordinary tensions of these days.

Whose side am I on here? I am on the side of the church. I believe in the Church. I ardently believe that identified spiritual communities that exist to carry on ancient rituals and traditions, to create new ones, to gather people together for the contemplation of the most urgent questions facing humanity, to pray, to educate children in wonder and reverence, to offer rites of passage that give greater meaning to birth and death and to worship God, are a good thing.

I care about your church.

Blessings on your way. Peace. Bang.

19 Replies to “Clergy Burn-Out: The Current Crisis”

  1. You have named with eloquence and accuracy the current experience of so many, including me. I would only add that in hierarchical settings, the institutional leaders who influence so much about congregational life, must use their resources )especially spiritual) to provide safety for clergy. Too often, clergy are instead treated not as spiritual guides living with a group of faithful followers who need support and protection but as interchangeable “workers” or “consultants” sent by “headquarters” to straighten out the errors of the departed clergy with no security and minimal tenure. In such a context, our professional will not be able to do the work you rightfully describe as our special call.

  2. Thank you for this comment. I serve in a congregational polity context so have limited knowledge of the hierarchical traditions. I’m glad to have learned that this post is being shared with bishops.

  3. Hey there. You once gave me some amazing fashion advice once, many years ago, when I was in melt-down mode after a General Convention. Back in the day (2006), I had no idea about how blogs worked. I thought I had set it up so my congregation could stay in touch with me. So, your response came as a shock and a balm of healing laughter.

    And now, this. No, I’m not in burnout, but many of my colleagues are. Truth? So are many of our bishops. I think a part of it is compassion fatigue (a form of PTSD), but you’ve just said the quiet part out loud.

    I’m sharing this far and wide. Thank you, sister. You only get better with age.

    Here’s what you wrote:

  4. Victoria – so well considered. Thank you. I needed this as I sit, utterly numb – as I do every Monday (my one day off) – desperate to “do some self care” and too exhausted and sad to muster the effort required. Blessed by your reflection.

  5. Your post is a painfully accurate description of how my spouse was bullied out of her job this year. Clergy can’t serve with broken hearts. You must have been at our council and congregational meetings! Keep up the truth telling…

  6. This is not just a clergy issue. This has been true for me as a lay employee in youth ministry. I have experienced first hand the bullying and scapegoating after the main target (the pastor) left or was pushed out.

  7. Thanks Victoria. You put it well. Your words mirror my experience.

    Don’t hold your breath on congregations having an honest conversation on church bullies and scapegoating. For the most part it won’t happen because when things don’t go well it’s always the pastor’s fault. Denominational leadership won’t do anything either. They probably won’t address it because the conference depends on churches contributing to the conference budget. I’m speaking as a UCC pastor. Obviously other denominations will have other factors at play. Offend a congregation and you may lose their financial support. End result: Churches will continue to scapegoat clergy and will allow church bullies to force pastors out. They they will look around and wonder why there aren’t as many profiles coming their way while clergy are retiring in record numbers because they can’t take any more. I’m one who retired a bit early simply because I had had enough. I sacrificed my mental health to the church. I gave at the office.

  8. Thanks for such a well constructed piece about the reality of the changing condition of the pastorate. The situation has been brewing for the past 40 years or so as the “Church” like so many other institutions has embraced and glorified the secular values, business models and populist stances of the last and present centuries. As a retired pastor (32 years in ministry) and a retired educator (12 more years), I have watched the plight of the clergy and teachers fall to many of the socio-political pressures of congregations creating depressing situations for those “called” and/or dedicated to their professions. As a former church polity instructor, I remember advising and cautioning perspective clergy persons to make self-care, spiritual enrichment, and nurturing environments a MUST as they embraced their new ministries. I also was out-spoken about “sick” congregations whose missions focused on attacking and blaming clergy for their own dysfunctional behaviors and demands. Congregations who are led by “Roving Hand Grenade” personalities relish in chewing up and spitting out clergy who try to exemplify faithful and challenging ministries to those they are “called” to love and serve. Faith leaders are required to step up and loudly address the illness that creates environments where clergy throw up their hands in resignation.

  9. Thank you for this. Much truth here for both people and systems. While many of us sit and seek discernment .. and sit with colleagues who seek discernment … it’s easy for many to feel “I’m the only one”. As you hinted, many clergy are also folks who step up.. and take responsibility .. even when it is clearly not ours. As I continue to pray for my colleagues, my congregation, the church in general and our world … and our traditional-ish vision of ministry … , I know that the wicked wonderful skills so many colleagues have are, and I pray will continue to be, a balm in this fluxing, changing, hurting world … and that we continue to find ways to “answer call” traditionally or in absolutely new and outside the box paradigms and practice …

  10. My story is similar to Craig’s, although in a hierarchical system, which gets to add its bullying behavior to that of the local church. I, too, sacrificed my mental health, but am fortunate to be on disability with those mental health challenges.

  11. Thank you for sharing so much TRUTH out loud here. As a former pastor who was refused medical leave and thrown out pre-covid era (2015), I attest to many of these truths. I can see how covid has made many of these issues worse.

  12. All you say is true. And there’s more too. Some important and some, like deconstruction of institutional authority, are issues we can only be aware of but cannot change.

    But to that, I wonder if the idea of shared ministry…real practiced shared ministry with other professionals on staff might be, both a cushion by which to travel the congregational road together, and a shield from abusive behavior. Going after a single minister is an easy target but the entire staff is another matter entirely.

    I was struck with this thought (partially because I am not clergy but a called professional nonetheless) how solitary the noun “minister” read to me in this truth-filled reflection. It strikes me too when I find on websites “Minister and staff” as a pulldown option (almost entirely so) instead of simply “congregational staff” with unique roles delineated. The distinction was very important not even that long ago, but I wonder if serves a purpose any longer?

    My perspective here is not everything or maybe even not true in any sense, and yet…it could be part of it…the part that has changed and needs changing more.

  13. I just want to underscore what you said at the end about being more authentic with our people. Spirit led me to be vulnerable and honest about my struggles during pandemic, and it was, frankly, uncomfortable. But my folks stepped up in so many ways! And now we are coming out the other side more vital and alive- both church and pastor.

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