Clergy Burn-Out And The Rev. Peter Boullata “On Leaving the Parish”

This column by the Rev. Peter Boullata is being widely circulated among my colleagues and making many of them cry, which in turn makes me want to cry. I don’t want to blame ministers for their pain and burn-out but I have always wondered how we can all do better at talking real talk with our leaders. I have been able to trust my lay leaders on a very deep level for a long time, and it has prevented me from burn-out. When I was suffering with anxiety and panic attacks and needed to take time off right after Easter one year about ten years ago, my board president was so compassionate he may have saved my life. I get tears just thinking about how much more compassionate he was with me than I was being with myself.

Peter is one of my best friends. We talk and socialize regularly. I preached the sermon at his Installation in Lexington. We giggle at the movies together. He babysits my cat and texts with my dog (don’t ask). And yet his announcement was a surprise to me. This seems to me to be not just about a friend making a decision privately, but about the depth and ultimate aloneness involved of vocational discernment.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if some of the ministers who cried at this column could use it as a starting point for conversation with those who most need to know how burned out they feel?

Many Unitarian Universalists go on vacation this time of year. Lay people take a break from church and ministers flee the premises for family and renewal time. Might I suggest something radical, if you’re not already doing this? How about clergy and lay people getting together on a day when there’s nothing else to do, sharing a meal, sitting on a porch or in a sunny backyard, and talking about this article and what it brings up for them?

We all — ordained and non-ordained alike — bear some of the pain, disillusionment, struggle, anger and disappointments to which the Church is inevitably heir. We are ordinary people trying to live into extraordinary commitments. God is with us. We are with each other. But sometimes, focused entirely on goal-setting, striving for excellence, trying to meet so many needs, and attempting to “be the change we wish to see in the world,” we rush by the pain and disappointment and sadness. Then that pain comes out sideways in passive-aggression, or sneak attacks from the pulpit, or mean evaluations lobbed back toward the pulpit, or yet another clergy negotiated resignation.

Recognizing that we need to make a shift in our ministerial focus and context is scary. We could use more stories about how it happened and how it worked for clergy who did so; especially in this time of diminishing job prospects in the mainline parish.

I am grateful to Peter for his wisdom, his honesty, his collegial support, his excellence, and his pain. I love you, Boullatski. Thank you for this parting gift.




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