A recent article about clergy stress and burnout has made the rounds as of late and has sparked both conversations and thoughts for me. The article is here, though what follows is not necessarily directly from the article itself, more the topic of clergy burnout. However, though I have said that, I will digress to the title of the article which I find objectionable. “Taking A Break From The Lord’s Work”… as though the only work that is the Lord’s is being a pastor or engaging in professional church employment and as though time away from said work were somehow outside of God or his approval and use. I never want a break from the Lord and I pray never to have one.
Indeed, there is stress and burnout for clergy and all church professionals for that matter. The question becomes how does one heal from this and avoid it as much as is reasonable to expect for sinful, broken humanity. Let’s be clear, however, burnout is not the same thing as having a bad day, a bad week or the stress of Holy Week. It is not the same thing as a heaping pile of life circumstances that would crush anyone under its weight. This is a specific chronic condition that leads to diminished health, shortened lifespan, strained and broken relationships with family and friends, etc. Burnout is, for lack of a better description, that extended drought that leaves the well so empty as to only bring up sludge rather than water and, unfortunate as it is to say, it is also a self inflicted condition. Self inflicted in the sense that, compared to other kinds of debilitating life circumstances, we may have choices along the way that can avoid or diminish the situation. Not all the time, but frequently.
Though I do not know that it would “fix” everything for all pastors, I do believe that actually remembering what it is we are called to be and do and the holiness we are privileged to be in contact with every day would sure help a lot. Do pastors have some sort of better “connection” to God and the heavenly realm (as some seem to think pastors do or as some seem to think of themselves)? By no means! However, we are called to be in contact with particular holy things (altar, font, chalice, paten…, water, bread, wine) and particular holy words (scripture, absolution, words of institution, benediction, etc) in a way that is different. I believe it is a privilege to be called to this and a continual remembrance of and a returning to a realization of the holiness of this particular call could certainly go a long way in combating burnout and stress. I’m also convinced that returning to awe and humility in being called to this particular work would aid in putting all of ministry in proper focus as well.
Burnout and chronic stress, for all kinds of people not just pastors, seems to me to be (to use that common illustration again) a matter of returning over and over to the same well that is dredged to the bottom. It’s not being refilled. The holy things pastors in particular are called to work with are the holy things that can and do refill that well. Certainly not the only way our wells are refilled but it is a promised and recurring way and one to which we are not only close but participate in and are blessed to facilitate on a regular basis. I encourage pastors (including myself!) to remember, not solely in the intellectual think-about-it kind of way but in the scriptural use of the word “remember”, that we are so close to that well-filling stuff all the time and it’s for us, too, not just parishioners. (As an aside, this is in the same way we would also say that repentance, absolution, prayer, pastoral counseling, fellowship, etc, etc is for us, too, not just parishioners.)
One is not brought down to the bottom of the well in this way by someone forcing you down or draining out the water. It is a thousand, million tiny cups of water given away to those who need it in this terrible, broken world and never refilling the well. To me, it is the very Living Water we are brining to all the terrible, broken, beautiful, holy moments in life and I think we should be reminded always that we, too, must drink from the cup of life we bear to them. And look how fortunate we are—we’ve already got the cup in our hands!
Lastly, for the sake of fairness and clarity and for additional thought, there was an article in the Charlotte Observer last year (a reprint from a larger Newspaper) stating that clergy and other church professionals had a higher sense of “job satisfaction” than those in comperable employment. Markedly higher.