Tuesday, August 17, 2010

'Nowt so queer as folk

The problem is, you can only speak about the problem generically: if you are too specific or personal, it's not clear how universal your experience is, how applicable it is to others. But if you speak too universally, you end up saying nothing or, worse, just shifting the problem back onto the shoulders of those you mean to help.

Case in point:
There's been quite an interest lately in clergy burnout in the media. The New York Times has published several pieces on the subject: "Taking a Break from the Lord's Work" by Paul Vitello, and "Congregations Gone Wild" by G. Jeffrey MacDonald. The Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School has published a new report on the poor mental and physical health of pastors. NPR has featured interviews on the subject. Remedies range from developing better boundaries to engaging in self-care to putting the brakes on the demands of congregation members.
This would be an ideal point to start talking about my problems as clergy, but, then: is that whining? Or identifying? Each congregation is different enough, and each clergy should be held responsible enough. Anyway:

There certainly is cause for concern. However, my doctoral research on transformational leadership and the spiritual life of pastors, as well as 12 years of consulting in the field, show that the causes of clergy burnout and poor mental and physical health are far deeper than poor boundaries, or the failure to engage in self-care, or the seemingly insatiable desires of congregations. Burnout and poor health are symptoms of a far deeper "dis-ease" of soul that has plagued clergy for nearly 100 years. They are symptoms of starvation. Addressing the symptoms of burnout does not get to the root of this serious matter.
This much I quite agree with. The problem is, these generic discussion too often end here:

The witness of spiritual directors over the centuries is that the leader's need to "make a difference" -- the need to find personal significance through effectiveness -- must be set aside in order to be "made different" -- the deeper need to discover one's renewed identity through relationship with God.

John Wesley, the eighteenth-century founder of the Methodists, wrote of his own spiritual disciplines and his daily time of solitude at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m.: "Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone; only God is here, in his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven." In the letter he wrote to a pastor 250 years ago on August 7, 1760, Wesley clearly stated the importance of soul care for pastors: "[This is] what has exceedingly hurt you in times past, nay, and I fear, to this day ... Whether you like it or no, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way ... Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer."
In other words, clergy, it's up to you. Take your medicine. Pray your prayers. And then get back to running those church programs! They aren't going to run themselves!

And maybe if you're spiritual enough, your church will follow!

Been there. Done that. Bought the franchise for the t-shirts.

At my last church (and this is the beginning and end of my personal statements on this subject), one complaint brought up to my Conference Minister (kind of a bishop in the UCC, but not quite), was that I was a "spiritual leader." This was said in my presence, not related to me third-hand. What're ya gonna do with folks like that? Ms. Dilenschneider doesn't say. And while her credentials list her as a poet, essayist, spiritual advisor, and leadership consultant, they don't list "Pastor". For that perspective, we turn to Jeffrey McDonald:

In this transformation, clergy have seen their job descriptions rewritten. 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.
In the darkest days of my travails with my last church, a clergy friend of long standing (an old friend before he was clergy) told me the story of a famous Congregational pastor (whose name escapes me now) who was fired by his congregation. When they couldn't get another pastor, they had to ask him to come back; and he did, on his terms.

Those days are over. Long over.

What people want doesn't resemble spiritual leadership at all. Whether it ever did is, so far as I'm concerned, an open question. Anne Dilenschneider traces the problem back to the 1920's. The Rev. McDonald traces it to the 1950's. I'll take either guess as a good one. I prefer, in fact, my own analysis: that Protestantism especially has always been so close to the culture that any barrier between church and culture is not just semi-permeable, but more honored in the breach than in the keeping. Try, for example, to remove an American flag from a Protestant space of worship. I've told the story before of the young German pastor who visited my church and expressed shock and discomfort with the national flag, especially given recent German history. Her chaperon, a man of my father's generation, leaped to the defense of it as a symbol of those who died for freedom (another disturbing modern idea). He couldn't begin to understand our discomfort with the blurring of church and state it represented, nor understand it would never have been allowed in a Protestant place of worship before the 20th century (WWI may have ushered it in; if not, WWII certainly did). I still don't see it in Episcopal churches, where their understanding of church is more of a distinct, almost Roman Catholic, nature.

As the culture has grown more dependent on consumption, more concerned with the needs of the individual, and less with the needs of the community (which the invisible hand of the market is supposed to take care of. To paraphrase Eliot, they are not really familiar with markets, but they think the market is a great green god.), they have come to regard church as their property, the clergy as their employee, and spiritual formation as "whatever makes people leave feeling great about themselves. My daughter and my wife both love me and loved my sermons, fully supported my pastoral dreams and attempts at leadership, but they both say the job requires someone more skilled at making people happy, someone who will simply give the congregations what they want. And what they want, as both columns say, is programs and parties and reasons to come to church and feel better because their ordinary lives leave them feeling pretty lousy. They've done enough work all week, as one church member once told me: they want to come to church and get their batteries recharged.

Which prompted me to ask, in a sermon: what if we did it backwards? What if the work was all done on Sunday morning, in the leitourgia, the liturgy, the work of the people, and the other six days of the week recharged our spiritual batteries? Wouldn't that be better? Wouldn't that be more fulfilling? Wouldn't we come to church seeking the living presence of the Creator of the Universe, of the Saviour or our souls, and spend the week rejoicing because the lives we lived knew that presence? The lives we lived would see our batteries recharging, rather than our batteries running down because the world was so strenuous, so difficult, so hard to live comfortably in, to live spiritually in. Wouldn't that be better?

No one thought so. They thought, in fact, I was too spiritual a leader. So is there something clergy should do about clergy burnout? Or is there something someone else should be doing?

This article tilts toward the standard answer: more vacation, and you'll be fine. But that doesn't address the denominational obsessions with membership numbers and money in the offering plate. I lost my last church when the Conference Minister came to my Church Council meeting and, while I was in the room, told the Council what a poor pastor I had become. It was a planned attack, made in no small part because of the amount of money my congregation traditionally gave to the larger church (paid his salary, in other words). Church hierarchies like growing congregations because that means a pastor is successful. They like full coffers, because that means a church is "healthy." The pastor is not a pastor, a curate of souls: he is an administrator, a director, a CEO and CFO with no authority but very real responsibilities. That's the reason:

Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.
It's not because they care so much they can't take time off. It's because they fear so much the vagaries of a congregation, the whisper campaigns that can begin when they are gone. I took a two week vacation in my church, the first I'd had in years. A local pastor covered my pastoral calls for me. A member died while I was gone. The complaints against me grew louder, aided and abetted by my absence, which was taken as a sign of my lack of care, of my misplaced priorities. It's a commonplace in the life of clergy; but it's small wonder pastors don't take vacations when they should. They don't want to lose their jobs.

I took a shorter vacation, earlier in my three years at that church. I spent the time discovering Harry Potter, and came back and gave a sermon on it, hoping to be "topical." One person who later blossomed into an enemy, reportedly complained that I'd been off on vacation reading kids books, when the work of the church needed to be done. When, toward the end, I pointed out to the congregation that membership had been declining for decades, meaning to say it was a result of demographics (the neighborhood around the church had changed, from German to Mexican immigrants; and Vietnamese, Korean, African-Americans. The most segregated hour in America is still on Sunday morning.) My point was to make them relax, and realize church size was not the only marker for church health. Instead they decried my emphasis, and focused solely on the decline in my three years.

Perhaps I should have taken time to pray more, huh?

You see what I mean: personal stories are personal. But they can also be universal. The problem is, to emphasize them too much is to dwell too much on peculiarities, to raise legitimate questions about my abilities as a pastor, about who should share the blame, etc. But to be too general is to wander into abstraction, and to float generalization about how all congregations are bad, or all seminaries feckless because they don't train in spiritual leadership (the Protestant seminaries are as uncomfortable with it as any engineering school would be), or all pastors poor guardians of their time and personal boundaries. And to top it off, I said at the beginning I wouldn't do this, wouldn't tell personal stories. And I meant it.

And then again, it's an issue only clergy care about, so it isn't one too many people feel too much responsibility for (or, therefor, interest in). So, what are we gonna do with folks like that?

1 comment:

  1. I dont know if you can receive (or have even seen the BBC programme Rev:

    Sitcom about a vicar running a modern inner-city church, with a reluctant wife and a depleted, motley congregation

    It was better than it sounds (-:

    Guardian review

    BBC homepage