Clergy Burnout and the New York Times

The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: 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.
Public health experts who have led the studies caution that there is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy.
But while research continues, a growing number of health care experts and religious leaders have settled on one simple remedy that has long been a touchy subject with many clerics: taking more time off.
“We had a pastor in our study group who hadn’t taken a vacation in 18 years,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, an assistant professor of health research at Duke University who directs one of the studies. “These people tend to be driven by a sense of a duty to God to answer every call for help from anybody, and they are virtually called upon all the time, 24/7.”

Thus saith the New York Times.

When the believer listens to the world, he should always keep in mind this simple fact: The world is very good at observation but very poor in assigning meaning. In fact, the natural man (here defined as the man who is without the Spirit, the one who has never been born again) will always come to the wrong conclusion. He will never interpret the experiences of life correct. Yes, I know that "always" and "never" are strong terms. I used them on purpose. Hopefully in my next post, I'll explain why this statement about the world is a constant in the universe.

Knowing this constant, that the world always comes to the wrong conclusions, makes understanding this next statement easier. The Times (well, actually their sources) correctly identify a problem, but are blind to the cause.

First the problem. I'm not sure that "burnout" is the correct term, but stress on pastors (I'll narrow my focus to this subgroup of clergy since I'm most competent to speak of them) is something that every pastor I know struggles with.

Now at this point, some have switched off. Someone out there is saying that everyone deals with stress in their jobs. This is true. I understand this. But when someone immediately raises this objection, it just shows they don't understand the nature of the pastorate.

Being a pastor is different from having a job. Oh sure, just like everyone else they have to work through the common obstacles that all of us face. They must fix the car when the money is scarce, they get the flu, handle discipline issues with children, and endure noisy neighbors. At "work" there are clerical errors, slipped deadlines, computer problems, cranky co-workers and the like. So in one respect, pastors are just like everyone else.

Yet there remains some fundamental differences between pastors and the rest of the world: Pastors have been set apart by God (Acts 13:2; Rom 1:1), they are specially gifted (1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6) for a specific task (Eph 4:11-12), so that they are members of the church but are held more accountable for their teaching and actions (Heb 13:17; Jas 3:1). In fact, while Jesus walks in the midst of the churches in Revelation 2 & 3 he holds the pastors ("angels" should be translated "messengers") in his right hand (Rev 1:20-2:1). Pastors are not just another member of the church!

Not only is their calling before God distinct, the nature of their work is different. As Charles Spurgeon put it, "Ours is more than mental work—it is heart work, the labour of our inmost soul" (Thanks to John Piper for this, and many of the following quotes by Spurgeon) My mentor in seminary, Dr. James Raiford, always reminded us "when God calls a man, he calls the whole man." So the mind, the will, the emotions, the sense of humor, everything that makes us "us" was called by God as is to be employed in his service. 

But just as their calling before God is unique, so are the trials they face. I've been amazed, frankly, as I've spoken with pastors (after April 12 and the trouble I've experienced) with how many of them tell the same story. Actually, I know of only one pastor with significant years in the ministry that hasn't either been dismissed from a church or endured a fight where someone was trying to dismiss him. The universal nature of this trial is startling.

One educator I know stated he was so hurt by a church that dismissed him without warning, he will never serve as pastor again. Another educator told of the time he was dismissed (again without warning) and given two weeks to move out of the parsonage, having no where to go. One pastor friend of mine is calling me on a regular basis to encourage me. This is, in part, because he loves me but also because when he went through a similar experience several years ago, I called him regularly for the same reason. 

But this isn't a new problem, despite the smug claims by the Times. This has always been the nature of the pastorate. Even a cursory reading of the life of the Apostle Paul shows the constant attacks he suffered from those within the church as well as without. Jonathan Edwards was dismissed from his church because he refused to serve communion to the lost. Even if the problems don't deteriorate to such a point, the constant harping from various quarters wears a man down. Spurgeon noted

You know what one coldhearted man can do, if he gets at you on Sunday morning with a lump of ice, and freezes you with the information that Mrs. Smith and all her family are offended, and their pew is vacant. You did not want to know of that Lady's protest just before entering the pulpit, and it does not help you.

That's before the sermon. This is what happens afterwards:

What terrible blankets some professors are! Their remarks after a sermon are enough to stagger you ... You have been pleading as for life or death and they have been calculating how many seconds the sermon occupied, and grudging you the odd five minutes beyond the usual hour.

I actually had one woman come to me and accuse me of not giving the Gospel when she brought a friend to church. I protested that I presented a clear Gospel message with a strong appeal and would give my sermon notes to prove it. She dismissed my protestations with, "Oh, I quit listening after 9:30."

Eventually, it comes to this:

One crushing stroke has sometimes laid the minister very low. The brother most relied upon becomes a traitor ... Ten years of toil do not take so much life out of us as we lose in a few hours by Ahithophel the traitor, or Demas the apostate.

Every pastor I know…every onewithout exception…is nodding in agreement after reading these words. John Piper, bless him, touched my soul with these words:

Preaching great and glorious truth in an atmosphere that is not great and glorious is an immense difficulty. To be reminded week in and week out that many people regard your preaching of the glory of the grace of God as hypocrisy pushes a preacher not just into the hills of introspection, but sometimes to the precipice of self-extinction.
I don't mean suicide. I mean something more complex. I mean the deranging inability to know any longer who you are. What begins as a searching introspection for the sake of holiness, and humility gradually becomes, for various reasons, a carnival of mirrors in your soul: you look in one and you're short and fat; you look in another and you're tall and skinny; you look in another and you're upside down. And the horrible feeling begins to break over you that you don't know who you are any more. 

I've often wondered why the ministry is constantly and universally plagued with these specific trials. Why is it that every pastor identifies with these words? 

I think at least part of the answer lies in the nature of our work. We work in that which is unseen, that which can't be measured, that which is, therefore, to many people, unreal. The tool and die man can examine his work at the end of the day. The salesman can gloat over the contracts closed, the accountant can smile at a perfectly balanced line of numbers. Not so the pastor. It is only after the labor of years the effect of his ministry is truly known. And if his labors have no effect in a certain individual's heart, then that individual concludes that the pastor is having no effect at all.

Second, it seems that many people assume they know as much as the pastor. Now on the face of it, this is genuinely ridiculous. If a pastor has earned a Masters of Divinity (the common degree for ministry), then he has 120 hrs of undergraduate work and an additional 90 hrs of graduate work in Greek and Hebrew, Bible, Theology, Counseling, and so forth. This fact alone should cause at least a moment's pause in a person who finds the pastor ignorant. The pastor may be wrong (and I don't know any pastor that wouldn't admit to that), but uneducated they seldom are. 

Of course, in fundamentalists circles, education itself is looked upon with suspicion. The liberal drift away from the core truths of the faith begun in the schools. Therefore, education has been viewed skeptically for years by many. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me that getting a PhD would ruin me, I'd be able to buy a nice steak dinner! 

As a result of these assumptions and since the pastor deals with practical issues of right and wrong, and everyone thinks they know what right and wrong looks like, many think they are as qualified as the pastor to critique his understanding of what applied Christianity looks like. And so many do, sometimes to the pastor, but more often to their acquaintances.

Please understand that I'm not making a statement concerning the infallibility of the pastorate, trying to set up a fundamentalist magisterium, or any other ex cathedra claims here. I'm merely stating that the common trials that the pastor endures are a result from the nature of his work and the nature of man. Thus, I hold little hope that it will ever get any better. Nor does any other pastor I know. In fact, a common phrase used to discuss trouble in the church is "it's my turn."

This is why the Times declares that "many [pastors] would change jobs if they could." True enough. But the Times' solution—go on vacation more often—doesn't hold water. Piper lists several truths drawn from the life of Spurgeon for a more complete and honest answer if you're interested (which, interestingly, includes a furlough, but isn't limited to that).

Some pastor's do indeed give up. They sell insurance or used cars. They teach. BTW, this is not an indictment of college and seminary professors. This is not true of most. But it is true of some - that's all I'm saying.

For most of us we cry out with the prophet Jeremiah. And this keeps us going.

But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name, his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. (Jer 20:9 NIV 84)