the contours of clergy burnout
This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.
In 2019, I heard from a pastor who’d read my article on millennial burnout. All of it felt familiar to her: The massive student debt, the stress of social media, the feeling of a “calling” but the calling leads you to an unlivable wage, the feeling that you need to be working all the time at one job while also making time for a second job to buoy you financially…..welcome to clergy burnout.
I grew up in the church, something I’ve written a bit about here. I no longer consider myself a Christian but like a lot of writers I’m always interested in excavating the ideologies that informed me as a child and young adult, especially thinking through what a religious tradition could be when not obsessed with sexist moralizing and other people’s bodies. (You can find some of my previous profiles of religious organizations doing just that here and here).
Burnout is a symptom of working within contemporary, largely unregulated capitalism — and religious organizations, whether they want to or not, operate within that system. Not because they’re money-making enterprises (apart from the celebrity pastor cool Christian franchise cases in which they most certainly are) but because they have to function within society created by that system. When the cost of schooling goes up, and student debt goes up along with it, so too does the amount of student debt (many) pastors have to take on. When health care costs go up for everyone, they can also become too much for a congregation to bear for its leader.
When people feel like they need to be working all the time, and don’t have time for rest let alone a whole Sabbath or the wherewithal for a weekly commitment, religious attendance goes down — and the ramifications of dwindling congregations (and maintaining existing members, while recruiting new ones) falls on the clergy. Being a religious leader has never been easy (or, for most, lucrative) but when the secular world is as exhausting and precarious as it is now, the religious leader, tasked with tending to the spiritual needs of their congregation, is going to absorb it to the point of overflowing. That’s enough of a psychological burden to bear. Now imagine doing it while not having health insurance and working a second job and worrying about defaulting on your loans.
And now, imagine everything that a clergy member was tasked with doing — and doing it during a pandemic.
A recent survey by the National Association for Evangelicals found that 59% of pastors have no family health insurance. 62% have no retirement fund or plan. Half of the pastors surveyed had a salary and housing package that added up to under $50,000. In 2018, the average total student loan debt for a seminary graduate was $54,600. A survey of Wisconsin clergy, administered in July 2020, found 10% of all clergy’s employment had been threatened as the result of COVID-related ministry decisions, and 25% of clergy had “seriously considered retiring or resigning” due to the stresses of performing their job during COVID.
There’s a lot more to think about here — how some clergy are also tasked with dealing with congregants turning to QAnon, the myriad reasons why millennials and Gen-Z have turned from Christianity in particular, the ways in which congregations are encouraged to vote in ways that continue to unravel the social safety nets that helped protect their own religious leaders from precarity.
But as with most things, I wanted to let religious leaders speak for themselves about what they’re feeling now, what they’ve felt for years, how the idea of a “calling” can screw with expectations of what their job should feel like, the sheer number of jobs a contemporary religious leader is performing, how their larger community could alleviate burnout — and, of course, what they’re praying for most ardently in this moment. Even if you’re not religious, I think you’ll find it compelling.
One of the refrains of my book is that you can’t fix burnout for yourself, or even your workplace, until you start to grapple with the larger societal issues that fuel it. For me, seeing how those issues manifest in so many different vocations is part of what convinces me that no, as a society, we’re not okay — that no, as a society, it doesn’t have to be this way — and that no, we shouldn’t shut up about it.
Some of the clergy below are using their real names, and some have asked for their names to be changed in order to speak more freely about their situation. All responses have been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Lydia, Minister in a Liberal Domination in a Small City in the West, Age 34
I think that some of my congregants believe that all I do is preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. But it's way, way more multifaceted than that. Sure, I do worship and adult education and pastoral care. I also manage the church staff, meet with lots of teams and committees who are doing the work of the church, engage with administrative stuff (constantly), represent the church in public settings, and work with community partners and coalitions to advocate for social change.
Prior to COVID, I would have said that leading worship and community organizing things were the most gratifying part of the job. But the reality is that, at least for me, online church doesn't involve any of the emotional feedback that I used to get in-person. And, serving a congregation with mostly older folks, I get a lot of complaints about tech issues and almost no help with them. My education and credentialing did not prepare me for this rapid shift to digital ministry. I have no desire to learn how to edit audio or video. Like, literally none. But I guess I have to now? Is this how older clergy felt when they had to learn how to email?
The two most exhausting parts are (1) the constant back and forth dance of trying to figure out what I'm actually in charge of and actually allowed to do, because I get super mixed messages about the limits of my authority and, as a young woman, it is an endless uphill battle to have congregants recognize my expertise and (2) cultivating a non-anxious presence in the face of pervasive anxiety in the congregation and the world. Especially now, with COVID and the election, people are showing up deeply, deeply anxious, and that anxiety comes out in very strange and unexpected ways. But instead of getting to tell them that they are being ridiculous and need to get a grip, I'm supposed to empathize with them and help them find a way out of it. I want to be able to do the latter, but it's awfully exhausting.
Occasionally, when I'm working on an exciting new project or program, I feel invigorated. Mostly, I feel low-key dread. The exhaustion spreads and makes me feel impatient and frustrated at home. I hate getting home from a day of dealing with adults acting like children and then feeling like I don't have the energy and patience to deal with our toddler (who is amazing, but also a toddler). And so I feel resentful of my congregants because I would much rather feel like I could give the best of myself to my family instead of them sucking it all dry by 6 pm.
I'm most worried about our capacity to actually be the church in the world. Guiding and birthing change in religious communities is like turning a cruise ship -- you need patience, persistence, and long-term vision. Leading a congregation now is like trying to do a K-turn with a cruise ship in a narrow canal. And, like, the boat is on fire.
The idea of a “calling” sometimes makes my congregants (not all, but enough of them) feel like I should be willing to be underpaid for my level of education, experience, and expertise. Money is not everything, and I'm not in this to get rich. But the idea that people with very financially comfortable lives get to tell me that I already make plenty of money just makes me feel like they don't really care (which feeds the burnout). I had about 50k in student debt from seminary when I graduated, and now I'm down to just over 30k. Every time I think about it, I wish that my congregants actually valued my expertise, education, and credentialing.
What would relieve burnout? If my congregations could trust me — not just as a person but as a professional. I am relatively new to full time parish ministry (3 years in), but I have years and years of experience as a lay leader in different congregations and in our denomination. I’m held in good regard by many prominent senior colleagues. When I suggest a path forward that somebody doesn't agree with, they reference how inexperienced I am or suggest that I am somehow naive. And out of one side of their mouth they say "We love you!!!" and out of the other side, they make snide comments about my age.
Also, heavens above, they could give me the parental leave that the denomination recommends!!!
I’m praying for clarity for myself. I am not clear that I will seek another parish ministry after I leave this one in the next year or two — and for clarity for my church, that they will see that they are powerful, capable people who can make a real difference in our world.
Also for an end to the grip of white supremacy on our minds and hearts in this country. You know. Just the little stuff.
Alexis, Former Youth Minister in Florida for a Baptist and a Non-Denominational Church, Age 27
The entirety of the time I’ve worked in youth ministry, I worked two jobs to pay the bills. I was averaging 60 hours of work a week. For a long time, my second job was Chick-fil-a, so I didn’t have health insurance, which was really scary.
My decision to receive an education at a private Christian university was made before I ever had bills of my own. I only attended for my last two years of college, but it was incredibly expensive. Both of my parents have said they expected me to have been able to pay that off by now. Looking at the math, I now see that was incredibly optimistic.
When I was still working, I often felt frustrated and like I was failing. Being a youth pastor requires more than my Biblical Studies degree. You are an event planner, a counselor, a graphic designer, a marketing team, a public speaker, and a lot more. It always seemed like there were these huge dreams that could be accomplished with just a little more help and a little more money that were out of my reach.
The high turnover in youth ministry is not a secret. There are so many books on how not to become that statistic. So many articles about how not to burn out. What I would love to see is the culture around ministry to change, because what we are doing right now isn’t working. Pay your staff better. And if you can’t do that, set up better systems of support for them. Acknowledge that emotional and spiritual work is still difficult, even if it looks to you like only soft skills.
I felt like I had a calling. I’ve been told that I do by spiritual leaders I really respect. But it has been such a struggle and I so often feel like I’ve failed God and I’ve failed my kids. I wonder if maybe I was wrong about that.
Eric, Lead Pastor at a Disciples of Christ Church in Alabama, Age 34
Small church pastors are all generalists. We're preachers and teachers, but we're also caregivers and counselors, administrators and bureaucrats, ad hoc social workers, and sometimes even custodians and groundskeepers. That’s the most exhausting part for me: the tasks that I am neither naturally gifted for or educated to best perform. I didn't go to seminary to become a landlord, but it's extremely common for congregations to rent out space to preschools, outside groups, you name it. Those relationships are meaningful and vital for many reasons, but they can also become sticky wickets very, very easily. The most gratifying part of pastoring is also the least exhausting part for me: the sharing in personal enrichment and education that leads people closer to God.
I think seminary education doesn't teach you how to do ministry so much as it teaches you how to think like a minister, and it's important to recognize the distinction. It's about giving you a mindset — a lens with which to do ministry. And that's helpful, but it also means that if you don't get the nuts-and-bolts stuff in your field education experience, you're probably not going to get it and will have to learn most of it on the job.
My congregation is relatively small but financially secure — though our savings took a significant blow this year with the pandemic-induced economic recession. A few years ago, my denomination simply ended its denomination-wide health insurance program for clergy and basically expects individual congregations to pick up the cost of their pastors' health insurance. But a lot of congregations can't afford to do that! My wife and I are on COBRA insurance right now — which costs us over $1,100/month — until her new job's benefits kick in later this year, at which point I'll move onto her insurance.
My denomination and my seminary very generously paid for my tuition and textbooks, but I was still on the hook for most of my living expenses in a very costly place to live (the San Francisco Bay Area), and I did end up graduating with over $10,000 in credit card debt and auto loans that took a couple of years of full-time ministry to pay off. Operating a seminary is an expensive proposition, but we as clergy are being expected to pursue a graduate-level degree that takes a minimum of three years to complete for a job that is increasingly paid on a part-time basis. But to quote a colleague of mine: there's no such thing as part-time ministry, only part-time wages.
I could be making more money in any number of other occupations, but I also know that those jobs would not make me as happy or fulfilled because of that crucial difference between occupation and vocation. I am meant to be a pastor of a congregation — have known that since I was eighteen, and truthfully I probably knew it even earlier than that. But my denomination should push harder for clergy compensation to keep pace with other mainline denominations. Disciples clergy are some of the lowest-paid on average compared to our peers, and compensation is the most honest form of how a worker's value to their employer is communicated to them.
Right now, I’m praying for justice and equity for others, for Black lives to matter far more than they historically have been, for this congregation and wider community I have moved across the country to serve, and for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be made known to the world through my work of preaching, teaching, caring, writing, and agitating.
Miriam, Rabbi in New England, Age 37
In college, I told people I wasn't going to be a rabbi and looked into PhDs in American Jewish Lit instead. But after two jobs post college, I realized I wanted to be with people — not only their emails or books about them. Rabbinical school and the rabbinate was the perfect mix of my strengths, talents and most of the things I love to do: singing, being with people, writing, giving sermons, pastoral care, loving Jewish time, and feeling drawn especially to supporting people through grief journeys. I have come to love ritual, transformation, and the pursuit of creating spaces for people to face their human condition - and I believe Judaism is a most powerful framework for this. I'm exhausted as I write this - but I also know I don't know what else I would do with my life but this.
I work on a large clergy team and participate in an array of synagogue life; I do a lot of pastoral care, lead services, teach Torah study and adult learning classes, and coordinate various small groups designed to build intimacy in a large community. The things that fuel and gratify me the most are when I can lead people in singing, music is among the roots of my rabbinate. I also love doing pre-marital counseling, supporting conversion students, and expanding the notion of what Judaism can be for families trying to figure out how to bring it into their lives. I even love doing funerals! However, I'm not sure that gratification doesn't also exhaust someone. As much as I love all these things, relational work is exhausting, too. There is no such thing as business hours in the rabbinate.
Many communities want innovative rabbis now. We're also doing a lot of work to repair the mistakes and dare I say, failures, of Jewish life in earlier decades. Coupled with assimilation and the rise of individualism, this has led us to a cacophony of people who identify as spiritual but not religious, Hebrew School dropouts, or aren't interested in synagogue life. The irony of it all is that if they all needed us and joined us, we'd be overwhelmed. In response to these trends, there has been a major transition in leadership styles - as many clergy, often women and non-binary leaders, try to build a horizontal model of leadership and community building. Working so hard to invent a vibrant future, sharing the load of responsibility with congregants could help with burnout. I think the Rabbi as priest is no longer; and the rabbi as connector, visionary, and caregiver is the most attractive to people these days, although so many Jews have already peaced out from synagogues that they probably don't know this. People I meet are constantly surprised by what rabbis can be like today.
When you have a vocation like the rabbinate, the balance between work and life is so blurry because it's your job and your identity wrapped up in one. I love being Jewish, but is it work or life to read a book on Jewish themes? Is it work or life to celebrate a holiday at your house that includes some attendees who are also members of your synagogue because you've sort of become friends? Coupled with certain synagogue styles that follow more corporate models of work culture, it's difficult to know how to "turn it off" and just be a human. And the boundaries are real: there are clergy who are good at integrating work and life, but you can't just talk about your job with your congregants who you may be friendly with. So there's always some measure of exhaustion in trying to edit yourself.
Sustaining the current model of synagogue dues (and rabbinic salaries) seems like it will eventually crash. I don't want it to crash because sometimes it feels like "combat pay" for the lack of work/life balance in my life — but I don't think it's sustainable. And I have been saying the following a lot lately (which I think is due to burnout): I'm not sure it's all worth it. Yeah, I'm making a lot of money and I genuinely love what I do — but it's at the expense of not getting to celebrate holidays with my family, not getting to really take nourishing vacations or having time to socialize or take care of myself. I love the work I get to do as a rabbi, but I'm not sure it’s worth taxing myself and my family so heavily. I was recently married; congregants were really loving and even sent gifts, but trying to be a rabbi and a bride was difficult, lacking time to really soak in the joy.
Right now, I’m praying for wholeness and peace. A chance to feel truly rejuvenated. Health for my family. And repair to systems of injustice.
Marcella, Episcopal Priest in Connecticut, Age 36
I’m an assistant rector for youth and family ministries, so I run youth groups, faith formation classes, service trips, intergenerational ministries, outreach projects, chaplain at our preschool - plus all the regular stuff like preaching, leading worship, pastoral care, social justice, etc. The most gratifying part is getting to be a meaningful part of people’s lives, and getting to be in community with others in a way that is so deep and powerful and life-giving.
The most exhausting is that it’s SUCH intense emotional labor: managing boundaries, navigating power dynamics, dealing with all the complicated behavior people bring into community space. And wearing a million different hats: on any given day, I’m a spiritual leader, therapist, fundraiser, social worker, babysitter, budget specialist, community organizer, communications manager, curriculum designer, teacher, nonprofit administrator….switching between those different roles wears me out.
When I am well rested and balanced, which is rare, I wake up excited to get to do all the fun stuff that is a part of my job. When I’m tired or overfunctioning, I wake up with a pit of dread in my stomach. The work itself doesn’t change that much, but my enthusiasm for it fades so quickly when I’m worn down or anxious or need a break.
Many religious leaders are working 21st century jobs with 20th century skills. We’re still getting trained and formed for a version of church/life that doesn’t exist anymore. I’ve been anxious about burnout and overfunctioning since I started down this path — there is no training, no resources, no support for self care. I only know the smallest handful of clergy who I would consider healthy — emotionally, spiritually, physically. The idea of following a “calling” carries with it this implication of “God called you into this life” so you wear yourself out with that narrative, like you don’t have agency and can’t advocate for yourself in ecclesial systems the way you might be able to in a corporate system. The savior complex is rampant in this field, and there’s almost no counter-narrative to that way of doing this work.
I have so much student debt, from both undergrad and and seminary, and I will never make enough money to pay it off, so I’m just grateful most of it is federal and I will just be paying them off the rest of my life. It sucks. But I’m so lucky to have a full time with benefits position in the church. Most young people coming through seminary know that this is a shrinking field and there won’t be jobs or financial stability for many of us. I don’t anticipate I’ll be able to do this as my sole job/vocation my whole life.
My wife and I have to be really careful about boundaries and what kind of work energy we bring into our relationship, even though we both work in church. We would love to have children but neither of us feel confident about balancing a life in ministry with having kids: we just don’t know if we’d ever have enough leftover emotional energy for little ones (it’s hard enough reserving it for each other.)
What could my denomination do? Work to engage and promote meaningful conversation about changing/transforming models of priesthood so that clergy can be grounded and healthy. There’s a ton of lip service about self care, but what we need to be doing is radically reenvisioning what it means to be a priest in a white supremacist and toxic capitalist system. But I do want to say that I see a lot of young(er) clergy gaining some awareness around how to engage in ministry in a healthier and more holistic way, especially when we have safe spaces to really open up about our experiences. A lot of the spoken and unspoken boundaries imposed by earlier generations of clergy are being questioned, adjusted, and reimagined in ways that truly integrate self and community care, and it's really cool to be a part of that change. There's a lot to be hopeful about as the Church continues to transform!
What I’m praying for right now: Attentiveness to grace and beauty in the midst of transformation — and for freedom from anxiety.
Ann, Hospital Chaplain, Chicago, Age 45
I work mainly in pastoral care at the moment, and my responsibilities are to listen well and help people think through existential problems brought on by illness. Often they have religious or philosophical questions or topics they want to talk about. The most gratifying part for me is having a long in-depth conversation with a patient who wants to use their religion (often Christianity) to think about their situation. Sometimes this includes dream interpretation (which is wild!). I feel like I've done meaningful work when I can help patients feel like they aren't losing everything at the same time.
Most exhausting part of my work is pager duty. For many hours of my work week, I am in charge of an on-call pager. That often means going to the trauma center and seeing patients with horrible injuries and trying to get their families medical updates. This is fast paced and very tiring. It feels like emotional triage. Lately I've been waking up in the middle of the night and have had a hard time going back to sleep. Coffee usually gets me over the morning sleepiness, but the mid-afternoon crash is pretty hard.
I think religious leaders have lost authority over time. I'm mixed on what I think about that in general. My educational path was really an exercise in free association, and it made me into someone who could do this work. Hospital chaplaincy does not require a PhD, which I have, but I do the position differently than others, and I command the respect of the physicians. By doing it differently, I mean that I can contextualize patient concerns in the history of Christian (or Jewish) thought and texts simply because I have spent so much time studying it. In terms of the emotional and relational work required for the position, none of my formal education prepared me for that. The chaplaincy training helped with self-awareness and avoiding burnout, but it could have been better. To be honest, my own work with my therapist helps me more than any class or training that I've had.
I do think that despair is setting in, though. In the uber-Protestant idea of chaplaincy in the US, we are encouraged to think of our units as our congregations. This includes the staff. In the past few months, they have less patience, are more lax in adhering to safety protocols, and less attentive to patients according to what the patients tell me. Everyone seems stretched thinly and seems to feel lonely, even when surrounded by people at work. I say “despair” because I think whatever this is feels like a new normal that won't change — and it’s hard to work under these conditions without the prospect of the conditions getting better.
I was strangely relieved to be declared an “essential worker”: it meant that I would have to go to a dangerous job, but I'd keep getting paid, and I don't worry about being let go. I do have health insurance through the hospital (which, when I was a pastor of a church, I didn't have). But my chaplaincy position still doesn’t pay enough, and I adjunct at a state school and at a seminary. And I do ethics consultation for a tech company. No doubt, this is part of my being tired. I get the most meaning out of the chaplaincy and the seminary teaching. For what it’s worth, all of the chaplains in my department are working second jobs and most of us have significantly more education than the position requires.
I also have so much debt. Sometimes I feel like it is an albatross around my neck, and other times I feel like it has made my life possible...and I have a really interesting life. But I resent some of the sources of my debt. I never had to pay tuition, but I did have to cover my own health insurance to the tune of $6k a year. My wife also had to do this and our loans are consolidated. That's a lot of debt to subsidize the health insurance plans of faculty and staff. When I think about the systemic failures that led to that situation, it makes me resentful. I try not to live there.
I don't like the language of calling and have only used it with higher ups in the church who seem to require it. That being said, I think the idea of calling has played into chaplains being deemed essential workers. It also helps to suppress wages. I make more as a chaplain than I ever have, but it is still not livable. If I were single, I could not make it. If you complain, they say it is “the nature of the work.” In my particular context, I will sometimes run into a physician who talks about his (usually his) job as a calling. Of course, he makes, at minimum, six times what I do — so the language of call itself functions in very different ways within the same institution.
I'm currently praying for the possibility of hope. I feel that possibility slipping away, and I fear it will be very difficult to remember what it felt like to have hope and even harder to imagine having it again.
Grace, Incumbent at Parish in the Anglican Diocese of Montreal, Age 41
I'm the sole pastor of this congregation, which means the buck stops with me. I supervise three part-time staff and (as of this year) an intern, and manage worship, education, administration, community activities, etc. Administration is definitely one of the most exhausting things, along with dealing with difficult people and group dynamics and unreasonable expectations. That said, my current congregation is, overall, amazing; I've been here for just over two years and it has (surprisingly, in some ways) been a really good fit. During the pandemic, they've really pulled together to support each other and me (including financially). Compared to many of my colleagues, I'm extraordinarily blessed/lucky/privileged, however you want to put it.
That said, I can speak to an experience of burnout in a prior congregation where, although most of the people were lovely and well-intentioned on their own, somehow it never added up to the sum of the parts. As an organism, the parish was exhausted and anxious and it was almost impossible to get anyone (particularly, anyone healthy!) to serve in leadership or devote additional energy to new projects. My last year there — after the major effort that I'd been hired to run had fallen through — was intensely miserable, compounded by the fact that they were running out of money to pay me which meant that I was facing the loss of a house I loved, in a community I loved, and the prospect of having to move my then-7-year-old in the middle of the school year. It was hard to articulate while I was in the middle of it, but once I got out I was able to realize that for four years I had been pouring my energy and love into a system that was incapable of giving any of it back; I was literally drained dry. (Shortly before leaving, I finally got appropriately medicated for generalized anxiety disorder, but it's hard to tell how much of a difference it would have made if that had happened sooner.)
I am, however, also living proof that it's possible to come back from burnout. While at that anxious church in the early 2010s, I had trained as a birth doula, and was hoping to transition to that work, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it's super hard to pay the bills that way. I applied for disability benefits, but was turned down (twice). When the diocesan leadership came to me with an offer of a half-time interim job at a Lutheran congregation, I was really in no position to turn it down, much as I was tremendously reluctant to return to parish ministry just a few months after the previous experience. However, the Holy Spirit had the last laugh, as that Lutheran parish loved me back into life for two years and restored my faith in my own gifts, calling, and work. They did this mostly by having excellent boundaries and a clear sense of what was my job and what was not, being generous, expressing gratitude, and having a sense of humour. Which is a pretty good summary of How Not to Burn Out Your Pastor, if congregations are looking for one. Providing lots of Indonesian food and Swedish almond cake is optional, but it certainly doesn't hurt.
I live in Canada, so apart from massive bureaucracy, health insurance isn't a concern. In prior calls, though, it most definitely was; I think I was costing the anxious church well over $1000/month in premiums, which on a budget of $150K total is a significant consideration. At the Lutheran church, which was half time, I also did doula work; at the prior job, I was also a very part-time college chaplain, which was a nice additional income boost but also super stressful for other reasons. For now, my church is doing surprisingly well, financially, because Canada is subsidizing the wages of employees in small nonprofits.
For me personally, I've always seen myself as having multiple callings — ordination, parenthood, farming, doula work, writing. Quite early on, I realized that while I am definitely called to the sacramental ministry, that doesn't mean I need to crucify myself on the altar of the institutional church.
What I’m praying most ardently for? A vaccine! And an adequate response to climate change and racism.
Seth, Pastor at a Lutheran Church in Montana, Age 35
I am a solo pastor, so I do pretty much everything. I play guitar and serve as a worship leader at least once a month. I plan Sunday services, do funerals and weddings, and lead other special services like Christmas and Easter celebrations. I volunteer as a chaplain at our local hospital, set up and co-lead a non-profit children's choir for elementary students out of our church, lead youth trips, teach confirmation to middle and high school students, bring communion to shut-ins and members in nursing homes, and help keep up the church property through maintenance tasks like shoveling in the winter and mowing in the summer.
Since March, I have been forced to do much of my pastoral work over the phone and on the computer which is incredibly time consuming and exhausting for me. I spend about 10 to 15 hours putting together a Youtube video service each week to make sure older and immunocompromised members can worship from home. These amateur efforts on my part have been appreciated, but are very tiring for me personally and professionally. It is like, almost overnight, I was compelled to do a job that I was never trained or called to do. Serving a church in a small town in Montana — where many of members don't even have cell phones, email addresses or internet access — seemed like a call in which digital ministry would be only a small part of my work. Since March, it has become the main thing that I do every week and it is wearing me down.
Some days are okay, and I think, "I can do this." Yet, it is not an inspired, "We are going the distance! We are going to do great things in God's name!" kind of feeling. Rather, it is, "All right, I can survive this today." Other days, it is kind of like the floor falls out and I am left trying to put one foot in front of the other without anything to support me.
I feel like I am expected to do everything that pastors did forty or fifty years ago while at the same time coming up with all sorts of new, creative ministry initiatives to engage a changed world. Our congregation was longing for new direction and ways to reach into the 21st century in new ways, a job that often falls on the pastor as the only full-time church employee. I was trained to serve churches of a different era: when people prioritized religious participation and church attendance on their own and it was the pastor's job to come alongside and nurture the religious commitments that they brought with them. Now, I feel like I have to be a leader in the constant fight for institutional relevance while I still help people nurture a faith they do not realize they have and a spirituality that they do not know they need. It is like having an existential crisis everyday, and being expected to not only keep the faith but lead the faith of others everyday. It can be very exhausting.
There is nothing glorious about the weight of this moment. Our church revels in the outcome of the Reformation and how it changed the world for the better. I feel like this moment, in some similar ways, has thrown us all for a loop, but that we won't really be better for the challenges we are facing now.
I’m praying most ardently that people would take showing love to their neighbors seriously once again. The belief that God has called me to this place and to these people for this time helps to reassure me that all is not lost, but it does not do much to encourage me to think and believe differently about the challenges we are facing now. It kind of feels like I am called here to hold on and wait for better days. ●
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I have been in campus/young adult ministry for 15 years, which came to a screeching halt earlier this year, when I was laid off. While the circumstances of the layoff were personally demoralizing, it also came as a relief, as I was feeling incredibly burnt out. I was in full time ministry with a Catholic organization, and to be a Catholic woman in ministry is to be constantly underestimated. It. Is. Exhausting. First of all, the mental gymnastics required to show up within the clerical, misogynist system that is The Catholic Church. For good, or for ill, there are life-giving elements, but it requires willful ignorance/dismissal of the life-draining parts. The layoff was something of a blessing in disguise: pre-pandemic, my plans were to take some time off, create a sort of ‘sabbatical’ space to reimagine my future, and whether or not I want to continue on the path of ministry. I’m grateful to have this time away from ‘doing’ ministry, though a sabbatical in the shadow of a pandemic does not allow for much rest or creative thinking.
So fascinating. I also found myself wondering about more Evangelical/charismatic forms for burnout since that is the denomination I grew up in. I grew up Assemblies of God which is part of Pentecostalism. While there are colleges and seminaries that cater to the denomination that really only became a thing in the last 50 years or so. I can remember my mother saying that when she decided to go to a 4 year liberal arts college some people at her church thought that was a waste of time. The reason for this has to do with the belief in the power of the Holy Spirit. These churches deeply believe that anyone can be "called" to preach the word and can even be pre-disposed to not trust higher learning institutions but instead rely on the spirit of God speaking to you and that being enough education. (which of course can lead to a whole other set of problems. Although I do appreciate the root of this idea; that God can speak through anyone no matter their education level)
So as far as burnout I would imagine debt is less of an issue for these pastors since many of them may not have gone to seminary or competed a 4 year degree. Having said that I know the pastor of my parents church has a second job as that is what enables him to have health insurance. Their church is small but the ones that are there are definitely devoted.
I went to a liberal arts Christian college but most of my friends didn't go into any kind of full or part time ministry (most of them left the church completely to be honest) Anyway I wonder how burnout is manifesting itself for those types of pastors. I would imagine aside from the debt it's the same issues compounded by the stress of pastoring congregations that are susceptible to believing Q Anon theories, not wearing masks and basically anything else this President says.
As always great to read!