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The True Cause of Pastoral Burnout

A recent blog post  by Philip Wagner on “The Secret Pain of Pastors” has created some good—and really necessary—conversation about the challenge of pastoral leadership today. I’ll add my two cents with a few reposts of blogs I wrote after the NY Times ran a similar article in 2010. These posts were written right at the time that I started coaching pastors and working on a book on leadership development. Today, after 200 conversations with pastors, I’m more convinced than ever that there is a clergy leadership crisis that is only increasing. 

“The antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness.” David Whyte

A recent article in the New York Times on clergy burnout has been getting lots of attention amongst my pastor friends (and some kind church members who are concerned about me). The article suggests (I think, accurately) that the cause is in large part the unhealthy professional boundaries between pastors and their congregations. It also points to the reality that in our highly connected technological world, it is extremely difficult for a pastor to ever truly “vacation” from the congregation. (Indeed, recently I received word of the death of an infant in our congregation while I was at 30,000 feet winging my way to Italy on a family vacation.) The article wisely encourages pastors to get better and more regular rest and offers some good resources  And I wholeheartedly agree.

But, all the while affirming the need for regular days off, vacations and sabbaticals (indeed: I enjoyed a glorious one four years ago), I want to ask my colleagues: Is that really what’s causing the burnout?  

The fact is that clergy and congregations have always had bad boundaries. In previous generations, being eager to work all-hours and having one’s ego fed by the need to be needed was practically a pre-requisite to a call from God to ordination (not that I am affirming that!). The truth is that most of us LOVE a good pastoral care crisis. It is the place where we are most competent and add the most value. We pastors thrive on people being spiritually open to the presence of God in life, and love nothing better than walking with searching souls in a journey of genuine authenticity. Most pastors will never admit this publicly, but most of us would rather be officiating funerals than weddings. (At a funeral, people are far more open to spiritual things; at a wedding, everybody wants to get on to the reception as quickly as possible.)

So is the cause of burnout really too many souls in need of care?

A follow up article by a minister suggested that the cause of burnout is congregational consumerism. People now demand that their pastors be part shrewd cultural commentator and part comic. We must entertain, inspire and instruct a little, all the while never really challenging the worldview or tribal instincts that make us Christians seem little different than anyone else. Mostly, people come to church to be affirmed, encouraged and given some tips to get God on their side in their self-improvement strivings for the good life. We pastors, as my friend Charlie says, are expected to be Tony Robbins with prayer.

Again, I agree, and this unhealthy expectation on the part of church-goers is undeniably part of the problem. But is that the root cause? Or are pastors and congregations not only suffering from bad boundaries, but also colluding to alleviate a deeper anxiety that plagues us all?

Here is my hunch:

Poet David Whyte famously wrote, “The antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness.”
We clergy are burning out because we have lost our wholeheartedness about pastoral ministry. 

By this, I DON’T mean our passion for the gospel or our commitment to the Kingdom of heaven (though that may be true for some). I also DON’T mean our sense of call to serve people, to preach, teach, counsel or care (though again, that may be true for some). What I mean is that most of us are now asked to do a job that we didn’t sign up for, in circumstances that are far different than we expected. The culture is changing and the church is in crisis, and most of us were not trained for this. And so we are less wholehearted than we once were and are unsure if we are up for the task that has been thrust upon us.