Culture At Large

What Can Lay People Do About Clergy Burnout?

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

The New York Times recently published a piece about a rise in clergy burnout. Health researchers are finding evidence of stress such as depression and hypertension. The story point to some of the wisdom of tradition—that everyone needs time off.  The catholic church even requires their priests to take time off, something protestants seem to be learning from later than necessary.

I am a big fan of Dorothy Bass’ work on Sabbath keeping. We all need to take care of ourselves and take time to build relationships with others. One point Bass has made that really resonated with me is the idea that if you think you’re too important to take a break, you probably have an inflated sense of your own importance. I think overworked and stressed out clergy are simply one symptom of a culture where we are all working ourselves to death. Of course, the protestant tradition, at least, has a long proud history of overvaluing work. See Max Weber’s treatise on the protestant work ethic, for example.

I also wonder if lay congregation members bear some of the responsibility for their clergy’s health. The NYT followed-up with an op-ed about the demands of a consumer attitude pressuring pastors away from careful theology and toward feel-good sermons.  I think a consumer approach to church extends beyond sermon content, however, and I do think it contributes to a lot of our problems. I think we hold the minister responsible for the health and growth of the church, at the expense of taking responsibility.

No doubt, strong leadership and quality preaching are crucial to the life of a congregation. But there is a lot more to a vibrant church than a minister.  I wonder if part of the problem is that so many people come to church looking for something to get out of it instead of what they can put in.  Would it be less stress on our clergy if we all took responsibility for our church being the kind of place visitors want to come back to? Of course, making lay church members feel guilty doesn’t make everything better, but I can’t help but think there’s a problem in our communities that is leading to these health problems.

Perhaps we expect too much of our clergy and not enough of ourselves. After all, our jobs and family responsibilities are so important. Oddly, these questions have brought me to a counterintuitive conclusion: maybe we need to work less to work more. That is, we need to allow ourselves to take a break from our weekday pursuits and take a Sabbath, and that very break would allow us to pour more of ourselves into our church communities. Perhaps that would lower the strain on ministers.

I know a lot of clergy read this blog, so perhaps they can speak from experience and improve on my hypotheses. Are there ways congregation members can lighten your load? Can a denomination add new or different systems to keep their clergy supported?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Evangelism, The Church, News & Politics, North America