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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Preventing Ministry Burnout

OK, clerks, this one’s for your pastor. (One little hint, though... if you do pass it on to him or her, accompany it with this disclaimer: “Don’t assume, because I’ve giving this to you, that I think you’re showing signs of burnout.” It’s a preventative thing.)

Anne Dilenschneider wrote an article in the August 12 Huffington Post, “Soul Care and the Roots of Clergy Burnout,” that’s well worth reading. She recalls a couple of articles that recently appeared in, of all places, the New York Times, one on the importance of ministerial vacations and the other on surviving through church conflict over the nature of the pastoral role. What I like best is her recalling H. Richard Niebuhr’s observation (in his landmark 1956 book, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry) of how ministry in the 20th century increasingly became modeled after secular business-management practices. Niebuhr wrote at mid-century, but the trends he identified back then only grew stronger in the years that followed. As churches (particularly mainline Protestant churches) moved into the new suburbs, most people came to define those spanking-new buildings as places where programs happen. Along with that, the role of the pastor gradually morphed into that of coordinator and manager of those programs. Other ministry tasks became secondary.

After decades of steadily-declining church membership, lots of pastors have given in to a kind of quiet despair, wondering if perhaps they’re personally responsible for the losses (I know I have, at times, but I got over it – especially once I realized it was happening everywhere, even across denominations). Sociologists like Robert Wuthnow, in After the Baby Boomers, have identified certain demographic trends – especially the shrinking birth rate, the postponement of the average age of marriage, and the growth of two-paycheck households – that, on their own, easily account for these numerical losses.

Way back in the 1950s, Niebuhr picked up on the trend of transforming ministry into management, and was critical of it. Calling ministry "the perplexed profession," he warned of a particular abuse of the ministerial office, based on an extreme form of this thinking: the image of the pastor as “Big Operator.” The name says it all.

Many of us who were in seminary in the 1970s and 80s were well aware of the rapid growth of clinical counseling training as a central feature of theological education. The Clinical Pastoral Education movement – valuable in itself, although some people overdid it – presented a whole, new model for pastoral ministry: that of ordained psychotherapist. Again, the introduction of clinical counseling techniques into pastoral counseling brought about some helpful improvements, but if you take it too far, you highjack the minister’s role and claim it for the world of psychology.

Then, along came spiritual direction. That emphasis was just starting to appear when I was in seminary, and has grown steadily stronger since then. Because the Roman Catholics, with their centuries-old traditions of spiritual formation, have been at it a lot longer than we have, most Protestants leading that particular charge have unabashedly borrowed ideas and practices from Rome, tweaking them here and there, when needed, to fit our theology.

Writing as a spiritual director, Dilenschneider naturally believes the solution to ministerial malaise lies in learning how to pray better. For her, this likely means signing on with a trained spiritual director like herself. There’s something to that, of course – for, who wants to go to the Big Operator or the Ordained Psychotherapist to learn how to pray?

I think she’s got something there, but – because she’s a spiritual director herself – I have to confess just a little skepticism about spiritual direction being the cure-all. She kind of reminds me of some chiropractors who are venturing out, these days, way beyond traditional spine adjustments. Some chiropractors are getting into everything from weight loss to treating kids with ADHD. (I’ve never visited a chiropractor, myself, and have no intention of ever going, but that’s what I see in some of the ads.)

While I disagree with Dilenschneider’s easy assumption that pre-1920s Protestant ministers saw themselves as “curates,” engaged in “the cure of souls” above all else (I suspect that’s a more recent import from Roman Catholicism or high-church Anglicanism), I think she’s right on with this statement:

“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.”

Whether that personal renewal happens through sitting down every couple weeks with a spiritual director, or simply by marveling at the consistent, gentle touch of the Holy Spirit through the weekly discipline of moving from text to sermon (which is more my cup of tea), she’s absolutely right – we pastors have got to allow God to continually nudge us in the direction of personal growth, if we’re going to remain in this joyous, frustrating, inspiring, draining, life-giving occupation for the long haul.

We are indeed grateful to you elders when you help us make space in our lives for the Lord to do that.

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