The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Holy Week Clergy Burnout

There’s this story we clergy tell religiously around this time every year.

Not the thing about the Last Supper. Not the cross, and the empty tomb. I mean, those are good too, but we have this other one that is really our favorite. It’s this story about how BUSY we are; how long the list of details, how impossible the expectations, and how exhausted we are just thinking about it.

Stop me if you’ve heard it.

Where did we learn that story? I believed for a long time that it was in one of the gospels–or at the very least, an epistle. But I looked again, and no. It’s not in there.

Did our church people spin this tale, laying out a list of demands and a load of emotional baggage about how perfect and amazing it all has to be? I let myself think so for awhile, but no. That’s not it either.

I know… the Patriarchy! I blame the patriarchy for all the other bullshit in the world, so why not this? However… male clergy are as much a victim of this narrative as I am. So this is not the work of pro-bro culture.

The truth is, we do this to ourselves. We are the ones creating this narrative of over-work and impossible standards. We are the authors of this story, as well as its lead characters. My sense is that, for most of us, this particular week–with its full calendar and its coming horde of first-time worshippers–is the time to process a year’s worth of performance anxiety that comes with the territory of this vocation. Through all of ordinary time, we manage to keep it together… but when these high holy days roll around, BAM. We are a hot mess of fatigue and insecurity, with perhaps a bit of a savior complex thrown in for good measure.

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As much as I will own my part in spinning this narrative, I can’t claim sole authorship. No, I think the clergy mantra of “I’m so busy” and “I’m exhausted” and “I don’t have time” is our own liturgical version of American life. Or rather, life in a capitalist culture in which every blessed thing we do must be quantifiable on some invisible scale of success and productivity. Most of the work we do as clergy cannot be measured in these traditional, consumer-based models. So come Easter, we want to see RESULTS; the fruits of a years’ worth of labor, looking back at us from a full and happy congregation. Dressed in new spring clothing.

We echo back to ourselves what we hear our church people say to us, all year long. “I’m so busy.” “There is not time for one more thing.” “There’s too much to get done… the list is too long.” It’s a scarcity story as long as the arc of history. There’s not enough time, not enough us, not enough grace… We didn’t write this story at all. It wrote us.

But it’s our job–especially at Easter–to tell and model a better story. One of abundance, and life, and miracles that unfold in God’s perfect timing. I’ve learned I can’t really embody that story if I’m anxious and exhausted.

Of course, it IS a busy week, and there are things to be done. I wrote a clergy survival guide for Holy Week a couple years ago, and I stand by it. Exercise. Sleep. Eat something green. Stay healthy so you can do your best work. But none of the things of that self-care list is as important this single directive: Let the church be the church. 

We spend all the rest of the year making disciples, equipping people to lead and serve, telling them we are a ‘priesthood of believers’ and reinforcing the truth that everyone has gifts for ministry. Why, this one week of the year, do we forget all that and act like ONLY WE have the power to make it all come together?

Those pieces do not add up.

Maybe I’m being purely confessional here, and none of my clergy colleagues have ever gone through Holy Week feeling like every service, every detail, and possibly even the space time continuum itself depends on them. Maybe nobody else feels like, come Good Friday, they should just go ahead and put an extra cross up there next to Jesus. If I’m out on a limb here, then carry on with your bad self. But if what I’m saying sounds too familiar, and you are already exhausted just thinking about the next few days, then maybe you need somebody to give you permission to get off the hamster wheel. If that’s the case, then permission granted. Hop off that wheel.

I did, a few years ago. I stopped telling myself the story that I should wear my exhaustion like a merit badge, that the Easter production situation needed to be a one-woman show. I stopped believing that the resurrection itself depended upon the number of greeters stationed at the door, or the availability of parking and seating–and, of course, I gave up the ghost of the perfect sermon.

Don’t get me wrong, I still care deeply about these things. And I spend a lot of my week making sure they’re taken care of. AND, you’d better believe I will still need a mimosa and an epic nap come noon on Sunday. But the one big part of the story I changed was the assumption that ALL OF THIS was my job and mine alone.

It’s not.

There are elders, and deacons. There’s a worship committee, and there are Sunday school teachers. There’s a choir, there are CHURCH LADIES, and –at every church, I’m telling you– there is that one person who takes great joy in making the 5am coffee run for sunrise service. Once I figured that out, it was a whole new world.

All of these folks have great good gifts for ministry, and our one job–when you get right down to it– is to let those gifts go to work. So these days, I spend less of my Holy Week in the anxiety of “what am I forgetting??” and more time in prayer and study and reflection. You know, actual spiritual preparation. I also spend time delegating, and checking in with the folks who do ministry with me–to support THEM as they serve.

All we have to do is ask. And it’s a whole new story.

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