I’m spending the last day of my vacation thinking through the coming year, and getting my “to do” list ready. The time includes taking stock of my goals and priorities, both personally and vocationally. Imagine my surprise, then, to see that #2 on the list of most e-mailed articles in the NY Times this morning is called: “Congregations Gone Wild”, an op-ed piece about pastoral burnout. The article couldn’t have come at a better time than the end of my vacation.
It catalogs the demands placed on pastors as a result of our consumerist culture. “Spiritual Consumerism” is what it’s called, a term to describe American’s tendency to pursue spirituality the same way they pursuing buying cars or going out to dinner, or shopping for food. Walk into a grocery store for apples and you’ll have a big decision awaiting you because there will be a half dozens choices. The same with milk, and restaurants, and menu choices, and vacation experiences and….church life.
As a result, there’s a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, consumerist approach that church leaders adopt in order to create both multiple choices and experiences for potential attenders. We do this when we offer various worship times and locations, each serving up different styles of music. We do this when we seek to create excellent experiences caring for children. We do this when we assess the viability of various components of our community life, as we do each year in the summer because it’s our time to create a new budget and decide where to invest resources.
We do all these things in the church I lead, and will continue to do them. But we need to be careful, realizing that if that’s all we do, we’re laying the groundwork for creating, not a real presence of Christ, but spiritual consumers. Spiritual consumers “go to church”, the way they go to Mariner games… they go if the team’s winning, or if not, at least for the friendships and food. This creates leaders who, if they’re not careful, aren’t really leading at all, but only reacting to market trends, like Costco and Walmart (do people want polar fleece? plastic chairs for their patios? a series on sexuality? the politics of the religious right?) Such an approach isn’t healthy or sustainable, and is one of the reasons pastors are suffering from burnout.
How does a pastor swim upstream against these cultural trends? What are his/her priorities to be? What’s a pastor to do?
1. Recognize our calling. We’re not called to put on a show for people who “go to church”. We’re called to equip a gathered community to “be church” which means helping people find their unique callings and gifts, use them, and develop habits and priorities for living that will be sustainable and life giving. I’ll say it often in the coming year at my church: “you don’t go to church… you ARE the church.”2. Recognize our gifts. Pastors have different gifts. Visionary, teacher, leader, counselor. These are blended with unique blends of mercy, exhortation, and service. All of these things contribute to the pastor’s role and calling which is “shepherd the flock”. Pastor means shepherd, and if I’m called to be a shepherd, I need to discover the unique gifts God has given me to be a shepherd, and focus on those gifts. I can’t be everything for everyone. Nobody can. Instead, I need to know my gifts and focus the bulk of my energies there. Many pastors burn out because they’re trying to be all things for all people. That was never in the plan, and is itself a result of the consumerist mindset whereby members of a faith community see themselves as recipients of “services” in exchange for pay.
3. Set an example. We do this through sharing our lives with people, however we do that (some through teaching, some over coffee in one to one meetings). Our own habits that contribute to intimacy with God, our own life priorities, even our own struggles, failures, and confessions, contribute to shaping a congregation, by giving people an example of ongoing transformation. If we need to be superstars, above the fray, without flaws, we’re setting ourselves up for both hypocrisy and burnout.
4. Live with the tension. Pastors who burn out seem to have all their identity eggs sitting in the basket of their church vocation. This is unhealthy because it creates a fear of losing one’s job and a fear of rejection, both of which cater to the consumerist mindset. I resist this by having a life beyond the church – it’s a writing life, a life in the outdoors, a life of wide reading and exploration.
On the other hand we who lead need to be committed to our calling and our flock 110% because this isn’t just a job. When it becomes just a job, then we’ll lead only as long as it’s easy, or serves our ego, or is “successful”, which is a way of saying that we’ll not be leading at all.
Ecclesiastes seems to offer the best word here: “Whatever your hand finds to do – do it with all your might.” That’s it! Be fully present in your calling. Be fully present in your vacation. Be fully present in your lovemaking, and your cooking, and your praying, and your study. The gift and discipline of presence will provide the right balance.
I’m ready to be fully present in Seattle as my church faces the opportunities and challenges of a new season for ministry. For those who read this blog and “are the Bethany church“: let the adventure continue!