Dear Church: It’s Not You, It’s Us

Dear Church: It’s Not You, It’s Us May 1, 2012

By Erin Wathen

It is no secret: vocational ministers are burning out, leaving the Church, and experiencing a rise in stress-related health problems.  I’m grateful that this issue is getting some attention lately in mainstream media, and also for the good work of organizations like The Lilly Endowment.  These folks are taking proactive measures to curb the trend. They not only help raise awareness; they help equip congregations and pastors with resources, better practices, and networks of support to keep everyone healthy and happy.

And while churches have a great deal of liability in matters of “clergy killing,” I think it is important that pastors say out loud to our congregations: you are not entirely the problem. We are.

While I do not presume to speak for all clergy everywhere, I can tell you that, across the board, most people who feel called to pastoral ministry tend to be fixers, do-ers, and dreamers. Furthermore, at least in some small measure, we are performers and people-pleasers.

I’ll translate what all this means: We DREAM of being able to DO something that will FIX everything. And then, we’d like to be told that we did it all just right.

And I don’t mean we want to fix our respective congregations, or neighborhoods, or immediate friends and family.  What we’d REALLY like is for all those things be perfect already, so we can go about managing the rest of the world. Small things, really, like global warming, peace in the east, and poverty. Not necessarily in that order.

Perhaps I exaggerate. But i do think, at the heart of every minister’s calling, is a bit of a savior complex that not even Jesus can help us with. And there is the rub. The Church does not always want to be saved by us. And neither, it turns out, does the world.  Sometimes, believe it or not, our own friends and families do not want us to be the boss of them. Can you imagine?

These are painful truths to live with. Especially when we live with them, unaware of their pull on us.

To the end of promoting my life-balance and self-care, my church does everything right: they give me ample vacation time, sabbatical, retreat and continuing ed time; they even give me resources to fund all these things.  And I still manage to get run-down and exhausted several times a year.

So in many cases, the church cannot be blamed. It isn’t even that we, the pastors, are over-scheduling and extending ourselves.  It is that we carry a mental weight around all the while–and even in those blessed “off” times–making it hard to rest. We are always scanning the world for sermon material; always aware of that-which-is-broken (and furitively looking for glue); and at any given moment, gearing up for–or down from–a ‘performance’ moment.  The work of carrying that self-imposed burden around can render us fragile, exhausted, and vulnerable to the first hint of criticism.

A few other factors in fatigue that are not the fault of the congregation:

A growing ‘performance culture’ in every aspect of our shared lives. These days, it practically starts in the womb: people want, and expect, to be entertained at every moment. In the car, at work, in ‘waiting’ places, and–you’d better believe–on the weekends. Maybe it’s worse in an affluent suburb, but i feel an increasing pressure to make worship not just meaningful, but also fun and–i hate this word–”inspirational.” This is not a healthy dynamic for those of us who are already, shall we say, applause hounds.

A “Family Last” culture. While our politicians talk about “family values” (in the interest of being “inspirational”) there is little in our society that actually points to a shared valuing of families. Like affordable, accessible healthcare; affordable, accessible child care; generous family leave policies in the corporate world for the making of babies, or the care of aging parents. In fact, quite the opposite is true.  Much of life-as-we-know-it speaks to the tragic de-valuing of family. So, lord help us all when women ministers want to also be mothers; or male ministers have children, and also a wife with a career; or single pastors want to adopt children on their own. Even though my congregation has been extremely supportive of my evolving work/family balance, I still get strange looks from neighbors when i mention that my husband is a stay-home dad.  The church cannot control the effect that has on my psyche, nor should they be expected to. It is up to me to process how that makes me feel, and why.

Which brings me to, –a culture that looks at you funny when you say you’re a minister. In an age of increasing hostility towards organized religion–and all that represents in public imagination–it is getting alot harder to tell strangers that you are a  minister. You can see the wheels turning, you can see the judgements being made, you can see the walls going up… Not only does that make it hard to do “neighborhood outreach,” it is a painful reality for (did I mention?) we who are addicted to being loved and adored in every frame.

Knowing these truths about myself, and the world in which i live and serve, helps me to not blame my people–or the big-C “Church,” as a body–when i get frustrated, exhausted, or just weary of the world.  But awareness is only half the battle. We’ve also got to find healthier ways of coping with our big, complicated selves.

In Naked Spirituality, Brian McLaren shares a painful truth about the patterns of burn-out, the cycles of elation and defeat, that go with this pastoral territory.  And he talked about learning to shape his days, not in terms of what he could/must get done, but rather “what God is doing in the world, and how I can be a part of it.”

I felt like he was knocking on the door of my worn-out heart a little bit. I find that passage full of painful truth-telling, and powerful freedom.  If we–pastors and congregations–could learn this spiritual practice of moving through the world, perhaps we could all be saved a great deal of stress and heartbreak. And maybe, in some cases, the expense of anti-depressants and blood pressure meds. (BTW, it is not lost on me that the Lilly foundation, who perhaps stands to benefit most from all these drugs we’re needing, are the ones out in front of the charge to get us all healthier. Say what you will about evil pharmaceutical companies, but I dig that).

To be clear–there is no shame in needing professional help to deal with depression or anxiety. But perhaps, if we all work together, we can make sure that the Church is never, ever, about the business of inflicting pain that needs medicating. Even if that means we–do-ers, dreamers, performers–must quit inflicting it on ourselves, in the name of Jesus.

I think there’s a healthy equation to be learned from all this destructive love: Awareness+accountability=alive.

Which is to say, if pastors and churches live in awareness of the systems and personalities that contribute to the problem, we can set up healthy systems of accountability: and everyone comes out alive.

Again, I can only speak for myself, what I see and experience… But it isn’t about me; nor is it about You, big-C Church. This is about US–the great sacred, capital-U, all-encompassing US, that makes for the Body of Christ in the world. In the post-post-modern age, as the Church discerns what it wants to be when it grows up, we’ve got to be having these conversations about personal and social liabilities to ministry. With any luck–and with a great, whopping deal of grace–there will still be an Us to speak of, this side of glory. And we will all be doing our part to live, and live well, into this life of faith and discipleship.

Photo via flickr BlakJakDavy


Rev. Erin Wathen is the Senior Pastor of Foothills Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in north Phoenix. A native of Kentucky, she continues to find faith in the desert, and blogsabout the journey of ministry, marriage, and parenting. Her husband, Jeremy, is a stay-home dad, and drummer in the Foothills Worship Band. He and Erin enjoy music, National Parks, good food, West Wing reruns, and taking adventures with their two young children. Erin was the 2010 recipient of the Fred Craddock Award for Excellence in Preaching, and she thinks that Jesus is pretty much ok with women who speak out loud. And gay people. And children. And the poor…

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3 responses to “Dear Church: It’s Not You, It’s Us”

  1. Along the lines of acknowledging that the church members are not the only or always the prime cause of clergy burn out I think it criticle to attent to the role that clergy on glergy violence can often be an issue. Throughout the UK the institution of antibullying in the workplace policies and laws have been instituted for churches as well where they recognize how Senior pastors often act in abusive ways to associates or how bishops and adjudicaory authorities who ally with the interests of the institutional authority will begin enacting mobbing behaviors sometimes scapegoating a clergy person forced out in a way that may even violate the explicit policies of the church. I speak having gone through a horendous experience – broken contract agreements and witheld pay largely at the direction of another staff member. When I tried to speak up then things really got nasty. I also say this as one who has been silent to the poor treatment of another minister in part to safe gaurd my own position. If we take seriously the need to be in ongoing supportive relitionships of accountability with a community of peers part of that has to include attention to some of the unique dynamics of workplace bullying and how it is actually ill adressed by our familiar conflict management aproaches and current procedural remidies.

  2. A lot of truth in what you say, Rev Erin, such great insight for being so young, but I, at the other end of the spectrum, can only heartily agree

  3. Mainline Protestantism’s delusions of relevance are catching up with it.