Years ago a magazine featured a slump-shouldered cleric standing in front of his predecessors' portraits. Each one looked haggard and beaten. The plaques beneath their names indicated that none of them had served the parish for more than a year or two. The caption read: "It occurred to Father Brown that maybe God didn't really call him to St. Swithens."
Nothing batters clergy like mean sheep, because . . .
- clergy love to be loved and nothing hurts like abuse from those you love;
- clergy care, caring involves exposure and vulnerability, and nothing hurts like having your trust betrayed;
- clergy invest not just their professional energy, but their personal and spiritual energy in the work that they do;
- it is not just their professional world that's at risk, but the well being of their families that is often at risk as well;
- clergy tend to have high, if not unrealistic expectations of what it will be like to be engaged in the church's ministry;
- they can't always hope for help from their denominational superiors; and
- they can't always hope to be defended by the people who benefit from their ministry.
As common as the experience can be, nothing prepares you for being mauled or mistreated by mean sheep. (Note: None of this is to suggest that there is no such thing as a mean shepherd. That just isn't the topic for this column.)
There are a few passing conversations about it in seminary—most of which focus on family systems theory. Almost all of that instruction is devoted to teaching clergy to manage mean sheep and it is rarely if ever devoted to teaching clergy how to protect themselves.
The rhetoric around pastoral ministry is also a bit of a set-up. I can't remember the number of seminarians I have met who thought that they were trading conversations about money for conversations about meaning and conversations about corporate behavior for conversations about community—only to find themselves talking all the time about money (just less of it) and corporate behavior (thinly disguised as the conversation about something more noble).
Nor do interviews around ordination and the "call" process shed much light on the possible perils. Everyone is putting his or her best foot forward, anxious to make a favorable impression. So the potential for conflict is largely ignored or suppressed. Parishes will often declare themselves ready for change when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It is only as clergy challenge a parish to embrace the future that the realities surface. By then, however, their ministries and not the challenges the parish faces becomes the focus of fear and frustration.
When that happens, even savvy, sophisticated clergy with experience in the corporate world are often hurt. An old friend of mine who retired after years of parish ministry was asked if he planned to supply for other clergy in his retirement.
"No," he snapped.
Taken back by the energy behind the response, our mutual acquaintance asked him, "Why not?"
My friend responded, "I have waited my whole life to sit in silence, sing hymns of praise with the congregation, hear the word read, listen to the word preached—and go home to complain."
The challenges are not simply anecdotal. A growing body of statistics from a variety of sources suggests that clergy are battered, stretched, and stressed. One site alone digests several studies conducted in recent years. Here are some excerpts:
EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH IN AMERICA (ELCA) 2006
- 35 percent are at risk for the consequences of lack of physical exercise.
- 13 percent indicate they take medication for depression.
- Insurance claims are three times higher than average professions.
UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST (UCC) 2001
- 27 percent of congregations from every denomination and faith community have experienced a conflict within the last two years that led some people to leave the congregations.
- 70 percent of the pastors fight depression on a regular basis.
- 70 percent of pastors do not have a close friend.
- 1 in 5 pastors are in the advanced stage of burnout.
- 50 percent of pastors surveyed are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but they have no other way to make a living.
PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (U.S.A.) 2004
"Dropout rate" of pastors during the first five years of ministry has increased fourfold in the last thirty years. Stress—while 'stress' is experienced in many professions, studies have identified particular situations that specifically impact pastors' feelings about their work. The leading 'stresses' are:
- Inadequate skills in managing what are perceived to be unrealistic expectations of the congregation;
- Unrealistic expectations of pastors entering a new call, especially their first call; and
- Feeling lonely or isolated.