Is the question of clergy health the concern or should it be clergy holiness?

Dumped out for the world to see was the reporting by the New York Times of recent studies chronicling the struggles of modern day clergy. Studies and interviews from a number of denominations and from Judaism and Islam were noted in the article. Additional articles came out and the blogosphere lit up with more opinions and thoughts from clergy and laity alike.

The United Methodist Church led the way in most of these reports. As in most studies, there is certain biases that are brought to the forefront. Issues of obesity, hypertension and depression were among the noted items of concern in the NY Times article. But blogger Tom Nees took an alternative route and began to question myths about clergy burnout. To do so, he went to the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and its director Joseph Arnold and found another side of the story.

In his blog, “Five Myths About Clergy Burnout,” Nees notes his conversation with Arnold that what is really happening is that clergy are sliding into the norm of society. On top of that, job satisfaction still remains high compared to less than 50% of the general population.

In a large part, I think Nees is right on target on questioning these findings. While I think he is right in questioning (I don't agree with all of his myths), I don't thing he has gone far enough. What has been even more greatly compromised may well be our very integrity as clergy for neglecting our very calling. It maybe different in each tradition so I cannot speak for them all, but certainly, the more we have tried to be like corporate America in the Church, we have certainly succeeded in sliding into being more like the world than like Jesus.

The core issues of preventing stress and burnout are, I think, being woefully ignored. Anne Dilenschneider's article on “Soul Care and the Roots of Clergy Burnout,” hits much closer to the reality. She addresses pointedly the “...deeper “disease” of the soul that has plagued clergy...” for it is an issue of our souls which is truly at stake.

In his research for the book Spirituality for Ministry, Urban T. Holmes interviewed clergy across denominational lines. Holmes noted, “The pastor or priest is rooted in a world of symbols and takes on the character of his environment (Holmes, 34).” One of the priests in the study delved further into the implications of this noting that, “the priest can live the lifestyle that most people in the parish cannot and wished they could (Holmes, 31).” Maybe so, but the tragic reality our current studies show is that we obviously all are now living the same lifestyle

In 1786 John Wesley shared what was arguably his greatest fear namely, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” At least, as it pertains to my tradition of the Wesleyan heritage, I think the loss of the power is precisely in our spirituality, namely, our doctrine of entire sanctification – the way of holiness.

If it true that the people who call themselves Methodists are to be the “Grand Depositum” of this doctrine (Wesley's term - not mine!), then I am inclined to ask the question again of our clergy that was asked at our ordination, “Are you going on to perfection?” Oh, surely we all say “yes” but what if I asked:

By what means are you getting there?
By what practices and habits are you nurturing your soul?
On the journey toward holiness, where do you think you are?
How are you nurturing others?

I once talked with a United Methodist pastor about whether he spent anytime reading Wesley's 52 Standard Sermons. His response was to blow it off, “Oh no. It is good theology but terrible preaching.” I challenge any laity of any tradition to ask a United Methodist Clergy, “Do you own a copy of Wesley's 52 Standard Sermons?” If it is good theology and terrible preaching then we must be far worse preachers today for who of us has had the impact in the world like Mr. Wesley?

I am writing out of concern as one in the trenches, one who knows full well in my life what these studies represent. It is all well and good to do studies and research to identify the problem but I can tell you in a nutshell what the “problem” is – we're human beings. Even us clergy. We're finite and fallible. From the largest churches to the smallest. From bishops to lay speakers – we believe there is a spiritual side of this life which will not pass away yet we treat our days as if this mortal body is all we have been given.

Clergy must do more than take a day off. Clergy have to do more than use their vacation time. Clergy need guidance in the way of their own soul care. We need to stop doing and start being and we need this to take place throughout our systems and structures. The systems aren't the pieces to blame – it is the two legged mammals with opposable thumbs who God has been gracious enough to love and redeem – we've done it.

We clergy cannot care for the souls of others if we cannot acknowledge the despair in our own. As United Methodists, it is past time we put aside worrying about our dying sect and consider instead that gospel message that gave birth to a movement that changed the world. It is time to return to that message and the methods – not worrying so much (at the start) our churches but our lives – which is the way of sanctification – the way of holiness.


Anonymous said...

Your blog is very thought provoking. I offer yet another aspect of this issue. I am a UMC elder who is currently out on disability for stress, burnout and depression. While I agree with you that we need to continue to work on our souls, during my parish ministry time I was pushed to do, do, do most of the time. At my last church, I was urged by the senior pastor to focus towards the "movers and shakers" of the congregation. My style of preaching was not intellectually stimulating enough, although I was told that I was reaching the youth, young adults and other more marginal members there. For me, the challenge was that I did not fit into the norm of society. Just thought you ought to know there are some of us out there.

Ken L. Hagler said...

Thanks Anonymous. You're hitting on another piece I'm going to address in the weeks ahead. While not on disability, I currently am dealing with depression so I know what you're dealing with there.

I'm not sure when, if ever, since the start of the "professional clergy" (Anne Dilenschneider puts it around 1920), we've put an emphasis on the soul of the clergy. Your health and mine (is say this holistically) IS soul care. In disability leave, it is precisely the time to deal with the soul issues (I do not mean more spiritual disciplines).

My hope would be we deal with the soul care of clergy before we get to disability leave. The Church should not be looking at this regarding running things like a democracy or a corporation - we are the Church - the one organization in existence which is about the soul of the human being.

If a clergy, like yourself moves to disability leave, there should be intentional care for the physical and mental BUT also the spiritual. Please feel free to comment or e-mail me. I'm far from done on this subject.

Craig L. Adams said...

Excellent post, Ken. Thanks. I am in basic agreement with what you're saying.

Ken L. Hagler said...

Thanks Craig. This has been sitting on my computer for a while and I've been tweaking it as continue to work and put thoughts together.

This is a multi-faceted issue that has not been given a true looking over. The "answer" if there is even one, is not a silver bullet fix unless it means simply shooting our wounded. That might be more compassionate than what we've been doing though.

J said...

My impression of the clergy is much like that of a police officer or doctor. You can never truly be off and away from your job! Example: when meeting a person for the first time (assuming they have no idea what you do) their entire demeanor will change the very moment they find out you are clergy. Just as a police officer always gets questions speeding ticket their "friend" got or some long drawn out debate about the legality of marijuana (and let me say that marijuana IS a dangerous drug) so will the clergy get questions about religion and God. This is good and bad, it gives you a chance to share a good connection with God and share our faith but also, for some people, creates you vs. them scenario when all they want is to drag you into a debate about how they want God to be. Clergy are always there to share the spiritual and emotional pain of others but I often wonder if we (members of a congregation) forget that the reverend or pastor are people too. This is the roll you have taken and hopefully it will be a lifelong commitment but a pastor/reverend must stay healthy (emotionally and physically) to care for their flock. My hats off to you for all the people you help!

Ken L. Hagler said...

Thanks for your comments and observations. Talk to any clergy spouse and they'll definitely confirm the idea of always being "on the clock."

Still, clergy must take the time apart no matter what people say in the congregation or otherwise. It goes beyond the physical and emotional health though. Clergy and congregations MUST recognize the need we have to see a healthy spiritual life.

This was what Holmes was indicating in his work. In many ways, our congregations need the clergy to be doing their spiritual life well because we all need to see it.

Clergy need to be authentic about their humanity and struggles but we are also called to a life of symbolism - to walk the path to Jesus so others see the way. I'd argue, you can't do that and maintain the business/corporate model of church management.

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