Articles on clergy burnout trend occasionally through social media, and a recent fascination has been Mark Love’s “Eleven Things You Might Not Understand About Your Minister,” a list of eleven insights that appear to reflect Love’s own experience of burnout.
I have mixed feelings about clergy burnout, not because ministry isn’t mind-body-soul exhausting, but because I’m flabbergasted when ministers are surprised by burnout (as though our vocational proximity to Holy Fire should somehow be safe!) and because laments of burnout seem to come frequently from white male ministers (thus joining the broader lament over white Christian men’s victimization in modern America, which I frankly dismiss as a myth veiling privilege).
There’s a fine line between observing the challenges of ministry in a way that is useful for ministers and the Church … and whining. Although Mark’s article resonates with many ministers, I’m not convinced that he contributes much to the overall conversation on ministry. For contrast, I recommend Angela MacDonald’s article that notes similar frustrations in ministry but also highlights tools for ministers to manage their own spiritual health rather than venting at the Church.
(In addition, I commend ministry colleague and RevGalBlogPals friend Marci Glass‘s critique of “Eleven Things,” which helpfully uplifts the importance of authenticity in ministry.)
For me, the core problem — theologically, ethically, spiritually — of Mark Love’s “Eleven Things” is its framework: it is addressed directly to congregants. This list of eleven things that “you” might not understand makes its appeal to the person in the pew just as one might appeal to a significant other: “For our relationship to work, I need you to understand X Y and Z about me.” Although ministers often feel married to the Church because our vocation is so life-consuming, nevertheless to entreat “you” as though the pastor-parish dynamic is akin to a marital partnership is inappropriate and quickly problematic.
The pastor-parish bond is not a relationship.
The pastor-parish bond is a covenant.
While it’s true that both a covenant and a relationship require understanding, conversation and negotiation, the bond between a pastor and her parishioners is significantly unlike a romantic partnership or social relationship because of (1) its power imbalance and (2) its strict boundaries.
First, the power imbalance of the minister-church bond. Power is all over the map but rarely balanced between pastor and parish. Just consider: the pastor is authorized to mediate God; the congregation is authorized to fire its minister. The irregularity and complexity of power dynamics are not inherently bad. At best, power fluctuates according to situation & discernment; counterintuitively, the goal is not equilibrium. When God crafted the bonds of covenant with humanity, saying beautifully “I will be your God and you will be my people,” that covenant didn’t make God and humans equal partners; rather it put us all on the same playing field, so to speak, with a stated commitment to a common purpose. (Most of the time. Sort of. Humanity doesn’t have a great track record of “common purpose.”)
Second, the critically important boundaries of ministry. It is the pastor’s job to know about, to walk delicately amidst, and to care deeply for the lives of parishioners. It is not the congregants’ job to know all about the lives of their minister. Not all but some ministers get this boundary wrong, and Mark Love’s article touches its toes over the edge of that boundary. He writes, “It’s not your fault [that pastors don’t share 100% of their lives], it’s not our fault, it’s just a bad system that doesn’t allow pastors to be as human as it should.” In fact, it’s a good system, and the purpose of that system of boundaries is not to limit ministers’ humanity but rather to limit our egos (our need for “I” attention, whether through drama or sympathy or praise). In addition, the system of boundaries on ministers’ lives limits the obsessive and distractible curiosity of groups such as congregations. By all means, pray to be called to a church that cares for rather than abuses its pastors, but be clear that your ministry among people who know all of your business will be ineffective.
Mindfulness of power and boundaries in the pastor-parish bond takes me to Rahab as a new model for parish ministry.
Two “get over it now” disclaimers: (1) Engaging the ministry lessons that Rahab may teach us requires a positive perspective on sex workers, both ancient and modern, female and male, cis and trans. (2) Implicit within the first disclaimer is the requirement that we be willing to discuss sex as though it is not impure or alien to the human experience. Figure it out, get over it, but check your gender & sexuality phobias at the door.
Rahab (find her story in Joshua 2 – 6) was a woman who successfully navigated power and boundaries in her professional interactions with others, and in doing so contributed vitally to the good of God’s work and the salvation of God’s people. Were it not for Rahab’s wisdom and savvy in how she worked, Joshua and the ancient Israelites would not have conquered Jericho.
Here’s what ministers, especially burning-out ministers, can learn from Rahab:
JOB DEFINITION. Simply stated, it is our job to give to others, without reciprocity. Consider that clients came to Rahab to receive satisfaction, which she gave; it was not their role to give her pleasure as well. Congregants seek nurture from their ministers, which we give. It is not the responsibility of congregants to reciprocate equally in nurturing their ministers … or assuring us of our relevance, or assuaging our loneliness, or feeding our spirits, or making ministry an easy vocation (to borrow from Mark Love’s list).
SELF-CARE. Rahab survived! She survived a perilous vocation and survived the invasion & destruction of her city, which means that Rahab did not neglect safety and self-care. Though she depended on clients for income, she depended upon herself to care for her sense of self, for her spirit, and for her body [careful, there’s a reproductive choice tangent in there] in order to thrive, not merely survive. Rahab’s ability to stay alive in body & spirit was fundamental to her availability and cunning to aid the Israelite spies.
Likewise pastors cannot be unempowered in caring for ourselves nor disheartened from nurturing our spirits for this work that can be so taxing. Though we struggle at times when it seems that congregants are determined to undermine our work, though we walk a fine line between serving parishioners without reservation while knowing that we depend upon those same parishioners for our income, nevertheless we cannot wait for congregants to “understand” us before we begin to care for ourselves. Our ability to stay alive — physically, emotionally, spiritually — is necessary to our availability for ministry.
INTIMACY. Rahab understood the imbalanced expectations for intimacy in her work; men came seeking intimate fulfillment from her … not with her. That is, intimacy was an experience she provided to customers but that encounter did not equate to a relational building block. Allowing men to experience her body, even in such heated nearness, did not mean that those men were allowed to experience the rest of her life, her thoughts, her family, her feelings, her self.
Likewise ministers are expected to welcome the intimacy sought by parishioners, to spread our arms & spirits wide as we hear their secrets and wrestlings with faith, witness their tears in life and in death, speak the depth of Love to their fears. We spread our spirits wide and allow congregants to experience God intimately through us … but we misjudge the pastor-parish relationship if we equate others’ searches for intimacy with God to a relational intimacy with us. When friendships do form with parishioners, the priestly & pastoral roles of mediating God’s intimacy prevent those friendships from being wholly equitable and unreserved.
AGENCY. While pastors may bristle & chafe at professional boundaries, or hope to duck the realities of politics, or resent the intimate work that exhausts our spirits, Rahab teaches us that proper boundaries and the skilled navigation of power are not only necessary; they are important to the process of birthing Christ. (See Rahab’s place in Jesus’ lineage, Matthew 1:5.) In spite of her professional circumstances — no, because of her professional circumstances and her handling of them, Rahab participates in bearing Jesus.
Ministry is hard, yes. Exhausting, yes. Heart-breaking, yes. But lessening our boundaries or ignoring the relational power imbalances — say, by asking parishioners like lovers to understand us better, love us a little more, and thereby ease our lives — are poor and unethical choices for the ministry of bearing Christ in the world. We must, like Rahab, be wise and savvy in understanding the work that we are about, with all its nuances and challenges and unique opportunities.
An additional assortment of thoughts & clarifications on referencing Rahab as a model for ministry:
1. Ministers are not for sale, nor are sex workers. Just so we’re all clear.
1a. Pastoral care is not akin to turning a trick. As people respond to and engage this post, I’m learning that further clarifications such as this are needed. (8/15 addition)
2. Pastors and prostitutes are not puppets in the institutions that have evolved around spirituality and sexuality. While both can be victimized by abusive churches or clients, both have important and powerful agency to employ amidst (and sometimes against) the systems in which we work. Rahab changed the course of her city, her family, her adopted nation, and the lineage of Jesus.
2a. The power dynamics of our congregations don’t compare to the abuses & injustices of the sex industry. The ability of a pastor to leave a dysfunctional congregation is an enormous privilege; more often than not, modern day sex workers do not have such privilege due to violence, captivity, lack of resources, and more. Strong objection has been raised to the degree of agency that I suggest above in #2 for the modern sex worker (or for an individual forced into sexual slavery), and fairly so. Yet in these conversations about agency, I confess I find myself wary of voices that, in their expressed concern for justice, seem to require a total lack of agency on the part of those oppressed. (8/15 addition)
3. There are significant and real risks to ministry and to prostitution. Million-dollar-earning mega-church pastor-authors, like struggling-call-girl-turned-rich-man’s-girlfriend “Pretty Woman” portrayals, are illusions that do not lend themselves to greater understandings of ministry or prostitution.
4. “Eleven Things You Might Not Understand About Your Minister” identifies mistrust as the cause of pastoral loneliness. In fact, the boundaries between pastor and parish, between sex worker and client, are marked by a very distinct kind of trust: not the affectionate trust of a romantic or social relationship, but the cooperative trust of two parties who have agreed to participate together. (8/15 addition) Here again, the concerns of agency and power are rightly raised. While the aim of my post is to suggest lessons that we can learn from Rahab about our pastor-parish relationships, my sweeping inclusion of modern sex workers in these final clarifications has proven distracting to that aim. To restate: pastoral care is a work of intimacy, but it is not governed exclusively or even foremost by the norms & niceties of our romantic and social relationships. How then do we who are ministers negotiate that pastoral intimacy?
Burning out is painful, and it is unfortunately true that congregations can contribute to clergy burnout. Even so, I believe that Mark Love seriously mistakes the nature of the pastor-parish relationship in his appeal to parishioners to understand their ministers.