The news has made much ado about the “phenomenon” of “clergy burnout” recently. Sparked by this article in the New York Times on August 1, the commentary has come hard and fast. Proposed reasons for this burnout have been numerous and wide-ranging: churches are too demanding ; pastors don’t spend enough time on their own spiritual health; the financial realities of seminary debt and shrinking pastoral salaries just aren’t sustainable.

I don’t disagree with any of those proposals – yes, churches demand a huge workload from their ministers; yes, pastors are often woefully overscheduled and spiritually undernourished; and yes (“YES!” – my bank account echoes in capital letters), seminary is expensive and salaries in ministry are low.  But I think all this commentary is entering into a problem much larger and more complex than the NYTimes makes it out to be.

Clergy burnout is actually a symptom of a disease of the church at large. Think about it – if this were happening in any other institution, we wouldn’t be proposing such small solutions. We wouldn’t tell overworked bank presidents that their stock holders were simply asking too much of them. We wouldn’t tell the newly elected city council member following a dozen recently burnt out officials before her that what she really needs to do is to pay attention to her own philosophical and political integrity. And while we might think about adjusting the price of graduate school to be more in line with tenured professor’s salaries, we wouldn’t cite that as the sole (or, at least, ultimate) reason a university was unable to keep a full faculty. Something else is going on.

A friend helpfully pointed out that the commentary on clergy burnout is slowly turning toward a capitalist critique – that we treat pastors as a commodity following the rule of supply and demand, and expect them to act as such. I think he’s right. We’re burning out our leaders because we’ve forgotten what it is we’re about, and therefore what it is we need them to be about.

Pastors aren’t commodities; they are people. They are sisters and brothers who walk with us toward faith. We too often want them to do all the work of faith FOR us, instead of ALONGSIDE us. Jordan wrote last week about the theology of substitutionary atonement; but I think we’re in more danger from our practices of substitutionary discipleship. If we want healthy pastors, we need healthy churches. If we want healthy churches, we need healthy relationships. And if we want healthy relationships, we need healthy understandings of what it is to be a part of the body of Christ – each of us taking up our share of the work of being about the work of the Kingdom.

What do you think?

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