“I can’t understand what it would be like, thinking of John that way. I can’t picture myself as not married to him – I don’t want to even think about him dying first, and me being alone without him.”
This was a conversation with a friend about her husband John (not his real name), as we discussed a new parenting class offered by my office for spouses going through divorce. We agreed it was a challenge, not having endured a divorce process, to understand why we had to teach parents to treat each other with respect, even after a relationship ends, for the sake of healthy parenting.
This conversation came to mind as I read a recent post at thehighcalling.org, in which Gordon Atkinson joined the most recent wave of bloggers talking about burned out clergy – specifically, clergy who feel trapped in ministry, longing to leave for careers outside of church, not knowing how or where to go. You can read his article here.
I’m familiar with burnout and the dangers it poses. I work full-time for a non-profit children’s advocacy center, where we deal daily with children suffering sexual and physical abuse, and the very broken families they come from. I have felt and followed the call of the Spirit to change careers, having been a journalist, then a corporate hospice chaplain, before holding my current paying job. I’ve always felt “full-time” in ministry, seeing each paid job as placement in a new mission field. That said, it has not been in my vocational vocabulary to ponder leaving my other job, a non-paid bi-vocational clergy. My call into ordained life and the ontological change with ordination occurred at a soul-cellular level. The identity imprinted in my spiritual DNA such that I cannot fathom anything different, other than different forms of clerical ministry.
Like my friend said about her husband John, I can’t picture myself without living in pastoral relationship to a flock and community, without the collar, without being a clergy person. It is a challenge to understand how, barring an obviously major wounding experience, a minister can lose their call. I do believe, however, that what these thousands of clergy Atkinson describes may be experiencing is not a loss of call itself, but a loss of connection to their call – something not that hard to imagine.
Atkinson says trapped clergy is something congregations don’t want to talk about, because it would require them to take an honest look at ministers’ lives. I think it’s high time someone did take an honest look at their lives – and I think ministers must lead the way. We have to take an honest look at how we may be, in large part, the cause of our own entrapment.
I ache for those feeling trapped in ministry, as Atkinson candidly shares he once was. But the reasons he offers for why so many clergy feel trapped seem to beg their own question. For example: ministers discover they are disillusioned, doing church like a business, he says. How about daring to do first the business of church, keeping business in its appropriate place in support of mission, instead of doing business-as-mission? Where will this structure ever change, if not with you? Your call is worth fighting for, and certainly so is the Gospel mission of the Church.
Some ministers are not polished enough for high-paying spots, Atkinson says, dissatisfied with pay that leaves them struggling to get their kids through college. My son’s partial, need-based scholarship makes it just barely affordable for my husband and me, both working full-time, to keep him in the prestigious university he attends for undergraduate studies, so we can give him the opportunity to reach his dream of a doctorate in neuroscience. He had to turn down a full scholarship to an honors college at another university because we could not afford the remainder and still function financially, especially with a younger sister heading to college in a few years. My answer to clergy struggling with this issue is this: I feel your pain. Try to understand this struggle as opportunity: through our family’s financial belt-tightening, I have felt more in community and had more good conversations with parents in the parish facing college-bound financial issues and savings planning than I ever had before. Through it we formed a bond – clergy and lay roles appropriately intact – while finding shared solace and encouragement in discussions of real-life faith.
This college funding experience can be mapped onto the other reasons Atkinsons lists for trapped clergy: loss of faith in message/denomination, loss of faith altogether, worn out, burned out, depressed. If you are clergy and are experiencing any of these, there is an urgent and serious need for you to reach out for help-to your leadership, spiritual director, counselor, and family. If you do in fact determine you want to leave your ministry, then the short answer is that there is a way out. It looks a lot like the way you came in: discernment, careful and sometimes painful, retraining for new skills, and a re-identification of self – individually, and in community.
But if you stay, and if you are truly called I pray you do, it must be with a new understanding that as clergy, the varying degrees of success with which we encounter life as spiritual leaders is both a model of perseverance and a point of connection for your people who yearn for someone to both look up AND relate to. Here enters the practical side of ministry: Learn to recognize and respond to signs of burnout BEFORE they happen. Workshops and professionals are available to assist you, with a little effort on your part to seek them out. Never been in counseling? Get on a couch and start talking. Don’t refer church members for therapy while you skirt the rim of emotional breakdown. Lonely? Don’t skip clergy gatherings. The camaraderie is sometimes more important for your emotional/spiritual benefit than whatever book study or group discussion. People who keep themselves on islands tend to end up in trouble. Crisis of faith? Turn to those you trust to support and guide you as early as possible when you sense trouble. Take a sabbatical. Take a weekend. Take whatever it takes to reconnect with the call that is in you. Instead of burning out, find ways to keep your light of faith bright. You aren’t called to be a shining example-it doesn’t take a bonfire to lead others to follow Jesus – a single candle can light the way in the darkest room.