The weight of ministry (or “Atlas Shrugged….can we find a better solution?”)

I stand before you a reformed woman. I mean re-formed. As in, I am beginning to inhabit a new form or shape. One bowling ball less than two weeks ago, as the guy from the movie Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead would say. I did a six-day juice cleanse and lost an alarming 13 pounds, but more importantly I kicked my fierce, one might say compulsive, addiction to carbs. I’m only on day 4 of my post-juice healthy eating lifestyle, but it really feels like it’s going to stick. And while my deepest passion and love is my church, I think that my immanent departure from the congregation (June 30) has a lot to do with it.

I was walking out of church one Sunday with one of my favorite members (secret: every one of them is one of my favorite members, but I always mean it when I say it) and we were reflecting on my seven years with the congregation and all we’ve gone through, and he said something about me having it pretty good. “You know, I was 70 pounds lighter when I came to this church seven years ago,” I told him.

“Oh, sure,” he responded. “I remember force feeding you all that chocolate cake.”

And fair enough. I’m a fan of taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and I definitely don’t want to blame this congregation that I love in particular. But I would like to take a look at ministry in this particular moment and talk about the metaphorical weight pastors today bear, and what it does to us.

Sandhya 20 pounds over weight

me at 27, 20 pounds overweight

Before that, I should note: I’ve been trying to lose weight for a long time. On and off for five years. And it was an ongoing struggle before then—the last time I was height/weight proportionate according to what the medical charts say, I was 14. The closest I’ve gotten since then, at ages 20 in the midst of deep grief and 27 after 3 months in India, was 20 pounds overweight. And let me tell you—I look AWESOME 20 pounds overweight. Mostly, though, if I exercise and eat pretty healthy but not obsessively counting calories, I sit at a fairly healthy 40 pounds over. (I actually look pretty stunning at that weight, too.) But before my juice cleanse, I was 120 pounds overweight. Morbidly obese. Still really hot, but not healthy. When I killed myself for a worship that wasn’t sufficiently inspiring or when I felt alone and insufficient to my congregation’s needs, it was a trip to Grocery Outlet for a frozen pizza (I could eat a whole one in a day if I was feeling really insufficient) or whatever ice cream they had on clearance. When I was beating my head against a wall because I was giving every good idea I could and all I was getting back was ambivalence, Taco Bell would fill the failure-shaped hole inside me.

You may have noticed not all pastors are obese (although a lot are). Other pastors, instead, turn to alcohol or internet porn. Pastors have an incredibly high rate of depression and heart attacks. And most pastors today quit the ministry within 5 years (I call this the “atlas shrugged” phenomenon.) Pastoring in this day and age is hard (more on that in a minute), and we bear the burden of it in lots of unhealthy ways. Institutions have noticed and decided to help, by telling us how we’re failing at yet something else: self-care. To illustrate, about 6 years ago, my denomination’s pension fund announced a campaign to encourage clergy to lose weight because of endemic health issues. At a regional assembly somewhere in the Midwest, a local parishioner set up a scale in one of the rooms, telling clergy to go and weigh themselves so they could commit to being healthier. Yes. Because public shaming is the ideal way to get  me to address my health issues.

Now, it’s not only people telling us to lose weight. There’s a lot of buzz around “self-care” in a number of seminaries and in some regions—taking time for ourselves, to do yoga, walk on the beach, meditate, pray, play. I’m not necessarily going to say that self-care is bad, but it’s another instance of placing the onus on the girl who already has the world on her shoulders and saying, “well put DOWN part of the world, for pete’s sake!” without suggesting anyone else could help shoulder it.

In the anti-racism work I do, we use a phrase to talk about systemic oppression: DDT. Diagnosis determines therapy. What a lot of folks seem to be doing with the issue of pastoral burnout and ill health and job dissatisfaction is saying, “You should make it better.” What is broken is not just the pastors’ self-control or capacity or Sabbath-protection. What is broken is not necessarily the congregation. What is broken is the clash of sixty years ago and today. And it is killing our clergy even more quickly than it is killing our churches.

Sixty years ago, my congregation had a multiple person staff, with administrative support for the pastors and committees of people carrying out the work of outreach and evangelism. We also had a neighborhood that respected and appreciated the church and its pastor as a central member of the community. The pastor got the perk of being respected and the support of functioning committees and staff to offset the profound burdens he bore as the listening ear and the receiving heart to carry the congregation’s griefs and spiritual struggles. Also, he got paid well enough that this was his full-time job: preaching, attending community functions, managing the functioning of the board and visiting the sick and shut-ins.

The average pastor retains all of those responsibilities—preaching, managing the board, visiting the sick, hearing people’s problems. But today she has to do that without infrastructure or administrative support. She usually has to spearhead outreach and evangelism, and often has to do the administrative work, too. And she quite often has to work more than one job. Also, there’s not a lot of respect or appreciation from the community for what she’s doing (and it’s hard to receive it since it’s really hard to make time for those community meetings, especially if she’s working more than one job).

And here’s the layer that makes it all so heartbreaking: the congregation is too grief-stricken to recognize they might have a role in alleviating that burden. They are grieving that they no longer have that ministry team. They’re grieving that they’ve diminished. They’re possibly grieving that they can’t afford a dynamic male pastor and family. They’re grieving that their current pastor cannot provide as much spiritual support or be as fully present in their time of grief. They might be grieving that there’s no choir. And so the pastor picks up that burden of grief for and with them because she loves them. They are in no state to care for her….and they’re not supposed to. She’s the pastor.

And there’s the alternative diagnosis I would like to offer: what’s broken isn’t the binging pastor. What’s broken is the system set up to drive the pastor to binge. The system is set up with a pastor with the resources of today and the expectations of sixty years ago. The system is set up with a congregation unequipped to resource the pastor as they did sixty years ago but also unequipped to adjust their expectations or needs within the existing system. And I believe that in addition to harming the pastor, this also harms the congregation—muscles that aren’t used atrophy. Most of our congregations suffer from a lack of ability to nurture and lead and vision and hold one another accountable. This makes for a less healthy church as well as a less healthy pastor.

I have friends who have done an amazing job of helping their congregations move from grieving to thriving. (Although I will say most of them are full-time pastors.) What I have not seen is friends who have been able to then slip out from under the hefty weight of the old paradigm of being pastor. If they’re lucky, they get that support staff and a good vacation package and maybe a spouse to share their burdens. But they’re still a pastor with 24-7 connection to the church in ways that drain rather than replenish.

The phenomenon of clergy burnout (and the stigma of not being allowed to admit when we face depression or burnout until things get bad—usually because we act out once things are almost beyond help) is significant enough that Duke University set up a Clergy Health Initiative. And they recognize that this is a multi-pronged issue. But I don’t think they’ve gotten to the point of suggesting that the whole way we are a community is part of the problem. That, I think, is what I am arguing.

There are a couple of spiritual communities I look at and see sustainable health for pastor and community together. One of them involves a really visionary pastor whose congregants have become a vision-driven team as they partner with a nonprofit organization in their community to create a whole new non-profit organization, spiritually grounded, with the pastor serving a coordinating role but not the role of sole or even primary spiritual nurturer to the congregation. The other is an intentionally interfaith house church that is entirely volunteer-driven. It has a lot of the same headaches that the first-century church did around multiple ideas about next steps, but it also has shared responsibility for the spiritual care of those within and those in the broader geographic community. They may not get very big and they may never need a building, but they go deep, and no one is sacrificing themselves.

This conversation is by no means unique to the parish setting—I know plenty of burn-out in the labor community, faith-based organizing and social work, all fields that can fall prey to the cult of “they suffer; so should you.” I sometimes joke that it’s harder for us because we are surrounded by images of a guy literally bleeding for his cause. But that’s not how I understand the crucifixion, honestly. I believe that the crucifixion was a byproduct of my savior threatening empire that badly, and the resurrection was God redeeming a grave sin by the people in charge and the gatekeepers. I think if we do our jobs right, we might get crucified. But I don’t think we’re supposed to do a slow bleed—that’s actually not what Jesus did; it’s just what got preserved in the art.

I do also want to note that my suggestion that we need to reformulate how our community is structured is probably heavily influenced by a lot of left organizer conversations around self-care versus community care, such as the debate over the article “An End to Self-Care” last year. Organizing communities are reflecting on the bourgeois ways that self-care manifests itself, but even more importantly they are wrestling with its “I help you people, then I go off and take care of myself” paternalism which is also isolating. I think we have something to learn from that conversation.

I recognize the need for healthy boundaries within our existing paradigm of ministry. And I think what I’m saying is, “maybe we’ve backed ourselves into a corner.” Maybe we shouldn’t have a structure of ministry that gives that much power (and burden) to one person.

When I announced my major weight loss on facebook (and my goal of losing another 90 pounds), a community organizer friend of mine messaged me. She said something that really shook me up. She said “I lost 90 pounds…by stopping myself from being the ‘ok I will do it’ overwhelmed community worker.” I have been carrying my congregation’s heartbreaks and grief (both individual and collective) when they have not been able to carry those griefs for one another. And I have carried that weight metaphorically, but also literally. The congregation I love functions in the way a congregation is supposed to function, by the standards of 95% of the churches in this country.

The churches started by the apostle Paul struggled mightily in the first century. But Paul had a full-time gig (making tents) and offered guidance to those churches on the side. They ran themselves, volunteer-driven. Paul died, but he was killed by Rome because he and his Jesus message were too big a threat to empire, not because he got burned out by the church in Ephesus and had a heart attack. After I leave, I want my congregation to thrive. But I don’t want another pastor to make themselves sick in order for it to happen. And the next spiritual community I inhabit, I plan to inhabit in a volunteer position. Once I’ve got this 90 pounds off, I’m keeping it off. I’d rather die a threat to empire than a morbidly obese servant to a church I could never serve well enough.

Comments (26)

  1. Sharon Graff

    Amen, sister!

  2. Marvin Eckfeldt

    Thanks Sandhya for sharing the honest thoughts and giving us/me lots to think about.

  3. Jim Watkins

    Thank you, my friend. I totally support you and whatever decisions you make.

    I agree that the institutional church does poorly by its pastors … and by its volunteers as well. Most people come to church to be entertained, even if they call it “spiritually uplifted.” But show a little talent and a willingness to work and it’s “Take a load off, Fanny.” Oddly enough, I walked out the door, too.

    Take a look at the food industry, as well. It isn’t just pastors who seek consolation in food. The % of morbidly obese is climbing expontentially. Suggested reading: “Fat Chance” by Lustig.

    My conclusion: it isn’t just the pastors, nor the institution…

    Love and peace, as always. Long-distance hug.
    Jim

  4. J. Alexander

    Sandhya,

    Thanks for your honest, open, and heartfelt words. I can relate to so much of what you said.

    I haven’t always been heavy, but weight had crept on over the last 15 years or so. So much involved of course in that, but much of it dealing with the stress of ministry, life, etc.

    I feel that in addition to the impact being overweight had on my health, I also strongly suspect that it had an impact on people’s perception of me and my ministry. I think many people see someone who is overweight and make the assumption that they are lazy, not motivated, etc. because they are heavy. I also feel that in times when I have been in the relocation process it has had an impact on that as well.

    A year ago, in fact a year ago today, I decided it was time for me to start taking better care of myself. I went to a bariatric doctor and started the process of preparing for bariatric surgery. The doctor challenged me to lose 20 pounds before the surgery. Our insurance company required a 3 month long process of going to nutrition classes, sleep studies, cardiac testing, etc. I quit drinking diet soft drinks, cut most carbs from my intake, put myself on a high protein/low calorie diet and I lost 60 pounds in 3 months! Since the gastric sleeve surgery I have lost another 50 pounds. I will work to continue to lose weight. I am feeling better than I have in years, both physically and mentally. I have had a very positive response from my church members and people in the community. My self-confidence has increased tremendously as well.

    I will hope to have the opportunity to talk to you at General Assembly. I would love to continue this conversation. I have more thoughts to share with you, but really don’t want to express them with you in such an open forum.

    Once again, thank you for sharing.

  5. Joshua Patty

    Sandhya — Thanks for such a thoughtful post that tries to explore this complex issue (which is only going to get more challenging in the foreseeable future). I have a few thoughts.

    Yes, many ministers are overweight, including me. I am hopeful, though, in the fact that some of us are starting to address the problem. I am one of three young clergy in my area that have been losing weight for several months. Each of us is taking different approaches, but they seem to be working. Personally, though, I know that my approach (which relies on a heavy gym regimen 5-6 days a week in addition to calorie counting) would not be an option if I were not single, which gives me the flexibility to get to the gym whenever I have a 90 minute window. (And, I still usually do pastor-related reading or podcast listening during my workouts.)

    I think I would emphasize two other key differences to pastoring 60 years ago and today. One is the different expectations on pastors, mostly by congregation members, owing to what might be called the “therapeutic generation” of pastors a generation ago, which I think greatly expanded expectations of the pastor being around for advice beyond what it had been. This new expectation adds a significant, time-consuming responsibility on most pastors, especially for those of us whose pastoral focus lies elsewhere (in preaching or social justice, to cite two common examples).

    The second key difference, which you certainly touch on, is the 24/7 society in which we now live, which has changed expectations for most jobs by placing a premium on availability at all hours. Now, there is no such thing as “banker’s hours” in almost any job. The corporate world is now 24/7, and the non-profit world, which mimics the corporate world (albeit with drastically less pay), is following suit. This change, facilitated by cell phones, the Internet, and the break-down of the 9-5 workday, has created worse problems for those professions that have always been “on call,” especially pastors and doctors.

    So, beyond the challenges of declining staff and volunteer involvement, we also have this storm of increased expectations. A pastor’s normal workday has greatly expanded due to our culture, with “in office” type activities happening morning through night. Plus, people expect to reach us — and not just for emergencies — by phone, text, email, etc at all hours.

    Perhaps others will add their own differences, such as the recognition that new technology has created new work (some of it pretty time consuming) too. Now churches have a 24/7 public relations responsibility, especially online. And the so-called social media are ridiculously time-consuming (though they can also be surprisingly useful in ministry).

    Beyond diagnosis, though, the real question is: How do we address this? Pastors are not going to change these cultural expectations, and changes to congregational expectations will be slow in forming too. I think most of us need to do what you are doing (in many ways): publicly draw a line and say so. If we need to lose weight, we need to explain that we’re taking some time and energy to do so. If we need to spend more time with our spouse/kids/parents, we need to say so. If we need to take sabbath — or all of the vacation we’re allotted (I’m now in my second congregation where people are surprised by ‘how much’ I’m gone because predecessors never took all of their vacation) — we need to say so, and do so. Will the line be complete? Of course not, just as setting boundaries as a parent or in a romantic relationship usually involves bending those lines from time to time. But pastors need to draw these lines, and tell the congregation (sometimes explicitly, sometimes subtly) why it’s important to us, which hopefully will change their expectations and their priorities over time.

    Needless to say, this is the top of the iceberg (though hopefully more than just the tip). I hope this post stirs lots of thoughts and some good conversation (here and elsewhere).

    Good luck on your weight loss! Hang in! Cut yourself slack when you need to (guilt isn’t an efficient calorie-burning exercise). And may you soon have the wonderful (if expensive) experience of needing new clothes!

  6. Allen

    I admit I’ve been a steady cheerleader for self-care among clergy. And I really don’t think it’s supposed to be an additional burden, I think some things should just NOT GET DONE so you can take care of yourself. I also think the congregation should be participating in caring for their pastor, without being prodded and cajoled. The congregation you love appears not to love you back, harsh as that sounds. So there’s the added possible interpretation of staying in an unhealthy relationship. Which also leads to self-destructive behaviors.

    Clergy, as you may know from the brochure, are supposed to be nice, and accommodating, and leaders, and compassionate, and organized, and wise, etc. But if anyone, including themselves, thinks they can do all that at once, at full speed, indefinitely with no ill effects, they are living in a dream world.

    I say this as a layperson surrounded by broken, exhausted clergy, most of whom keep trying to be all things to all people until they crash, then recriminate about how they failed. It breaks my heart. Congregations with sixty-year-old expectations of clergy, but do not provide the commensurate sixty-year-old congregational health and support, do not have the right to burn out their pastor, then start searching for someone better, with no self-reflection or feeling of responsibility.

    I applaud your decision to return to a healthy weight. And if pastoring a congregation leads to any kind of condition with the modifier “morbid” then it is not something God wants for you. Not the God I’m acquainted with, anyway.

  7. Brian Morse

    I think your point about the expectations that linger from a different social world go to the main cause of the issue. That post war America is long gone. Good for you for standing up for yourself. Good for you for offering this conversation.

    Signed – Another Heavy Pastor

  8. Dan Adolphson

    Sandjha,

    This is beautiful and a wonderful reminder for all of us. My partner and I are working on losing the weight as well — juggling a full-time job, church internship and seminary nearly did me in this spring, so I am working on hitting the reset button.

    Dan

  9. Grace Kao

    Sandhya:

    Thanks so much for writing this. Your analysis of the needs of the church, and the faithful leaders who continue to hold it, is spot on.

    I remember a male white youth director who used to work at our (Taiwanese church) when I was young who was, as they would say, “pudgy.” Taiwanese folk tend to be fairly blunt and “impolite” (as measured according to Western standards of etiquette) so lots of Taiwanese moms and dad would kid him about his weight at the same time that they would keep serving his more food as a way of providing “rice fellowship.”

    I’ve personally been shocked at the number of very overweight nurses at hospitals. It’s been explained to me that their brutal shifts (3 12 hour shifts per week) and the stress of their jobs causes them to eat meals out of vending machines. I can totally appreciate the institutional and structural pressures that lead to these “unhealthy” lifestyles and so I hope that I am less judgmental now than I was in previous years.

    In any event, as a fellow Christian, I thank you for the good work you continue to do in the name of Christ. And, as woman who has had some experiences with trying to lose weight herself, I applaud your efforts and wish you health and happiness along the way.

    –Grace

    P.S. I can’t believe you were 20 pounds overweight in that 27-year old photo of you. If you were any thinner I’d be scared for you!

  10. Dwight

    My Sister,
    Thank you for that powerful and revealing glimpse of the malaise that pastors are drowning in. As I read your blog I was overwhelmed with the emotions of being perceived as a failure at the condition of the the church.

    The pastor is indeed like the Greek God, Janus, who has two faces.
    One to the congregation of happy, joyful, effective, and void of emotional need. The other face is one of self criticism, fearing inadequacy, and depressive as well as addictive.

    Thank you for making this pastor re-think ministry. Blessing and resolve on your journey

    Dwight

  11. Kit Evans

    Sandhya,

    This is such a powerful reflection. Pastors really do carry “weight” in more ways that one. I pray that your cleanse (I believe this is not just physical) goes well and is a smooth and liberating process for you. I wonder if “balance” is possible for the pastor? As one who is close relationship with a pastor and a minister herself I wonder if balance is actually possible for the pastor. BTW: I loved grocery outlet as well.. its DANGEROUS!
    But, we also loved Whole Foods, grateful bowl! 🙂 Prayers as you continue to do the good work Sister. God bless you and keep on keeping on! This is an inspiring and very timely devotional.

    Best,

    Kit

  12. Christy Moore

    Sandhya,
    Thanks and thanks again for your thoughtful reflection. I believe there are many manifestations, such as weight gain, depression and physical ailments that clergy exhibit due to the multiple stressors of ministry and the lack or inability of community that exists to help bear them. After almost a year of working virtually alone to begin a faith-based food justice non-profit I found myself in the emergency room and ultimately undergoing surgery last week as a direct result of the tremendous stress under which I had been laboring. Today, I’m laboring with how to care for myself by asking those around me to offer care and support in ways that aren’t typical for most churches, and certainly not for many secular organizations. I believe wholeheartedly that a “call to community” is what we need if any of us are to continue in ministry in significant ways. The burdens associated with responding to and meeting the needs that surround us are too great for any one of us to go it alone!

  13. Chris (Nelson) Vasquez

    God Bless Sandhya!
    I hope this journey brings you much joy. I’m excited for you. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Mary Jo Bradshaw

    Sandhya, this is brilliant. YOU are brilliant. You’ve given me a lot to think about. This is me giving you a BIG virtual hug: ((hugs))

  15. Jen Pharo Roberts

    So impressed, Sandhya. I definitely don’t have your experience, but I know that churches will always expect more than you can give.

  16. Dennis Landon

    Thank you Sandhya.

  17. Mary Jacobs

    Sandhya, Thank you for taking the time to call us all to consider new models…renewed models…for life-giving, life-sustaining ministry. You are a gift and I thank God for you!

  18. Ed

    Sandhya, thank you. I need to re-read this… and re-read this… and let others read this! You’ve given a lot of people a lot to think about…

  19. Janet Ehrmantraut

    Deeply appreciated.

  20. John Cheadle Rich

    Sandhya:
    Excellent. Thank you. As always, your insight, passion and humility are inspiring. Weight is not my particular issue, but as you rightly point out, there are a lot of unhealthy ways to deal with stress. Mine is usually TV binging, but I’ve dabbled in plenty of others.

    A few thoughts: First, I think you could preach this really effectively. I love the image of the “slow bleed” and comparing/contrasting this kind of suffering with Christ’s suffering. The Scripture that came to mind was Mark 5:20-34(43?) with the woman hemorrhaging blood for 12 years. You could look at her both as a real person and a figure for the church/clergy. You could imagine the sorts of ways the woman has reacted to her illness, what unhealthy coping mechanisms she might be using to deal with her guilt and shame (perhaps she also has weight issues). You could talk about systems of patriarchy, health care, and other social structures that interplay here. (I am tempted to make the facile comparison between the doctors who treated her and made her worse to the highly-paid consultants and other “experts” who have not really done anything for the vitality of the church or clergy, but maybe that’s just me). This story really grapples with issues of guilt, shame, health, stress, systemic injustice, and true healing. And of course, Mark “sandwiches” this story with the account of Jesus raising the synagogue leader’s daughter.

    Second, I would say that another dynamic at play is our cultural mode of handling guilt. In my experience, most Western people have been conditioned to handle guilt in an unhealthy and perverse way (and I think this is true for women more than men): When we feel guilty, we usually jump to self-punishment. Our inner voice scolds us viciously over the infraction. We internally beat ourselves to a bloody pulp. At some point, the inner voice proclaims that the self-inflicted suffering has gone on long enough to appease the guilt gods, and the process is supposedly over. Sometimes there is no call to stop, and the self-punishment continues indefinitely. If/when the voice tells us it’s okay to stop, we believe we have ended the process, so it’s time for a little balm–some extra carbs, a few extra hours of TV, whatever. Of course, then the inner voice picks right back up and scolds us for not dealing with our pain in a healthy way and the cycle continues. I know there’s a lot more variation, complexity and nuance to this process, but I think that’s the basic outline.

    By contrast, it seems to me that guilt can be part of a healthy moral process. First, if I hear myself saying “Wow, you really screwed that up. You’re a terrible minister.” (and believe me, my inner voice has said that to me many, many times) I need to evaluate whether or not what I did was REALLY that bad, or just didn’t meet some super-human expectation that I shouldn’t have held myself to in the first place. If it was something morally wrong that I did, the feeling of guilt should be a warning sign, like pain in the body, to tip me off that I need to do something about it. In this case, I need to seek forgiveness (from myself, God, and/or another person) and find a way to repent for the act that brings reconciliation and justice.

    Instead of a guilt-forgiveness-repentance process, we get stuck in the guilt-self-punishment cycle. I don’t know where I learned the latter, but it is definitely there and I have to fight to use the better way of dealing with guilt.

    Of course, the woman in Mark’s story did nothing wrong, so her guilt and shame were not healthy. In addition to the hemorrhage, I’m sure her inner voice was also bleeding her dry. Ironically, even though we are clergy, we don’t always have her courage to reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. I know I don’t.

    Thanks again, Sandhya. This really is an excellent piece. If you don’t mind, I would like to share it with a local clergy group.

    -John

  21. Ted Firch

    Dear Sandhya,
    Thank you for the heart-felt, but also carefully thought out assessment of where Protestant ministry and churches stand now. Yes, I just had a congregant say the other day, “today was good, but I long for the day we had 300 in attendance every week.” I let that go like water off a duck’s back because we are in 2013, and there is no way we are going back to 1965, ever. I do not allow anything like that to govern my feelings, or my expectations. I sat at the General Assembly and derided, and voted against what I called “The Fat Minister Resolution.” I recognized at that time, though I did not put it into such good words as you did, that it was blaming the victim.
    I hope that we can come to new understandings of what it means to be pastor and people together in this new era. And in the meantime, I pray for your success in your goal to become more healthy. Oh, and you should get that piece published, in Christian Century, New York Times, pretty much everywhere. blessings, Ted

  22. Sandhya (Post author)

    Thanks for so many very powerful responses! I do think that pastors have to claim space for self-care and appreciated people lifting that issue up–we have to publicly name that this is a necessary part of what it means to be a pastor…and in many instances accept that there will be grumbling and resentment on the part of congregants if we’re not 100% available all the time. (In my congregation’s defense, much of my “I’ll be there no matter what” was self-imposed, or imposed by broader church culture rather than by individual congregants.) And a lot of movement builders (non-profit leaders, activists) are wrestling with the same questions. In fact, I was just talking with a CPA who talked about the for-profit culture demanding every drop of blood from fewer and fewer employees for more and more profit–the capitalist culture we inhabit is also probably part of this VERY complex equation. (Not to mention the addictive triangle of salt-fat-sugar that food distributors have perfected, also for profit.) All of that said, I think this meandering reflection was really about what the center of congregational life should be, and I increasingly think it shouldn’t be the professional pastor (although that person can and should have a role in some spiritual communities). I find myself think of Anthony Robinson’s line in the sand when he interviewed with a parish who named the long list of expectations of him: “Listen. I’m delighted to be a Christian WITH you. I’m not going to be a Christian FOR you.” I think that’s what we’ve unintentionally set up, and as Josh pointed out, expectations have increased and demands on us to be all available all the time have increased.

    I am so grateful to know that others wrestle with these same questions, and that my commitment to being healthier for the sake of the movement is so powerfully supported by such amazing people. We need us in this day and age.

    Also, I LOVE the theological reflection John lifted up. Never saw that coming. Thank you!

  23. Dennis

    Good for you, for understanding that obesity is a symptom rather than a disease. I suspect that most clergy could do with a more realistic set of measurements for success in ministry, because the moving target the Church measures us by isn’t helping. I do not mean by this that clergy shouldn’t expect a lot from themselves; I do mean that we don’t always recognize success when we’re looking right at it, and that if we measure success the way the culture around us does, we’ll always come up short.

    Perhaps more importantly, we need a way of looking at the world that moves us to healthy choices rather than unhealthy ones, and that allows us to recognize when the people we love and care about (our families, our congregations) are pressuring us to be something less than authentic in our relationships and in our vision for ministry. For me, it was Family Systems Theory (also called Bowen Theory and Emotional Process) that gave me a different way of seeing the world and human behavior. Most of us, I would imagine, had some exposure to Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation in seminary, but there are plenty of simpler treatments of the topic. The most important thing about it is that it involves changing ourselves and how we view and interpret behavior, rather than trying to change the people around us. It also encourages people to understand themselves, to understand their own identities within and also apart from professional ministry. Learning to differentiate ourselves and our commitments from those around us allows us to be our most authentic selves in our dealings with others, and to find more realistic measures of success for our own ministry and our congregation’s ministry. It involves some difficult choices, and some awkward moments in which we recognize our own flaws, but this stuff saved my life and brought me back from the brink of chronic depression.

    Blessings to you all.

  24. Monte

    Sandhya,

    I am so touched by your insight, your candor, your integrity, and your loving treatment of the ever so integral and delicate dimensions of the phenomena you present to us.

    There are so many times I read your posts, and want to sit down for a long talk. Between this post on weight, and the piece on non-attachment, and of course the Anti-Racism initiatives, I know our paths cross with great frequency.

    Know that you have a special place in my heart, and I will be praying as you continue this journey. Much Love.

  25. Sandhya (Post author)

    God bless you, Monte. Those prayers and that love go in both directions. 🙂

  26. Al Adams

    What stuck out for me in this excellent conversation (and I agree that your words should be published) is the expectation that we as clergy shouldcin some (or many) ways be church FOR rather, or more than, than church WITH people. Thee are indeed many facets and possibilities in just that portion of this discussion.

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