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.
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.