I attended a meeting of clergy recently, which began with us sitting in a small circle, coffees in hand, introducing ourselves and talking about the state of our ministries.
I knew immediately how this would go and it met my expectations. It was the exact same responses that I hear every time clergy get together to talk about how things are going.
− “I am just so tired.”
− “The church is just wearing me out.”
− “What is a vacation?”
− “I don’t know how long I can keep going at this pace.”
− “And they expect me to have time for Sabbath?”
− “The usual. I am worn out and not appreciated.”
I was the seventh person in the circle and by the time it got to me the energy in the room had changed from that of a fellowship to that of a family sitting Shiva together.
Everyone’s exhaustion was contagious – the energy of the room tangibly lowered, and we were suddenly in a dark and lonely place, ironically together.
As the conversation came closer and closer to me, I had no idea how to answer the question because I did not agree with any of them. I felt guilty answering it honestly, so I said, “Well, the church is going.”
The answer that I wanted to give was that I really love my ministry, I end more days than not in a good mood, and my job energizes me. I feel completely and fully blessed by this calling, and I love the church where I serve.
However, in that room, I felt guilty saying that I was happy in my work as a minister.
How did we get to a place in ministry where more often than not we hear reports from pastors who feel miserable, tired and unappreciated?
How have we gotten to a place where someone feels guilty talking about the positive aspects of their work?
How has our calling become a burden and not a deep joy? And what does this say about clergy and the future of the church?
Could it be that there are clergy who feel stuck in ministry, dread going to work, and who don’t find any joy in it, yet they keep on showing up because they don’t know what they would do otherwise?
That is not the reason to do ministry and it might be harming the church.
Given the pervasiveness of negative speech among some clergy, are we really surprised that our congregations are dwindling and folks don’t want to be here when we don’t want to be here?
Is it possible that this most recent decline of church attendance, engagement and giving could have anything to do with the current epidemic of pastoral burnout that is all around us?
In his memoir, “Blue Like Jazz,” Donald Miller says he was not a jazz fan until he watched a man play jazz on the saxophone.
After watching someone who truly loved jazz play jazz, Miller found himself in love with the music as well.
Could it be that local churches need ministers deeply in love with their calling to truly and effectively lead them?
This is not to say there won’t be times that are difficult and times when we each question our calls, but maybe those times should not be the norm in our existence.
Certainly there have been times when church has worn me down, but I have learned from each of those times and formed a discipline out of the experience.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned that I hope prove helpful to other clergy:
− Take a Sabbath every week, and don’t check your church email, go to the office or work from home.
− Find a spiritual director that you visit regularly who can help you develop your faith.
− Give up thinking that you have to fix everything and everyone, and that you have to do everything.
− Stop doing church work when you get home so that you can be a parent, a spouse and a friend.
− Pray for the members who are constantly a voice of criticism rather than engage them every time they email.
− Formulate reasonable expectations for your faith community and yourself.
− Don’t assume that you will struggle with, or to be exhausted by, your call to ministry; anticipate loving it and finding life in it.
Terry York, professor of Christian ministry and church music at Truett Seminary, once gave me some advice: Leave the office with a smile on your face, feel proud of the work you have done, and enjoy the adventure of your call.
I took his advice to heart and I practice it more days than not. I hope other clergy will apply his helpful guidance.
Griff Martin is co-pastor of University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.