By Paul Koch
No not that type of burnout!
I’m talking about the burnout that everyone seems to speak about with regard to the Pastoral ministry. From my earliest moments at pastoral conferences (during my days as a vicar) to current columns in Synodical publications and I’m sure each and every pastor’s conference I attend from today till the day I die or my Lord returns, there is constant concern regarding “burnout” in the ministry.
Now I assume this concern is present because the numbers play out, that is there are enough stats on the health and well being of pastors and their relationships to give rise to so much concern. In other words pastors are often overworked, underpaid, depressed, moody, tired, confused, frustrated, etc. The Synodical folks see and know this and so they want to do what they can to prevent or limit such problems among the clergy. I wonder though, has this always been the case? Is the current climate of ministry much different from any other? And are the clergy that different with regard to burnout from any other vocation, especially those of the people sitting in the pews every Sunday morning?
I think that part of what has happened is we have become fractured and confused in knowing exactly what it is a pastor is supposed to do. When I was pursuing my undergraduate degree at Concordia University in Irvine I was planning on becoming a DCE (Director of Christian Education) and one of the things that I realized early on in the program was that no one had any idea at all what a DCE was supposed to do, so they didn’t really know what they should know. That is; because there was no clear understanding of a vocation as a DCE there was no clear focus to the education. It turned out to be a smattering of educational psychology, Christian doctrine, sociology, and dramatic arts.
Now you would think that the pastoral office would be a vocation that was clear and extremely focused, but perhaps it is not. Without focus, without a clear sense of itself it is pushed around and defined by others. But this is nothing new, in 1849 Wilhelm Lohe wrote:
“Most pastors have themselves no conception of their office and hence lack all basis and confidence for their public activity. They exercise their office as though they had no right to do so, fainthearted, intimidated by every Tom, Dick, or Harry.” – Aphorism on the New Testament Offices, 21
Perhaps the solution to pastoral burnout (or at least a way to slow its progression) is not to give more opportunities for time away from the church or more reflective seminars or strategy sessions for effective ministry. Perhaps what we need to do is clarify the substance of the office, challenge our pastors to be the preachers God sent them into the world to be. Expect them to proclaim Christ crucified and so kill and make alive. For it is in that killing and bringing forth new life that life itself find hope and joy here and now. It is in the preaching task that we are all given the strength to endure!