Over the past several weeks, many major news organizations have been posting stories related to clergy stress and burnout. Both The New York Times and The Huffington Post have provided excellent glimpses into the unusual world of modern pastoral ministry. It is truly a profession where "the old grey mare, she ain't what she used to be." This morning as I was reading the wide variety of responses to The Huffington Post article, I was reminded that it was a year ago this week when I walked into my District Superintendent's office to resign.
It wasn't the first time I had considered resigning. The appointment I was serving had stressed me financially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually but I did love the people and I understood what I was being asked to do there. But on that day, I felt ineffective. I felt as if my leadership was ineffective. I felt my preaching was ineffective. I believed the congregation would be better served by someone else - someone who could be heard and followed.
The situation that had led to this decision had been an issue for quite some time. It had been discussed among the leadership and the committees involved. My District Superintendent had noticed it when he visited and my own son confronted me about it when he last visited. Both parishioners and visitors had mentioned it in their evaluations. It had to be tackled and the pastor was the only one with the authority to do so. So after months of prayer, I finally took action. It was handled as gently and professionally as possible in hopes the response would be equally professional and gentle. The danger in congregations that tend to be inwardly turned is that most things are personal. The larger picture often remains in a fog of self-interest. The response was, unfortunately, personal rather than professional. Loyalty to those who had been there longest triumphed over effectiveness. It was the straw that broke the camel's back for me.
Fortunately, my District Superintendent was not there. I made an appointment and walked out of the office only to have my iPhone ding with a new message. It was an email from a shaman. It was someone who knew me and cared enough about my ministry to confront me with the truth. He started out by saying, "You may not speak to me after I say these things to you but you need to hear them and it is worth the risk." We all should have a friend like that. The email was followed by a phone call. He was direct and he was personal. He wasn't there to join my pity party. His words stung as I was confronted with my own fears, doubts, and lack of faith. He spoke the truth as he knew it from years of experience in the pulpit and years of reflection since leaving the ministry.
Most of the afternoon and evening were spent in prayer and the next morning, the burden and stress had dissolved. I kept the appointment with my District Superintendent but the topic of conversation centered around ministry, not resignations. I retell this story as an example of what is happening to my brothers and sisters in ministry all over the United States. We become damaged in these constant challenges to be the Kingdom of God in a culture that encourages us to be a civic, social, and/or political organization that uses an emblem of a cross as its logo. Some colleagues that I know well have become too damaged to be effective and my great fear was that I, too, had crossed that line.
In the midst of the stress, I had become disappointed and disillusioned. Every day seemed to be another day simply to keep digging the hole that would consume me. It was a struggle to just be present much less lead. I had forgotten one of the lessons to be learned from the story of Job - the by-product of suffering is self-absorption. My ministry had become lost in a fog of self-interest that I had created.
What saved my call was, indeed, the Holy Spirit but it was also a shaman/coach who was experienced enough to see God's larger picture, courageous enough to clear the fog and confront me with the truth, and intuitive enough to understand my calling in the Kingdom. There are very few of these shamans available and most religious institutions have no idea how to use such a resource. (I'll save that discussion for another blog.) Leading congregations in this environment requires pastors to be, as Friedman terms it, a non-anxious presence. It is difficult to be a non-anxious presence in a world that not only generates its own anxiety but actually hires marketing experts to create anxiety to influence public behavior. Those of us in pastoral leadership must confront the anxiety created by our own insecurities and deal with them theologically. You cannot expect a congregation to work through issues theologically if you as a pastor have not modelled it first.
It is now a year later and so much has changed. I love what I do. My ministry and my hope have experienced resurrection. Hopefully, when the stress pops up again, I'll be better equipped spiritually to handle it or maybe the shaman will step in before I actually get into crisis mode. But today I am profoundly grateful and amazed at how God works.