A real-time answer to the clergy burnout crisis

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A real-time answer to the clergy burnout crisis

February 6, 2024 -

A gray-haired man holds his left hand to his forehead in a sign of frustration, an illustration of the growing problem of clergy burnout. By thodonal/stock.adobe.com

A gray-haired man holds his left hand to his forehead in a sign of frustration, an illustration of the growing problem of clergy burnout. By thodonal/stock.adobe.com

A gray-haired man holds his left hand to his forehead in a sign of frustration, an illustration of the growing problem of clergy burnout. By thodonal/stock.adobe.com

In 2015, 72 percent of pastors said they felt “very satisfied” with their jobs.

In late 2022, just 52 percent agreed.

What accounts for such an unprecedented drop?

In the last seven years, pastors reporting “excellence” in their:

  • spiritual well-being dropped from 37 percent to 14 percent
  • physical well-being dropped from 24 percent to 9 percent
  • mental and emotional health plummeted from 39 percent to 11 percent
  • overall quality of life declined from 42 percent to 18 percent
  • level of respect they felt from the community fell from 22 percent to 10 percent
  • level of “true friends” declined by 50 percent, from 34 percent to 17 percent
  • satisfaction with their current church fell from 53 percent to 38 percent
  • feeling more confident in their calling than when they started declined from 66 percent to 35 percent.

Unsurprisingly but alarmingly, 40 percent of pastors now show a high risk of burnout, an almost 400 percent increase since 2015.

When asked, “Have you given real, serious consideration to quitting being in full-time ministry within the last year?” 29 percent said yes in January 2021. A year and a half later, 41 percent said yes.

You and I could offer a number of explanations for this crisis in clergy well-being, among them:

  • the deep partisan divides in our communities and congregations,
  • the devastation to church life caused by the pandemic,
  • financial struggles in our churches and personal lives,
  • and rising opposition to biblical faith in our post-Christian culture.

Sadly, none of these factors seems likely to improve any time soon.

  • The presidential election will probably deepen our partisan tribalism.
  • Many churches have never returned to “normal” after the pandemic.
  • The economy is improving but financial pressures remain.
  • And our secular culture is becoming not just post-Christian but anti-Christian in many ways.

Thus far, we can find encouragement at least in the fact that we’re not alone, that others are struggling as we are.

But there’s even better news: transforming hope available to us in this very moment.

Rediscovering our “true identity”

Today’s article was prompted by a sentence from Henri Nouwen that recently captured my attention: “The first thing that struck me when I came to live in a house with mentally handicapped people was that their liking and disliking me had absolutely nothing to do with the many useful things I had done until then.”

Nouwen explained:

Since nobody could read my books, the books could not impress anyone, and since most of them never went to school, my twenty years at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard did not provide a significant introduction. . . . Not being able to use any of the skills that had proved so practical in the past was a real source of anxiety. I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmation and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment. In a way, it seemed as though I was starting my life all over again. Relationships, connections, reputations could no longer be counted on.

The experience was and, in many ways, is still the most important experience of my new life, because it forced me to rediscover my true identity. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.

Henri Nouwen discovered that he is the “Beloved” of God, as he famously describes us. And he learned that God’s embracing, unconditional, transforming love for him had absolutely nothing to do with anything he could do or not do.

Unlike people in our consumeristic, performance-centric culture who identify us by what we do and how well we do it, our Father “is” love (1 John 4:8). His nature requires him to love us at all times in all ways. His love for us is not dependent on our popularity with our congregation or society, our church’s financial performance or numerical size, or any other external factor.

Simply put, we are the “Beloved” of the Lord of the universe.

Three steps into grace

Now the key is to agree with God.

How?

One: Remember the grace by which we are saved (Ephesians 2:8–9).

Paul wrote: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Our Father loved us before we could possibly love him. He still does.

Two: Claim God’s gracious love even (and especially) when we do not feel loved (1 John 4:19).

If a married couple tells a counselor that they don’t feel love for each other anymore, she might encourage them to “act into feeling” rather than trying to “feel into acting.” Imagine what they would do if they felt love for each other, then do that. Often, feelings result from actions.

We can do the same thing with our Lord. If you felt more loved by him, how would you respond? Claim his unconditional love and act in its light. Often, your actions will make his love more real for you.

Three: Serve God not so he will love us but because he already does (Colossians 3:17).

The wrong reason for me to write this article is to earn God’s favor for my hard work. The right reason is to respond to my Father’s love for me by serving him with gratitude and sharing the gifts he has shared with me.

In so doing, we offer the world the only hope for life filled with significance in the present and glory for eternity:

  • “The Lᴏʀᴅ is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him” (Exodus 15:2).
  • “Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
  • “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name?” (Revelation 15:3–4).

Why did you preach last Sunday? Why will you preach this Sunday?

“Who are you?”

A man stood at a busy street corner and asked passers-by the simple question, “Who are you?”

Of those who replied, 100 percent responded with what they did: “I’m a lawyer” or “I’m a teacher” or “I’m a minister.”

What is the best biblical response?

The next time someone asks you, “Who are you?” say, “I’m the Beloved of God.”

Then invite them to say the same.

What did you think of this article?

If what you’ve just read inspired, challenged, or encouraged you today, or if you have further questions or general feedback, please share your thoughts with us.

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