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Sunday, August 08, 2010

Telling Secrets about Church

Note: I've been on the road most of the day, but I wanted to post this article because I think it is in the very best tradition of Telling Secrets.

I'll have more to say on this later - many stories to tell as examples of "consumer religion" at its best. Or, actually, worse.

The time is getting very near to my being ready to tell a few of my own stories publicly.

Every time I do, every time I tell more of my story, revealing another secret, I feel another little piece of my soul more liberated, healed, and more readied for new growth.

Just promise me you'll read this. And, if you feel so inclined, tell a few stories of your own right here.

NY Times Op-Ed Contributor
Published: August 7, 2010

Swampscott, Mass.

THE American clergy is suffering from burnout, several new studies show. And part of the problem, as researchers have observed, is that pastors work too much. Many of them need vacations, it’s true. But there’s a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation can help solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

The trend toward consumer-driven religion has been gaining momentum for half a century. Consider that in 1955 only 15 percent of Americans said they no longer adhered to the faith of their childhood, according to a Gallup poll. By 2008, 44 percent had switched their religious affiliation at least once, or dropped it altogether, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found. Americans now sample, dabble and move on when a religious leader fails to satisfy for any reason.

In this transformation, clergy have seen their job descriptions rewritten. They’re no longer expected to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy. Church leaders who continue such ministerial traditions pay dearly. A few years ago, thousands of parishioners quit Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., and Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., when their respective preachers refused to bless the congregations’ preferred political agendas and consumerist lifestyles.

I have faced similar pressures myself. In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.

Congregations that make such demands seem not to realize that most clergy don’t sign up to be soothsayers or entertainers. Pastors believe they’re called to shape lives for the better, and that involves helping people learn to do what’s right in life, even when what’s right is also difficult. When they’re being true to their calling, pastors urge Christians to do the hard work of reconciliation with one another before receiving communion. They lead people to share in the suffering of others, including people they would rather ignore, by experiencing tough circumstances — say, in a shelter, a prison or a nursing home — and seeking relief together with those in need. At their courageous best, clergy lead where people aren’t asking to go, because that’s how the range of issues that concern them expands, and how a holy community gets formed.

Ministry is a profession in which the greatest rewards include meaningfulness and integrity. When those fade under pressure from churchgoers who don’t want to be challenged or edified, pastors become candidates for stress and depression.

Clergy need parishioners who understand that the church exists, as it always has, to save souls by elevating people’s values and desires. They need churchgoers to ask for personal challenges, in areas like daily devotions and outreach ministries.

When such an ethic takes root, as it has in generations past, then pastors will cease to feel like the spiritual equivalents of concierges. They’ll again know joy in ministering among people who share their sense of purpose. They might even be on fire again for their calling, rather than on a path to premature burnout.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a minister in the United Church of Christ, is the author of “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul.”


Jeffri Harre said...

And this is what happens when we adopt the language of the marketplace and business models for the church. Why are we so eager to adopt them? After all, look what they did to the economy.


RevMama said...

Fairly early in my ordained ministry, I was vicar of a mission full of people who wanted a church that would comfort them and never challenge them. The previous vicar had given them all kinds of unrealistic expectations, and the diocese was pushing us grow bigger, better and faster so we could become a parish. AFter 3.5 years, I was burned out and severely depressed. I left full-time ministry.

For the past 16 years, I've been part-time interim, priest in charge, and assistant - at some wonderful churches where the people did want to grow and be stretched. They stretched me too, and helped me to grow. Now, with a better sense of self and the kind of ministry I feel called to do (and what I will and will not put up with!), I'm ready to quit my day job and go back to full-time ministry.

Ordained ministry is truly an impossible vocation. When it's good, the blessing are amazing. When it's bad, it will kill your soul. I guess the secret is finding a place where the blessings outnumber the bad thing - and knowing when to leave.

Theo said...

This summer I've been reading Eugene Peterson's writings on pastoral ministry, including his classic, The Contemplative Pastor. He reminds us that the basic tasks of pastoral ministry are prayer, study (especially Scripture for the purpose of preaching), and listening.

The only job description to which I really need to pay attention is set forth in the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer. If I keep focused on the promises I made at my ordination, all else falls into place.

Muthah+ said...

There is some truth in Bro. MacDonald's evaluation but I think that the problem is much greater than that and is not the fault of laity, clergy or bishops.

Yes, we have used all kinds of models for the Church and I wonder if those models are all that helpful. I caught NPR thing on Diane Rheme's Show today that likened a new way of thinking of how folks can organize with ants, or bees.

But I know that the image of ministry is changing too radically for me to keep up with it. When I went to seminary we wanted to be professionals, then there was the CEO model, then there is the academic model. There was the growth model then there is the "family-functional or dysfunctional". I can't keep up with them all. Now I am hearing of Total Ministry.

I am afraid also the model for leadership has changed so radically in the Church today that it is hard for me to recognize the vocation to which I was called.

What I believe I am called to be is one who is to try as best as I am able to make Christ known in word, action and sacrament for the benefit of the Church. I am tired of being a "role model" as Shaque says. I am tired of being an administrator or CEO. I am tired of being nag or a bitch to keep the parish solvent and I am tired of feeling like I have to be the Sunday morning entertainment. What I want to be is a who can share what God has done for me and for those I have known and sharing those experience with others whether it fits the hour attention spans of my congregation or not.

Granted, I am now retired. But that doesn't mean that the Church is not the family in which I move and have my being.

I have listened to lay folks on this thread who despute this image of the laity, but I don't find it among those who bellyache and often run our churches. Where are those especially in small congregations who are willing to lead their parishes in letting the incessant complainers know that 5 min sermons are what they want?

Joie said...

Theo- I agree that what you say is how is SHOULD be but there are truly dysfunctional parishes in which such is not the case. I am living this. It is real. My bishop is steamed at one of them (I have two). I am not alone. How can truly dysfunctional parishes (not missions) be held accountable for health? I think they should have to change or close the doors. Eventually, of course, if they don't change they WILL be closing the doors but how many will be hurt in the process - lay and ordained? I keep going back to the ordination service to remind myself of what my call is and is not about. I preach that, too. A whole lot of good it's done, at least for now.