I’ve been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Leaving Church, a memoir of her experiences as a priest in the Episcopal church. She talks about her work in a large Atlanta congregation, travelling to a small north Georgia town and getting her own church, and eventually taking a teaching position at Piedmont college. Along the way she talks about her struggles to experience God while at the same time represent the Divine Presence to her congregation. She is a victim of her own success, as her church grows so does the stress of maintaining her peace of mind. The challenge of balancing church, home, and time with God bring about a change.
This isn’t intended to be a book review as such, but rather a way of identifying with her candid appraisal of church life. I really sympathize with her, as her experiences could happen to someone in a Baptist church as well. I can’t relate to “putting on the collar” every day but there is a difference in how people treat you once they know you work for the church. Brown speaks for many pastors across denominational lines. In plain talk, she got burned out with her work, dealt with depression, and found herself wondering what God’s purpose for it all happened to be. After five plus years as a female pastor in small town church, Piedmont College threw her a life preserver and rescued her from a sea of turbulent ministry waters. Ironically, many of the stresses Brown dealt with came about because of her great success as a preacher and teacher.
I’ve been thinking about this book a lot, and wondering what pastors do who are dealing with burn out but don’t have the options that Brown did. She had a wider audience with her teaching and writing ministry, and landed in pretty good shape. For Brown, it was necessary for her to “lose” the church in order to “find” her faith again. Still, many pastors who don’t have her pedigree end up as insurance salesmen or in some other profession outside of professional ministry wondering why they spent so much earning a seminary degree. It has to be a painful adjustment. I guess it depends on whether you choose to get out or whether you are another victim of “forced termination.”
It appears to me that Brown suffered from an emotional kind of “battle fatigue” not unlike what many other ministers experience from dealing with local congregations. I can identify with this sentiment and can appreciate why many capable men and women walk away from the ministry. It can be a demanding, frustrating, draining, and disappointing experience when you work with people. Church people, in particular, can be very needy and take a lot out of you. There are many”takers” in the church and these folks find their way to the pastoral staff at some point. Fortunately, there are some “givers” out there as well. At one point in her book, Brown indicated talking with some church members at a party whom she hadn’t talked with before. This happened after her resignation from the church. She realized how wonderful these people were but because they weren’t the demanding type, she hadn’t had any reason to deal with them. I agree with her that pastors should seek out these kinds of folks, because the demanding ones will seek the pastors out on their own.
Yes, vocational ministry can be grueling and some of the meanest people I know claim to be “people of the book.” Christians can do evil things all in the name of religion (our record here is well known). Still, there is an appeal to helping hurting people, bearing one another’s burdens, and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. It isn’t necessary to be ordained to carry out these tasks, but having the position does have its privileges. Whenever going through particularly difficult times, I try to remember why I got into this profession to begin with and focus on my Call. It’s the anchor that keeps my ministry ship afloat.
There are many landmines out there for ministers to avoid. Reading the latest news about the Ted Haggard situation gives evidence of that. For the pastors serving anonymously in their small corner of the mission field, the temption to wrestle with is discouragement. These pastors serve faithfully week after week, visiting the sick, agonizing over the church budget, contacting the inactive members, and preaching every Sunday. Some do not see any results from their labor. Many falsely believe that they were better pastors they’d be at bigger churches. It’s no wonder that pastors burn out. I remember an older pastor say “I’d rather burn out than rust out.” Well, either way “you’re out.”
I don’t have any particular conclusions to draw from Brown’s book except to say that I identify with the feelings of frustration and discouragement that come with the pastorate. I also recognize that there are many positives that come with the pastorate. It’s an awesome privilege gaining the trust of your people. I’m trying to change my thinking from “Am I there yet?” to “Am I making progress?” Jesus didn’t tell us to be successful, only faithful. I’m still learning what that means. For those who leave the ministry, I understand and sympathize. It’s better to leave the ministry than lose your sanity. But, I have an even greater appreciation for those who stay in the church and stay with it.
Today I came across a poster with a man in a rowboat on a large body of water. The words read, “Dear God, please be good to me. The sea is so wide, and my boat is so small.” Amen to that. I can’t help thinking that there are other ministers out there who are caught between their feelings and their faith. Vocational ministry is pilgimmage. One day at a time, with the Lord’s help, I hope to one day finish. In the meantime, I don’t plan on leaving church. I’ll hang in there and give my best to the Lord and his people. I hope my children will know what church is supposed to be about and have good experiences growing up. As their father (and pastor), I hope that’s my legacy for them.