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Soul Care and the Roots of Clergy Burnout

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There's been quite an interest lately in clergy burnout in the media. The New York Times has published several pieces on the subject: "Taking a Break from the Lord's Work" by Paul Vitello, and "Congregations Gone Wild" by G. Jeffrey MacDonald. The Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School has published a new report on the poor mental and physical health of pastors. NPR has featured interviews on the subject. Remedies range from developing better boundaries to engaging in self-care to putting the brakes on the demands of congregation members.

There certainly is cause for concern. However, my doctoral research on transformational leadership and the spiritual life of pastors, as well as 12 years of consulting in the field, show that the causes of clergy burnout and poor mental and physical health are far deeper than poor boundaries, or the failure to engage in self-care, or the seemingly insatiable desires of congregations. Burnout and poor health are symptoms of a far deeper "dis-ease" of soul that has plagued clergy for nearly 100 years. They are symptoms of starvation. Addressing the symptoms of burnout does not get to the root of this serious matter.

Pastors who are effective and get things done are considered "successful." Denominations, including the United Methodist Church, focus on results that can be measured (e.g., increased membership and the congregation's financial well-being). Yet numerous studies over the past 20 years reveal that this approach is, literally, killing clergy and, by extension, churches and denominations.

When examined more deeply, it turns out that the current emphasis on clergy effectiveness is due to a change in the role of pastors that occurred in the 1920s concomitant with the development of the assembly line and the adoption of the production efficiency methodology of Taylorism in corporate America. At that time, as Richard Niebuhr observed, clergy became "pastoral directors" who focused on the administrative tasks of managing and maintaining churches for the benefit of the denomination. And, as retired United Methodist bishop Richard Wilke has noted, by the 1960s, pastors were being evaluated on their "competency, acquired skills, and professional status."

Now we hear that burnout needs to be solved so that clergy can be effective. At the same time, the solutions that are being recommended, and have been recommended for decades, to mitigate the symptoms have not been enough. Far more is needed than firm boundaries or vacations or sabbaticals that are not true times of rest and renewal. Although the United Methodist Church allows for a sabbatical year every seven years, it is an unpaid year and health benefits are not covered, so clergy often have to work during their sabbatical year. The sabbatical programs offered by the Lilly Foundation and the Louisville Institute are generous, yet they still require the clergyperson to produce research as evidence of time well-spent. Ironically, the purpose of Sabbath, and sabbatical -- to rest from producing -- has been lost.

Efforts to improve clergy health for the purposes of increased effectiveness and production cannot cure what ails both clergy and congregations. To move towards true health, it is essential to get to the root cause by considering the role of clergy before the 1920s.

Until the 1920s, the pastor was a cura animarum, the "cure of souls," or "curate" -- a person who cared for souls by helping people locate themselves in God's greater story. The first step in this work was the pastor's own attention to her or his soul-care through an intentional focus on her or his personal relationship with the Holy. Yet, as I learned as a participant in a Lilly Endowment convocation, seminaries focus on academics and do not train Protestant clergy in spirituality or spiritual formation. At most, even in 2010, only a handful of seminaries require a semester of study in this essential subject.

The rationale for this omission is the assumption -- which I have heard stated by many in seminary leadership -- that clergy receive spiritual formation in their home congregations. However, as Ezra Earl Jones, who headed the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship for 12 years, points out, churches are "places for programs" and because of this, pastors themselves "haven't known the church to be a place of spiritual formation." As a result of their own poverty in spiritual formation and relationship with God, pastors are not prepared to help people build relationships with God. As Jones told me:

My data, largely about United Methodist pastors, confirms your learnings that our pastors in large part are not praying people. They do not practice the historic spiritual disciplines and therefore it is impossible for them to help those of us who look to them for guidance in the church to be praying people seeking God and love of neighbor.


Daily time and space for this inner work are essential for the health of clergy and congregations. As Norman Shawchuck and Roger Heuser wrote in Leading the Congregation: Caring for Yourself While Serving Others, a congregation

will not journey beyond the pastor; the congregation will not venture where the pastor is not leading. This is a hard saying. It would be more comfortable to work like the traffic cop -- to give a map or a few verbal instructions -- but spiritual formation is a case where only those who have eyes to see can lead. (p. 126)


The witness of spiritual directors over the centuries is that the leader's need to "make a difference" -- the need to find personal significance through effectiveness -- must be set aside in order to be "made different" -- the deeper need to discover one's renewed identity through relationship with God.

John Wesley, the eighteenth-century founder of the Methodists, wrote of his own spiritual disciplines and his daily time of solitude at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m.: "Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone; only God is here, in his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven." In the letter he wrote to a pastor 250 years ago on August 7, 1760, Wesley clearly stated the importance of soul care for pastors: "[This is] what has exceedingly hurt you in times past, nay, and I fear, to this day ... Whether you like it or no, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way ... Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer."

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