Clergy Burnout, Clergy Health

Yeah right.

Yeah right.

A couple of articles are making the rounds among my friends right now. The first article is by Craig Barnes (the new president of Princeton Seminary) and provides his reflections on why pastors cannot (or should not) be friends with parishioners. Of course there can be close and intimate relationships, and pastor and flock are friendly to one another. But Barnes argues that the clergy role is such that true mutual friendship is impossible, or at least inadvisable.

The second article is about a pastor of a large church in Charlotte who’s on a leave of absence at a treatment center after struggling with depression and alcohol abuse.

Lots I could say about these articles. To the question of friendship, I give it a big “it depends.” It depends on the church and it depends on the pastor. I think small churches ask for more transparent relationships than larger churches do. It also depends on what we mean by friendship. Human beings have a lot of different kinds of friends. Hopefully we have deep soul friends who know all there is to know about us. We also have friends with whom we can relax and be ourselves but who don’t necessarily know where all the bodies are buried. We have friends who help us remember to have fun. We have friends who are friends for a season of our lives. Pastor-parishioner friendships, to the extent that they exist and can be healthy, may be in that category.

As for the second article, I wish Pastor Shoemaker and the congregation well, and I commend the vulnerability and authenticity required to be up front about what he needs at this time.

But two quotes stuck out to me. First, Craig Barnes:

The professional literature supports this call to maintain a distinction between relationships of mutuality and those of service as a pastor. I get that. But there’s a math problem—there isn’t enough time left over after serving the church to have healthy friendships. Or at least that’s what pastors tell themselves.

It sounds like that’s what he tells himself… since he goes on to say:

I suppose I could have pulled back from the church and tried to meet more people through the PTA, the Little League, a political party or the volunteer fire department. I could even have convinced myself that this is part of my local mission as a Christian. But I love being a pastor, and I love the churches I’ve served. And they are demanding lovers.

The other quote is in the second article and is from Jody Seymour, pastor of Davidson United Methodist Church and someone who works with clergy who are struggling with burnout:

If you’re a good pastor, you’re never ‘off.’ If you’re on vacation and somebody dies, you have to come back.

Really? Because even Jesus took his time getting back after somebody died.

Look. Are pastoral boundaries important? Absolutely. And different kinds of friendships have their boundaries too.

And have I responded to a pastoral crisis while on vacation? Yes.

But generally speaking, both of these comments (and perhaps the articles in general) reveal a model of ministry that is, frankly, passing away as the guild becomes younger and less male-dominated. Younger people want a leader they can relate to more than one who holds up a lofty ideal; they seek identification more than inspiration. And women, well, we have a different way of negotiating boundaries than do men. Again, I’m speaking generally.

Also, as churches get smaller and more and more pastors become part-time, the dynamics will change even more.

What do you think?

12 thoughts on “Clergy Burnout, Clergy Health

  1. Rocky Supinger

    The view that pastors ought not have real friendships with parishoners is one I maintained for the first few years of my ministry. And vigilantly. Only now, with a four year-old daughter who’s never not been in church and a spouse whose 50+ hour per week job provides no social support, the church I serve has to provide us with friends, If it was just about me, it would be one thing. But my insistence on not being friends with people in our church would mean my wife and daughter couldn’t have them as friends either. That would deprive them, I fear.

    Reply
    1. MaryAnn

      Rocky, I think this is a great point, well expressed.

      Again, I think the friendship theme as expressed in the article is too binary. The layperson was offended that Craig didn’t share news of the call process with him. But are friends automatically entitled to have access to everything? Is that what friendship is? Here’s where my systems stuff kicks in, self-differentiation and such.

      I’d like to suggest that Craig and his parishioner *were* friends… but that there seemed to be ambiguity in terms of what that meant to each person.

      Reply
  2. Joanna

    I was called as pastor from within the church–so not being friends with people in the congregation really has never been an option for me. It is true that the friendships within the church get negotiated differently than those outside the church. But it is also true that people with whom I am friends outside of church are (often) potential future church members. And I have this lovely quality about me (apparently) that causes friends to claim me as their “pastor” even if they have never–will never–come to the church I serve. So, I concur with your “it depends” declaration.

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  3. Deb

    I read that quote by Craig Barnes and thought of the comment my CPE supervisor always said to us: “No one dies because the chaplain doesn’t get there in 5 minutes.” Usually, I’m needed in the hours/days/weeks after the trauma or health crisis. And I think it is the same way for local pastors (which I think I can say since I’ve been both!)

    Responding via email or phone to a crisis in one thing. But cutting short a vacation?? It would have to be something that is truly hugely monumental, since most of the time when I’m on vacation, you can’t find me to call me…

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  4. Stephen Smith-Cobbs

    I am basically on the same page as you, MaryAnn. Different types of friendships have different boundaries. For me the important thing is to be clear about who you are and how you are in relationship with others – and to be able to name and claim how being both pastor and friend is simply different than being a deep soul friend or a social friend. I have learned that clarity with yourself, with God, and with others is key – and perhaps especially with yourself and God.

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  5. Patty

    Going through seminary, the friends issue was a big one for me. I had lived in rural areas, and hoped to be a Minister in a rural area. I found it helpful in talking to experienced ministers about how they handled this. one told me, that she was friends with some of the congregation, she was aware that she was also the family’s minister. Her question to me was something like: does your behaviour with friends [from the congregation] stop people looking to you as their minister when they need a minister?
    other ministers spoke of having friends in the congregation, particular people who were a good friend fit for the Minister’s family. Others spoke of being clear with people when it was a friend visit and when ministry situation – maybe different meeting places.
    where I am in Ministry [not in a rural area] , my husband has friends from the congregation, which I find interesting when trying to plan birthday celebrations, they are his friends, but I feel like I am on duty. The people concerned I like and get on well with, and they would recognise the event for what it is, but it still feels like work to me.

    Reply
  6. Roy Howard

    I tried to leave a comment earlier but it never made it here, So I’ll just day that I think this could be good fodder for conversation with your clergy colleague group. : – )

    Reply
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  8. Beverly

    I agree! Times are/have been changing. I began in ministry in a “traditional” setting where there certainly was the expectation that the pastor is always in. Ugh. Over time, and after becoming a mother, my boundaries had to change. I think we have better models now for holistic health, and more of an expectation that clergy model good health for their parishioners. And good health requires a balance between work, play and rest. Many of those who say otherwise are working out their own shame and boundary issues.

    Reply
  9. Jan

    I suspect that maybe the issue of pastor burnout is even more critical than most are willing to admit — particularly in instances when the pastor serves several small churches, and is his/her own “staff” all too often… as well as parent, spouse, care-taker of aging parents, part-time employee somewhere else to make ends meet, and etc. Let’s face it, many of the folks whom I am honored to serve as spiritual director have had to tear themselves away from their duties and responsibilities to indulge in a week of respite to save themselves. The issues they bring to the sessions are as varied as are the clouds in the sky, and are not limited by one’s gender, faith tradition or socio-economic status… those chosen to serve in the ministry are created as perfectly imperfect as are the rest of us. The “safe” place provided at the Davidson Centre for the Professions allows for honest conversation amongst like-minded folks who are challenged to find that forum elsewhere, due in a great part to that issue of the problem of befriending members of one’s parish. Kudos to the work of caring for others that pastors do; and double kudos for them taking the time to put on their own oxygen mask in order to better serve those around them in times of need.

    Reply

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