You’re not crazy (or, what it feels like to be a pastor)

You don’t want to be me.

According to a series of New York Times articles* and a plethora of other studies** done on the topic, people like me are ticking time bombs.

Consider these stats:

  • Pastors suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans.
  • The rate of depression among clergy is 11% — about double the national rate.
  • 13% report issues with anxiety.
  • 33% felt burned out within their first five years of ministry.
  • 33% say that being in ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
  • 50% feel unable to meet the needs of the job.
  • 52% of pastors say they and their spouses believe that being in pastoral ministry is hazardous to their family’s well-being and health.
  • 70% don’t have any close friends.
  • 90% feel unqualified or poorly prepared for ministry.
  • 90% work more than 50 hours a week.
  • 94% feel under pressure to have a perfect family.
  • 1,500 pastors leave their ministries each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure. There is actually a viable market for something called “pastoral dismissal insurance.”

What sane person would want to deal with competing demands, the constant fear of failure and the chronic loss of sleep (not to mention the loss of weekends)? And those are first-world, 21st-century struggles. Pastor-friends in African countries tell me they wake up every day prepared to die. A pastor’s home in India is likely to be smaller than your master bathroom. A friend in Nepal hid in an attic to avoid being killed by a Hindu extremist (he later escaped the town on foot).

In the first century, signing on to be a leader in the Christian movement meant signing on for something that was completely reviled by the prevailing religious and political world. The life expectancy of a circuit rider in early Methodism was 33 years.

A person would have to be crazy to sign on for this job, right?

In Paul’s two letters to Timothy, he counsels endurance even when it seems crazy. In Paul’s advice we hear Timothy’s state of mind. He is hanging by a thread — tired, stressed out, anxious. “Take some wine for your stomach,” Paul advises, because bearing other people’s burdens will give a person stomach problems. Watching them slide backwards after you’ve tried so hard to move them forward can make a person downright depressed. Competing complaints can send a person over the edge. Battling heresy can wear a person out.

Timothy is tired. I can relate. I’m grateful the Bible gives me permission to admit it when I have those days.

Maybe you are right there with Timothy and you are tired, too. Tired of day-in, day-out stresses. Tired of conflicts and misunderstandings. Tired of physical issues and mental issues and marital issues. Tired of the battle.

Are we insane to stay with this, when so much of it is crazy-making?

My experience after eighteen years of ministry and the start of two congregations is that the only thing standing between me and complete burn-out is not success, but the power of God. It is the power of God that saves me from those baser fight-or-flight instincts. The strength of this gospel keeps me bound to this call because in the end I’m convinced that’s where the power is.

Herein lies the difference between crazy and courageous. It depends on the thing you’re fighting for. What sets us apart who serve this gospel is not sheer force of will nor sheer enjoyment. What separates us from “crazy” is the character of what we believe in, which is proven by the character it brings out in us.

It is not crazy to make ministry your vocation. Given the vocational hazards it is perhaps the most courageous possible choice. On this day, may that be encouragement enough to help you begin again.

*Several articles appeared in the New York Times in 2010 addressing the issue of clergy burnout. Begin with this one, and follow it to others. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html

**http://www.pastorburnout.com/pastor-burnout-statistics.html

 

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A sign from God

I am beginning to think it really was a sign from God.

I found it in front of The Holy House of Prayer of Jesus Christ (Elder William Butler, presiding). At the end of a string of other announcements about repenting and where you can find them on the radio, the sign read, “God have [sic] never called a woman to preach. Never will.”

The day IWomen-to-preach sign saw it, I knew that sign was for me. It stood in front of a little building with burglar bars deep in one of the most impoverished areas of Georgia — what is known as Frog Holler or Bethlehem — in downtown Augusta.

I will admit that the day I found it, I delighted in that sign. Things like that validate my experience of being a woman in ministry in the South. There is still a remarkable amount of prejudice. I don’t hear it in every conversation, but I’ll admit that over time I have developed more of a suspicion about people’s motives. I have had enough conversations with folks in my church to know that they debate their friends and co-workers regularly on this issue. They defend their church and their pastor admirably. I wish they didn’t have to, but I’m grateful beyond words for their convictions.

I wonder how many people I will never meet, how many opportunities I’ll never even know I missed, because the people I might have known don’t trust my place as a pastor. I have taken way too much time to reflect on this. The inequality exposes something broken in me. I feel trapped. I get angry, defensive. I obsess. I find myself talking about it far too often, with far too much passion. I go beyond good sense. Because I am so darn competitive, I have a hard time making peace with the realities of life.

You know what I want? What I secretly want is for someone to erect a sign that says, “People think this way. It is not just Carolyn’s imagination. This is real. But it is also wrong. It is not an educated response to scripture. It is an injustice and an impediment to the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

That’s what I really want. I want someone to publicly acknowledge what I know to be true.

And that’s why Elder William Butler became my friend when I saw his sign. He has done what I only dreamed of. He put up a sign that pretty much says it all. People think this way. It is not just my imagination. This is real. But it is also wrong. It is not an educated response to scripture.

Elder Butler has exposed the problem magnificently.

Sadly, he has also exposed my heart. His sign is in the poorest part of town, in one of the poorest districts in the state. Rampant crime. Burglar bars on the church building. Deep poverty, serious drug issues. And I took a picture of the sign, and neglected to say so much as a prayer over the community.

Shame on me.

(This post was first published in the early days of my old blog, “Fivestones.” I publish it today as a sort of personal Ebenezer — a place in my life where I remember still an intersection where my brokenness met God’s grace.)

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