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The Times
  • Shayne Looper: Churches, pastors and clergy burnout

  • Isn’t going to a stressed-out pastor for guidance a little like going to a mechanic whose family car doesn’t run? Pastoral effectiveness grows out of solitude and silence. Without time alone to listen to God, additional time to listen to church members will be counterproductive — both to the pastor and the church member.

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  • My friend stepped into the office and looked around. On the wall was a poster of a musher and his dog team, taken from the perspective of the second dog in a gangline. The caption read something like, “The view from second place is always the same.”
    You can find these once popular motivational posters on the office walls and cubicles of salespeople and those in the corporate business world. But I found my friend’s story particularly interesting because the poster he saw was hanging in a pastor’s office.
    Of course I don’t know what the pastor had in mind when he hung that poster on his office wall, but if his intent was to motivate himself and his church staff to outperform other churches, that pastor had a problem.
    And pastors do have a problem, according to The New York Times. In an Aug. 2 article, Paul Vitello reported that “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”
    These are the people that many of us look to for guidance in leading healthy and joyful lives. They instruct us in God’s ways, and counsel us through life’s difficulties. But the Times article gives us pause. Isn’t going to a stressed-out pastor for guidance a little like going to a mechanic whose family car doesn’t run?
    As a pastor myself, I am all too familiar with the symptoms of stress and the threat of depression. And I know that it is a mistake to put pastors on a pedestal or expect them to be free from the struggles the rest of us face. We wouldn’t want such pastors — if there are any. They would never understand us. Still, the rise in physical and mental illness among clergy indicates that something is seriously wrong. I can think of a number of possibilities.
    For one thing, too many church members believe that the pastor is the only person who can help them with their spiritual problems (and pastors are often complicit in propagating this myth). If the pastor is the only person in the church who can help, and the church is comprised of more than a few people, it is inevitable that the pastor will be overworked.
    But that is not how the church was designed to function. In the Bible it is clear that church members are to instruct and care for one another. The weight of ministry should never fall on just one person.
    Another possible reason for the increased rate of clergy burnout might lie in a shift in pastoral attitudes toward work. I have noticed that many clergy view their work as a career rather than a calling. What’s worse, they view their work as a career in a highly competitive field. Denominational executives may aggravate the situation by an emphasis on church growth, but in this matter pastors are their own worst enemies. They too often aim for success in the marketplace rather than obedience to God. They take the megachurch’s superstar clergy for their models rather than the wise and faithful church leaders from biblical times to the present.
    Page 2 of 2 - Yet another reason for growth in stress-related illnesses may lie in pastors’ increased availability. I rarely eat lunch with other pastors without one or more of them taking a cell phone call. Many pastors are connected 24/7 to congregants by Facebook and Twitter.
    But pastoral effectiveness grows out of solitude and silence. Without time alone to listen to God, additional time to listen to church members will be counterproductive — both to the pastor and the church member.
    What can churches do? They can pray for their pastors, and make clear that the pastor’s relationship with God — not his or her responsibility to parishioners — is the first priority.
    Daily Reporter contributor Shayne Looper is the pastor at the Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Mich. He can be reached at salooper@dmcibb.net.

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