Anne Helen Petersen is a writer and journalist based in Missoula, Mont. She recently left BuzzFeed, where she was senior culture writer, and now runs the Substack newsletter “Culture Study.” In her new book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, Petersen dives into the systems and culture that have driven the generation’s need for constant productivity that led to burnout. In her latest newsletter, she focuses on the contours of clergy burnout.
I spoke with Petersen about how her book’s concepts apply across contexts, including the church.“Being a religious leader has never been easy (or, for most, lucrative),” she writes, “but when the secular world is as exhausting and precarious as it is now, the religious leader, tasked with tending to the spiritual needs of their congregation, is going to absorb it to the point of overflowing.”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sandi Villarreal, Sojourners: You mention this in your author’s note, but the book was written just before the pandemic hit. COVID has revealed so many things that are broken in our society. What do you think it’s revealed when it comes to millennial burnout?
Anne Helen Petersen: I think the fraying of the social fabric and the holes in the social safety net. They’ve been there for a long time, but as Americans we’re really adept at telling ourselves stories so we don’t have to deal with it and ignoring or patching over those holes. Continuing with the metaphor, if it’s the social fabric, it’s fraying and we’re just like, “Oh we’ll just go buy a new shirt from H&M” instead of dealing with the problem.
I think that the social infrastructure is so fragile, and it’s just collapsed. If you were feeling precarious in any capacity before, whether in terms of parenting, in terms of your community, in terms of work, financially, psychologically, all of that has just gotten more difficult. Everything has been amped up.
Villarreal: One of the lines in the book that struck me is that so many employers have worked to frame “‘jobs’ as ‘passions’ and ‘workplaces’ as ‘family.’ And God forbid you talk about money with family.” When I read that, I thought — well, no place is that more true than in places of worship. Did that blurred line come up in your interviews with pastors and other faith leaders?
Petersen: It’s “family” but it’s not a family that necessarily has good communication or articulated expectations for each other. I think that one of the struggles is that — and I saw this with the women clergy I talked with — there is some condescension: “You’re the authority, but here’s how we do it.” It’s not only because of gender but also because of age.
And the thing that I have heard again and again is clergy who have been called early in their careers, oftentimes the church articulates a vision of what they want — “We want to join the 21st century, we want to attract young people, we want to be dynamic” — but then if you try to implement any changes that would make that happen, there is just this profound resistance. That is exhausting.
Villarreal: And now they have to be experts in digital everything.
Petersen: Yes. And how do you sustain membership and also recruit new members while you’re doing all of this?
Villarreal: A common theme for the millennial generation is that we were encouraged to find our passion. For clergy, how does that differ from what they refer to as a “calling”?
Petersen: It all comes back to the rhetoric and the language that we use around religious leaders. It’s something now that we’ve expanded to account for lots of different kinds of work. You don’t necessarily say “calling,” but you say “the thing I’m passionate about, the thing I’m drawn to.” But they mean the same thing, which is some larger force is guiding you toward this thing, and if you say no to it or give up on it then you are somehow failing the gravity or the higher power in your life. People resist it and they do everything they can, to the point of total exhaustion, in order to keep on the path. And then when they do leave it, it can be incredibly psychologically devastating. What I’ve heard more and more from millennials is that they had to leave the path out of sheer necessity — they just could not pay their bills anymore — and they didn’t expect how much time they would need to spend in mourning for that calling and for that career.
Villarreal: When you’re called in the spiritual sense, you’re also not thinking about being the administrator of a team or a landlord.
Petersen: Especially for solo pastors. Does a pastor know that they also need to be a manager? You’re also a groundskeeper. You’re doing so much personal work but also so much administrative work and financial work and committee-leading work and capital campaign work — oftentimes with dwindling resources, and that makes it even more difficult and more taxing.
The common theme in the testimonies is feeling like you were trained for one thing and then arriving in a situation that was very different and not having the skills or number of hours in the day to complete those tasks and feeling like you are constantly failing. It’s a hard feeling to live with every day.
Villarreal: You put it plainly in the book: “A ‘calling’ … is often an invitation for exploitation.” What are some ways people have expressed to you that churches can avoid that and care for their pastors?
Petersen: The thing that came up over and over again was seeing the pastor as a person. In the more traditional workplaces, oftentimes we see workers as robots. With pastors I think it’s more similar to teachers, and how students think their teacher lives at school — that you don’t have to think about their needs, in terms of financial needs or retirement or any of the things that you as a member of a congregation obviously are thinking about. That even comes down to things like parental leave. A church functioning as your HR department is an invitation to not be treated as a human.
Villarreal: You grew up in the church. Is there anything you’ve seen in that faith tradition that feeds into the cycle of burnout?
Petersen: Protestantism, and the good old Protestant work ethic where more work equals better work, is just spread all over the place. You see it in parenting, in the pretty recent idea that more parenting is better parenting. And also just that working more hours in front of your computer [means] that you are doing better as a worker or a thinker — it’s just not true. It’s diminishing returns. I think the early Protestants that give us the Protestant work ethic in America understood that you could work really, really hard, but then they had time set aside for contemplation. They had these rigorous times that you were not laboring — you were sitting in a seat just thinking or listening.
So we have all of the work ethic and very little of the Protestantism left in most spaces. Oftentimes going to church or having that set-aside time or spending time with other people in fellowship in any capacity is incredibly nourishing. Within our faith traditions it is the thing that God calls upon us to do — be with other Christians. The thing about burnout is that it robs you of the desire to do the thing that would actually make you feel better.
Villarreal: Is there something specific about Christianity that aligns it so neatly within the capitalist framework that’s being called into question?
Petersen: Earlier I used the term “church shopping,” which really positions churches as something within this larger ecosystem: “What matters is me, as the church customer. I’m getting the deal that I want out of this relationship with this church, and if I cease to be satisfied with this relationship, I can return my bill of goods, I can stop tithing.” It creates this incredibly fraught relationship where pastors and religious leaders become beholden, become paralyzed, by this need to hold on to all of these customers [by] not being too political, not being radical, whatever it is. And I think the failure to do that is also what fails to attract new members. If you’re not addressing these things, especially [for] younger people or people who have left the faith, there’s not a lot of reason for people to feel drawn back. It is a really difficult line. The thing about capitalism is that it turns anything that’s operating under it into a capitalistic enterprise. Even if a church is a 501(c)(3), it still is functioning under those terms.
Villarreal: One common thing I saw in interviews is an acknowledgement of intense burnout but coupling it with “but I’m so lucky” or “I could have it worse” or “at least it’s something.” Is it a millennialism that there’s an impulse here to acknowledge privilege or at least think of situations relative to others?
Petersen: I do think it’s something we have grown up as adults in. There’s a line, though, between really acknowledging the privileges of whiteness and of middle-class-ness and of using that acknowledgement to elide your own struggle. To [say]: “What I’m feeling is not valid because it’s not as bad as other people have it.” And that applies to everything from the amount of student debt someone has and how difficult it feels to pay it off to really struggling with parenting division of labor. Because we were labeled as this indulgent, greedy generation, millennials also try to push back against that label.
Villarreal: How does your work account for the deep racial and socioeconomic disparities and how that plays into the question of burnout? I think particularly in this news cycle and how traumatic it is — as we saw with the decision in the Breonna Taylor case — that burnout is impacting some in a much deeper way.
Petersen: Any attempt to deny those very real differences — being a Black person in America today; being a Black man, if you’re out, here are all of the things you have to worry about; if you’re a Black parent, here are the discussions you have to have all of the time with your kids about levels of safety — it’s just different. It is exponentially more weight.
That’s true as well with economic disparities. There is just an incredible difference between someone who is middle class and wondering, “am I saving enough for my kid for college,” and someone who is worried about eviction. When there is a problem, middle-class people can almost always throw some money at it, or they have a structure of support that can be that safety net for them. A lot of people who are the working poor just don’t have that.
If you’re disabled, how does burnout work differently? Or if you’re undocumented, or if you have to worry about assumptions made about you because you’re wearing a hijab? It’s hard to account for so many different corners of experience adequately and thoroughly and rightfully, but at the same time I do think if we can see some of the commonalities — acknowledging how different it is — then you can forge something like solidarity. You can come together and say, “We want change, and we want things to be different.”
Villarreal: What, if anything, gives you hope or a sense that things are changing or have the potential to change?
Petersen: It feels like the anger and the dissatisfaction is reaching a point where, if some things happen on election night, there could actually be space for massive change, massive incremental change. I keep thinking of this term that historians use called “the plastic hour,” where we can expand to meet those changes — we can do these big, huge things and some people are going to be really pissed off about it, but then it’s going to just be what our society is. Oftentimes those windows are pretty short and we could miss it, and I’m scared of that, but at the same time I think it’s pretty clear that we are a nation that is in decline, in terms of health, in terms of psychological health, in terms of financial stability. Something needs to happen, and I hope that we can come together to make that happen.