As the season of Lent begins, many pastors will mark Christians with an ashen cross, and encourage them to reflect on their own limitations, their humanness, and especially upon that which separates them from God.
The work of pastors in this season is to encourage church members to engage deeply, and to resist the culture that has reduced Lenten fasts to easy fads and crash diets. Clergy have the responsibility to cultivate a healthy understanding of repentance, and to reject destructive theologies of suffering and negation. Christians will look not only to their pastors’ sermons for these lessons, but also to how their pastors live their lives.
This reality — that clergy’s whole lives are seen as witness and example — is one of the great challenges of ministry. It can often lead to the expectation that pastors are always available to those they serve, always working. And this culture of being overworked leads to alarming rates of clergy burnout, depression, and poor physical health. Though numbers vary between denominations, studies indicate that as many as 1-in-5 pastors leave ministry within the first five years. Research out of Duke University’s divinity school surveyed a group of Methodist pastors and found that many struggle significantly with feelings of emotional burnout and more than half feel a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. Perhaps relatedly, the same study revealed that 20 percent of those surveyed had not taken any Sabbath time in the preceding four weeks.
The tendency for ministers to have an unhealthy work/life balance is no secret. When clergy gather, they often lament the challenges of finding time for their families, for their own spiritual lives, and even to sleep. Seminarians are warned openly that a life of ministry means a life of isolation and long hours and constant scrutiny. Pastors even joke with one another about the ways they avoid revealing their clergy status to strangers in public, if only to find a moment’s respite from the seemingly endless demands of those needing spiritual guidance and a listening ear.
Despite the widespread acknowledgement of these unhealthy boundaries, the general culture of overworked and over-scrutinized clergy continues. Efforts to counteract clergy burnout are generally stop-gap measures. Denominational task forces and ministry support groups seek ways to help pastors survive 60-plus-hour work weeks and lack of personal time for spiritual development or even rest. There is no significant acknowledgement that the entire structure of clergy life and work may be deeply unhealthy — physically, mentally, and spiritually — and might, therefore, need to be completely transformed.
There are incredible gifts to be had in ministry. Pastors are invited into people’s lives in unique and powerful ways. These moments and the privileges of pastoral service fuel us in our work, even through the significant challenges.
But to a large extent, ministry is seen as a life of noble sacrifice, in which one trades in many other vestiges of a fulfilled life in favor of one spent in ceaseless service to God and God’s people. And even while clergy complain to one another about the unsustainability of this model, there is a subtle sense of competition in which the measure of a minister is how well one can bear the burden of an overworked life. If I know any clergy colleagues who have mastered a 40-hour work week, they certainly don’t celebrate it out loud. When seminarians are told the statistical likelihood that many of them will leave ministry within five years, the pursuit of ordination and call takes on the feeling of a Christian Survivor or The Hunger Games.
But is this the fast that we choose? Does a life of ministry inherently demand unhealthy and self-destructive sacrifice? And, perhaps most importantly, what example does that set for those looking to us for guidance in faithful living?
We are steeped in a culture that celebrates endless work and the denial of one’s own health. Christian faith leadership demands a counter-witness. Ministry life should reflect a theology of service and commitment both to God and other people, but it should also embody healthy balance and spiritual sustainability for the long work of learning faith and reflecting God’s grace to a world hungry for it.
Jesus, whose humble road all Christians seek to follow — not only during Lent, but throughout life — does not set an example of relentless self-negation. In his life and ministry, Jesus took time away to feast with friends. Even during Holy Week itself — Jesus for all his suffering, nevertheless questioned its necessity, asking God if the cup might be taken from him. The theology of sacrifice embodied in Christ’s life is not one of unexamined submission. He gives what he must, but he anchors his spirit in all that he holds onto — uplifting relationships and community and care of others and self.
To the extent that we have twisted our understanding of Jesus’ journey into permission to wear ourselves completely out, we have misunderstood the gospel call. There is too much work to do, too many people to love, and too much life to be lived out in gratitude to the One who created it, to wear ourselves down to spiritual nubs without the energy for all that is good and holy around us.
The call — during Lent and beyond — is clear: We must turn away from all that separates us from God and one another. And that includes repenting of the unhealthy sacrifice of an overworked clergy life. We have an example to set. We have life-giving good news to proclaim and embody.