May  2016 03
Blame, Stress, and Clergy Health

In a few weeks, I will mark 35 years since I graduated from seminary and entered ministry full time. The changes in mainline Protestant ministry, both the nature of the work and the composition of the clergy, in the intervening years have been profound. But the decline in clergy health and longevity is arguable amongst the most profound, telling, and disturbing of the changes.

When I was in seminary, the first wave of women in mainline Protestant ministry was just hitting the shores of wary congregations. Cross-racial or cross-ethnic appointments were rare (although some of us urban/suburban folks argued unsuccessfully that being sent to a small rural church qualified as a cross-cultural appointment).

Second-career/age-mature persons were changing the classroom mix and were not yet troubling pension fund representatives who would become worried about shorter clergy careers.

Differing, biblically-referenced and (sometimes) theologically grounded positions on sexuality conflicted but not at the “let’s give up and go our separate ways” level. Evangelicals and liberals were arguing with one another but still talking and planning together, at least in some circles.

While urban congregations in racially-ethnically changed neighborhoods were often on regional church-sponsored life support (because we had the money and we thought urban ministry was important), many rural, small town, and suburban congregations had enough residual health and money to offer a middle-class compensation package to their clergy. And, I was told by a life insurance salesman in 1977 that I was fortunate because clergy topped actuarial tables for life expectancy.

That was 1977. Today, clergy are at or near the bottom among professions in terms of longevity, health, mental and physical. What happened?

In a word: Stress. In the last 35 years, clergy have gone from possessing or being possessed by health repair factors that bested health-degrading factors to the reverse.

Surely, there can be stress in any job. There is the stress of having too much to do (think Lucy and Ethel in the classic skit where they attempt to wrap and box candy).

There is stress in having too little to do.

There is stress in dealing with success.

And there is stress in dealing with decline and loss, and in dealing with the people who are having a difficult time dealing with decline and loss and who think that their leaders could and should fix it. The vast majority of clergy in the U.S. are dealing with issues of decline and loss, and are being blamed for not fixing it; the stress is sapping our lives

Clergy are really good about blaming themselves, and sometimes each other, at least in the denominations I know best, and they get a lot of encouragement to accept blame from anxious laity.

Go to Amazon (or your favorite church-related press) and search for “church decline.” You’ll pull a long list of books, most of which chastise clergy leaders for sins of omission or commission in opening the gates of hell on the church.

And, surely, there are aspects of ministry and ministry formation that we clergy leaders could do better. For example, clergy I respect say their spiritual formation in seminary was inadequate for the rigors of ministry, and I have no doubt they are right both about the need and the lack of attention in seminary (while also acknowledging that a fully-formational seminary program, containing everything someone thinks seminary currently does not prepare a person for adequately, might be a 120-hour program).

But it may be the case that there are forces at work larger and more powerful than clergy could control or steer or surf, let alone lead change-resistant, anxious laity to control, steer, or surf, even if all clergy were all the brightest, the best, the most emotionally mature, and the most spiritual!

The forces that are remaking the world, for better and for worse, are also remaking the world’s religions, for better and for worse. Yes, I believe God is in the mix of those forces but God is not the whole of the mix. The mix is complex and confusing and very powerful.

My goodness, on the one hand Interpreters of the Signs of the Times are telling us Christianity is undergoing a once-every-500-year cultural transformation, reformation, or revolution.

On the other hand, Clergy Critics (often within the clergy) are scolding clergy for not doing enough, for doing too much, or for not attending to what we should be attending to in order to use the energy of the times for the benefit of the places we serve. Does anyone else feel that vice squeezing your head?

In the business world, thought-leaders use the phrase “creative destruction” when social forces that caused an industry to rise and fill a niche (e.g., copyists or buggy whips or Blockbuster) change, and other forces eliminate the industry and another (printers or autos or Netflix) takes its place.

Who would blame a manuscript copier for the rise of the printing press? Who blames the buggy whip maker for the automobile? What if we are seeing the creative destruction of a way of doing church that served for 500 years, that was arguably perfected in the U.S., but that is now being replaced by another expression (or by expressions) of Christianity?

If that is the case, we should blame less. We should attend, listen more carefully, take up Zen practice to still the monkey-mind screaming “fix it!!!!!!!” Be curious. Learn. Pray. Hold each other. Grieve. Say our goodbyes. Look for the gifts of the stranger.

Reinhold Niebuhr’s full Serenity Prayer comes to mind as fitting for our time:

GOD, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it. Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen

If we lived this prayer, we clergy might not be more successful in terms of “turning the church around.” But we might live longer as we demonstrate a better way to live in stressful, unpredictable, mysterious times.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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