Clergy discouragement and satisfaction: part one

Recently, I’ve read a number of posts on various sites dealing with the topics of clergy discouragement and satisfaction. For what it may prove worth, I’ll add my observations to the conversation.

Let’s start with discouragement. Based on my own experience and interaction with clergy colleagues, I believe five stressors fuel clergy discouragement: church members acting out the downside of being human, clergy/church mismatches, institutional inertia, disconnection between the task and one’s own sense of self, and undiagnosed or untreated health issues. I could easily add financial stress, family dynamics, or any number of matters, but I’ve found these five cover the widest spectrum of cases.

Most of us have known church members who consistently act out the negative side of being human. We’re skilled at figuring out why they do so, but knowing why they indulge in inappropriate anger, rumor mongering, and political intrigue does little to mitigate the pain we feel. Our pain takes at least two forms: deep sadness that we cannot seem to help them find a better way to live, and a sense of being bruised and battered by their attitudes and behaviors. Like chronic physical pain, over time the emotional trauma we experience wears us down.

“How do you like the new preacher?” “How do you like the church you’ve gone to serve as pastor?” The two questions hint at the reality of church/clergy matches. Many of us know the experience of feeling as if our church and we fit each other well, or at least well enough. When we find ourselves responsible for and responsible to a church whose core values and ministry styles clash with ours, we start to tire.

Institutional inertia requires little explanation. All institutions tend to continue to follow long established patterns of decision-making, worship, personnel management, ministry and community engagement. Even when clergy and laity agree adjustments or outright change is needed, follow up requires enormous energy, patience, and tolerance for low to medium level conflict. Most of the clergy I know find such work spiritually and emotionally tiring.

What about the matter of a disconnection between a church’s expectations and one’s sense of self? Healthy clergy persons evolve over the course of their ministry. We remain committed to Christ, but our sense of who we are in Christ and what is important in ministry shifts with experience. For example, while I remain interested in strengthening the church as an institution, I have become far more invested in helping individuals center themselves in Christ and go where Christ might take them. Such work does not always translate into institutional growth, though I suspect it might be the single most important thing I do. I’ve also become convinced that my work requires leading a church to identify, embrace, and live into its particular passions and opportunities as opposed to implementing a one size fits all plan for church life. When I work with congregations that share such passions, I am energized.  When I labor long-term with churches that do not, I grow weary.

Health issues affect more clergy than one might think. My personal guess is that we suffer the same range of physical, mental and emotional health challenges as the general church population. Mild to severe depression, chronic infections, immune system disorders, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and surgeries are part of our lives. We spend a great deal of time helping church members cope with such challenges, and we’re familiar with how tiring they are in the lives of those we serve. The truth of the matter is that health issues sap energy, too.

Clergy discouragement or exhaustion is quite real. We cannot wish it away. For the most part, we cannot shield clergy from the factors that lead to the condition, for they are part and parcel of the human condition, of living as one of the fallen among the fallen.

Fortunately, discouragement is but one part of the story. I’ll take up the other side in my next post.

Mike Smith

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Mike Smith serves as Senior Pastor of Central Baptist Church of Fountain City, Knoxville, Tenn. He is co-author of "Mount and Mountain: A Reverend and a Rabbi Talk About the Ten Commandments."

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