When I was coming through seminary, I heard a few distinct messages loud and clear:
- “There won’t be a church job for you when you graduate, so don’t expect to find one.”
- “Don’t worry too much about understanding budgets, your church will have a financial secretary to help you with that.”
- “Taking on some education debt is very common.”
At the time, my youth, general ignorance about that world, and low economic expectations (it was, after all, 2008 when I started seminary) protected me from the naturally frightened and conflicted response one might have to that combination of statements. As Ezra Pound wrote in Cantos, “I am not a demigod, I cannot make it cohere.” I didn’t particularly try to.
But what happens when church leaders who were taught this way come of age in the 60 hour work weeks of ministry? What happens when general ignorance becomes particular knowledge—of human suffering, economic inequity, savior complexes, untenable expectations, impossible working structures, loneliness and lack of support? Well, that brings us to the fourth message I remember loud and clear from my seminary days, “Remember, 50 percent of pastors burn out in the first five years.” Ouch.
Now, I can’t say if the conversation at my alma mater has changed, but I can say that since that time the General Assembly of the PCUSA, their Board of Pensions, and certainly at Pittsburgh Seminary, that conversation has been taken up with urgency, and quite a bit has changed at those levels to support pastors, particularly new pastors, better. Not only that, but as our mean pastoral age in the PCUSA (and across the mainline church) is rising and pastors are retiring, we are moving from a surplus of pastors to a potential shortage, which while not particularly good news, does shift things a bit.
Here’s the rub—in my anecdotal experience—though national structures and educational institutions have been pivoting to reconcile some of the issues that lead to clergy burnout, local congregations, amidst slowing attendance, rural/urban divides, political battles, and financial struggles, have generally been acting in a way that exacerbates clergy health and sustainability issues. In short, their anxiety sometimes seems to be delivered upon their pastors, who are working 60 hours a week for 20 hours a week pay, as though there is an endless supply of such pastors to absorb their disappointment. However, because changing policy is so much easier than changing culture, we as a church and a denomination have been avoiding a conversation about what causes clergy burnout locally in favor of system and policy changes nationally.
Perhaps this is because, very simply, there is a lot we cannot change if our church has 20 hours a week worth of salary to offer. That is what we have to offer. If we have an aging building that needs increased care in a community where selling the asset is unlikely, that is a pretty unavoidable reality. If we are in a rural county with struggling schools and abandoned industry, we can’t offer you a “transitioning” neighborhood with big city amenities. But this negative self-assessment pattern of churches often leads us away from our natural gifts and assets. We stop thinking about all we have to offer and how we might care for and lead with our pastors in new and creative ways and instead get stuck in a spiral thinking that our pastor is going to leave us anyway.
Caring for Pastors
Last year I visited a congregation looking for a pastor in a small town five hours from the closest international airport. They took me out to dinner at the town’s new restaurant, told me about the downtown renaissance, introduced me to the mothers of the church, offered me a manse to live in—furnished or unfurnished, as I preferred—and I hadn’t even applied for the position! They talked about their love and hope for the community, the community’s DNA as hard working and family oriented. They spoke about the virtues of their business district and mentioned that in a small town it is easier to get things done. If a potential pastor or her spouse was interested in starting a business locally, working remotely, or being active in civic organizations, the church had the connections to make it happen and they would deploy them. They were clear about the community’s struggles, but even clearer about their care for and investment in any pastor they might welcome. More than that, they were clear that there was more on the table than a salary.
They wanted a pastor who would plan not on making a job there, but a life there. The church was ready to consider full or part time, negotiate with family/parental leave and vacation, and make sure that the quality of life was such that their pastor would not miss the amenities one needs to cope with other challenges and contexts—like overworking in a city that never sleeps. There was no sense that this community would back bite their pastor’s choice to actually use her continuing education time or take the vacation in her contract. There was no hint that they would be offended by a pastor mothering children while leading the church or coaching little league as a part of their ministry. There was no expectation that ministry only happened in certain outfits or to certain people. Generally speaking, these people wanted to invite a human pastor to minister with them, because they didn’t just want to be served by their pastor, they wanted to love and share life with their pastor.
I was shocked by how moved I was. Why isn’t this always how it works? What have we let our anxiety make of us, that we chew our pastors up out of our own self-doubt? That we speak of ourselves as forsaken? Do we not believe that God is working and present in our midst, loving us and making us lovable?
The Beloved and Chosen of God
Those who minister among us are not simply a source of cheap grace to serve our religious needs. They are the deep human grace of God, not only to lead us, but to teach us how to be human in ways that are helpful, beautiful, annoying, refining, humbling, and difficult.
Churches large and small, full-time and part-time, rural and urban, are beloved of God. Each has gifts and love to share. Their leadership needs will look different, and their life together will offer different joys and struggles. If a community is called to have pastoral leadership, then the community is called to lead with, care for, and share life with their pastor. We recently celebrated the wonder of the birth of Jesus. I invite you to consider what it meant for the small city of Bethlehem, for the humble shed Jesus was born in, for the small nation and poor people he came to that they were chosen in this way, as the viable space for the vocation of our God. Could our churches be viable in the same way?
Friends, we were chosen as those to whom God might come. Let us treat each other as the beloved and chosen of God and let us remember that those who minister among us are not simply a source of cheap grace to serve our religious needs. They are the deep human grace of God, not only to lead us, but to teach us how to be human in ways that are helpful, beautiful, annoying, refining, humbling, and difficult. Our pastors remind us what God is calling us to and also that God is not calling us or them to be everything to everyone. And that is okay. This Christmas may not have been perfect at your church or in your life or with your pastor. That is okay. My guess is Mary might have said the same thing about the first one. But God’s grace for us and God’s belovedness of us persists, so we are called to love each other.
The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before joining the CPI team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills, and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of the Church Planting Initiative, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so.