Clergy Burnout and Labor Day

Labor Day and clergy make for an interesting pair. One issue is mixing the secular with the sacred. Most of us clergy aren’t too fond of that, but we do have sense enough to know that you better mention mothers on Mother’s Day. Another Labor Day issue is that most people assume that we only work one day a week. They wonder, “What would clergy know about labor anyway?” That’s a hoot.

Being clergy is a 24/7 job. In this morning’s mail I got an appreciation card with a cartoon strip from “Dennis the Menace.” It shows Dennis talking to a minister, “So, Pastor, you work Sundays and the other six days, you just hang out?” The person graciously wrote that they knew I was working hard, and I very much appreciated the card. My question is, “What other profession needs this affirmation?”

Just google “clergy burnout” and you’ll get a quick education on pastoral demands and their toll on ministers. So, of course, clergy work hard, but too often we do it to please others, and that’s fool’s gold. It looks good, but it’s not real. It doesn’t really satisfy. We need to be God-pleasers more than people-pleasers. This could be one of the reasons for the high clergy burnout rate. Journals suggest that 50% of young clergy will give up on ministry in their first 10 years. That’s horrible, but I understand it. The demands are high, our offices are as close as our ever-present cell phones, and the pastoral needs of our stressed generation are never ending.

If anyone thinks being clergy is a lightweight job, good luck. For most clergy it requires a college degree and a three-year 90-hour Master’s on top of that. Then you’re only as good as your last sermon, except that good pastoral care and relational skills will make up for preaching an occasional dud. Our ministry is part counselor, speaker, teacher, chaplain, CEO, administrator, bookkeeper, UN Peacemaker, comedian, village story teller, community activist, fundraiser, home health provider, taxi driver, and financial advisor.

How hard is it? God wants us to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted. The former is prophetic and risky. The latter is a never-ending emotional roller coaster. Both tasks are fraught with costly sacrifice. On top of that, churches expect people with a boatload of education to do this work with a nearly insurmountable amount of seminary debt and start off getting paid less than minimum wage for the amount of hours put in.

What makes or breaks the demands is how we answer the question of who we’re working for? If we’re doing ministry because of some unresolved crud in our own lives, it won’t end well. If we’re working for people and to please them, it won’t end well either. Our uneasy but blessed task is to please God more than anyone else.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all did that in our labor, whatever our work may be? A story adapted by William R. White from Aesop is informative for anyone tempted to play to the crowd rather than their calling. It’s called “The Miller, His Son, and Their Donkey:”

“A miller and his son were traveling to market with their donkey. They had not gone far when they overheard three women at a well. ‘Have you ever seen anything so strange? Two men are walking when they could ride. Why do people have donkeys?’

Responding to the women, the miller quickly put his son on the back of the animal and continued on the journey. Soon they met two men in the midst of a fierce debate. ‘I say the present generation shows no respect for its elder,’ cried the older man. Spying the miller and his son, he continued, ‘There, that proves what I am saying. The young, healthy lad rides while his old father is forced to walk.’

Immediately the father told his son to dismount, and he climbed on the animal’s back. They hadn’t gone very far when they met a man and his wife walking down the road. ‘Look at that mean father,’ the woman exclaimed. ‘He rides while his little son has to walk.’

Embarrassed, the miller took his son by the arm. ‘Come up here with me. We will both ride on the donkey.’ Together they rode toward the market. Soon they met a group of men loading hay beside the road. ‘Shame on you,’ a fat man cried, ‘over-loading the poor donkey. Why, the two of you are strong enough to carry that poor animal.’

Both the miller and his son quickly got off the animal and walked along until they found a large log. They tied the legs of the donkey together and slipped the log between the animal’s legs. Then they attempted to carry it over the bridge that led to the market.

People on the other side of the bridge roared with laughter when they saw two men trying to carry a donkey. The noise so frightened the animal that he kicked loose and fell into the river and drowned.”

On this Labor Day let’s all try to please the God who made us and called us to our various tasks. Being a people-pleaser may get you plenty of kudos, but won’t do much to help anyone else. I Corinthians 15:58 says it well, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” If Jesus had been more interested in pleasing people than God then we wouldn’t have a Savior! The cross would have never happened, and Easter would have been unnecessary. Working to please people will throw your donkey (another word comes to mind) in the river. Save your donkey!



6 thoughts on “Clergy Burnout and Labor Day

  1. This is so true. I too saw the cartoon and thought of how you and Ray were at Dad’s bedside each and every day. You really are a blessing to St. John’s.

  2. Love it! Actually, I’ll bet that in the eyes of God, it may be the most honorable position one can hold. IMHO (how about that) your donkey is safe.

    1. Thanks, Doris. Gotta watch those donkeys! tim

      Sent from my iPhone

      On Sep 2, 2015, at 10:42 AM, A Potter's View wrote:

  3. Great! You didn’t even mention that you guys get sick just like the rest of us and could use some care once in a while. Hope you are feeling well. Blessings, Bob

    PS: We need to get you some R&R soon.

    1. Bob, Thanks and I look forward to some fishing time with you here or up on the New River! Hope you’re good, too, tim

      Sent from my iPhone

      On Sep 2, 2015, at 1:23 PM, A Potter's View wrote:

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