Martyrdom or Majesty

Clergy%20burnout#1#Perhaps the biggest surprise I received at “Charm School” (the denominational training for District Superintendents and Directors of Connectional Ministry) was a widespread sense of burden and sacrifice that presenter after presenter lifted up and focused on.  (Not all of them, but many… our plenary speakers on Poverty and Global Health were very upbeat…) It was fascinating to hear how our work is being framed – “people are difficult,” “you will not be appreciated,” “you will be exhausted,” “you will be insulted if not assaulted,” “this job will not be kind to you,” “we will be misunderstood.”  There was very little focus on the joy, the satisfaction, or the blessing of our work.  While the work was framed as important, we were repeatedly reminded of the sacrifice, the cost, and the pain.  What’s this all about?  When I first taught at one of these events thirteen years ago, the main messages were, “you are doing critically important work,” “you have been selected because of the incredible gifts you bring,” “this work is deeply gratifying,” and “you can make a real difference in the church.”  What’s changed?  Is it the cynicism of the age?  Our incessant focus on decline and the need for more?  Or have we simply lost focus?

One of the reflection questions sums up the week for me:  “How will you expect to manage the conflicting expectations, the disappointments and frustrations, and the tiredness that comes naturally in a time of great paradigm shifts?”  This question is freighted with all kinds of meaning.  The lecture on leadership that preceded this question was all about unrealistic expectations, broken systems, the unreliability of people to follow through, and the inability of people to focus on the right things.  We were told that we didn’t have to be “problem solvers,” but that advice came in context of the “fact” that we will be living in an unending cascade of things needing to be fixed.  Someone made the comment that “we need to do our job so that others can do ministry.”  What, our jobs aren’t ministry?  How did they get separated?  A third question offers further challenge, “How will you protect yourself from this job?”

I came seeking a more hopeful message.  (But let me be clear:  there were hopeful messages, just not as many as I expected.)  I am so excited to be in Wisconsin serving as the DCM yet people keep asking me how I “ended up” here — as if I have somehow taken a demotion or am being punished.  I think this is an exciting time of ferment and change in the church, but what I hear others talk about is our decline and threats to our future.  I believe we have great opportunity to do good in the world, but I keep hearing that the “system” won’t allow it.  I feel great passion and energy for the work, but keep hearing how draining and exhausting it is.  With the exception of George Howard from West Ohio Conference, I rarely hear excitement and joy coming from DCMs.  (But George possesses “Woo,” which none of the rest of us DCMs have.  Check out Strengths-Based Leadership or Strength-Finder 2.0 to figure out what Woo is…)

There is a jarring whiplash of messages — we worship with messages of hope, then we hear strategies to ensure our survival.  We sing songs of faith, then question our ability to make a difference in the current system.  We are challenged to lead, but are warned that much of our work is management.  We are admonished to start new churches, but we lament the fact that 80% of our churches are plateaued or in decline.  We talk about the need to spread the gospel, then hear that we must have new churches to do that since the existing churches are failing.  We work inwardlyto sustain a system that needs to focus outwardly.  My favorite Freudian slip of the week has been, “what we do really isn’t about Christ, but all about the church.”  (The person meant to say, “what we do really isn’t about ‘the church,’ but all about Christ…”)

What’s wrong with this picture?  I haven’t had nearly as much contact with the new District Superintendents as the DCMs, but it has been interesting the number who have said, “I really didn’t want this job…”  There is worry, concern, fear, anxiety, a sense of being overwhelmed and being inadequate to the task — these things are normal.  But what is lacking is that sense of conviction and vision that this is meaningful work that needs to be done well andthat can bring great joy and satisfaction.  I have heard numerous comments about “being able to do this for a few years and retire” — before the job is even begun, some are looking forward to it being over.  One person a few year’s back said to me, “I came here year’s ago with all kinds of concerns and anxieties, but left proud to be a DS.  This year I came excited to be a DCM, but left with concerns and anxieties.”

I don’t mean to sound unfairly critical, nor am I breaking confidence — these comments are made freely in the open.  I feel for people who aren’t thrilled by their jobs and who feel burdened by the drudgery of their tasks.  I also feel bad for the church that may end up receiving less than the best from such leaders who are tired and despairing.  Yet again, I am angry at a system that chews good people up and spits them out — that makes people take on tasks from a sense of duty (because the bishop calls) rather than from a sense of passionate call.  Ours is a great God and a great church and a people with a great potential.  This should be some of the most exciting and energizing work on the planet.  As the old saying goes, “Jesus came and died for us so that we don’t have to kill ourselves for the church.”

We have been told some helpful things — keep community, protect relationships, don’t let the work consume you, don’t do it alone, don’t expect to have all the answers — but almost always as cautions, not strengths.  The underlying sense is that this work — DS or DCM — will eat you up and leave little behind.  How very sad.  The gospel isn’t a burden, and being church should not be a problem to solve.  The time has come to find a better way.  For me, I think the church needs to start thinking about how to live instead of spending so much time trying not to die.  I think we need to focus on the pockets of vitality instead of spending so much time trying to revive corpses.  I think we need to get back to basics and simplify instead of pursuing more-more-more with zombie-like intensity.  I think we need to divest ourselves of a lot of property that drains our resources from mission to support maintenance and expansion.  I think we need to get off the pews and into the streets, away from the committee tables and into the community.  But that’s just me.  Here the majority of the talk is about conference structures, org charts, supervision, numeric decline, buying MORE property and building MORE buildings, budgets, personnel, and the latest business & church growth books.  We hear inspiring challenges to change the world (John Edgar, from West Ohio, Church For All People, was phenomenal) but then conversation turns to administration, organization, and “running around putting out fires.”  I actually believe DCMs have more capacity to focus on creative work than DSs, but the urgency demands for both positions push the truly important work to the back burner.

I don’t need any help being cynical.  I’m good at that all by myself.  I think we need to step back and ask, “what needs to change to make this a healthier system?”  How can we focus on the positives — those practices that bring health and vitality?  How do we build networks of encouragement?  How do we get the kind of counseling and coaching we need?  It is very hopeful that coaching is being offered now.  There is an open acknowledgement that this system is broken, and people are taking steps to fix it.  But even with coaching, the focus needs to stay positive, visionary, and hopeful; less on warning, caution, and pointing out the dangers.

The image that keeps coming to my mind is the Exodus.  I came with the naive and idealistic hope that the focus here would be on the Promised Land.  What I have found is a focus on the wilderness — dealing with the problems and stresses and “stiff-necked” people on the way.  Getting through the hostile territory has become our focus.  Running away from captivity is motivating, but it is a negative motivation (escaping pain).  Wilderness is indeed difficult and raises many challenges, but survival isn’t the end of the story.  There is a land flowing with milk and honey — a brighter future — and we would benefit from spending more time turning our attention there.  The presentations with vision and hope have been wonderful — but the darn wilderness still stands in our way.

It comes down to a choice.  We need to focus on the Promised Land — bask in the rare privilege and honor of serving our church in such a significant way.  We will need to fight hard — together — to forestall the forces of darkness.  Yes, the wilderness is a strange and dangerous place, but there is safety and strength in numbers.  The most valuable part of Charm School is the network and community of people on this journey together.  I hope we stay connected, and that will take commitment and intention. Alone, this work could easily destroy a person.  But together?  It doesn’t stand a chance.


Postscript: after wrestling with this for a few days, I wonder how much our morale is tied to the trends of the past decade?  When I came here in 1996, most of our annual conferences had not yet downsized.  Conference staffs were larger.  More people took care of the ministries of our conferences.  Now, a decade later, the demands for time, energy, and resources are as great as ever, but there are fewer people to care for everything.  The system is designed for the results it is getting.  It may well be that the system is reaching its limits, and the stresses and strains are beginning to show through our spirits.

13 replies

  1. As a second career seminary student who is applying for commissioning and appointment in 2010 I am listening carefully and taking the pulse of my conference and the denomination. I am personally excitd about beginning my ministry but fully aware of its challenges and difficulties. What I am hearing is the need to work hard but have clear boundaries so as to prevent exhaustion and cynicism. I try to see my work as the loaves and the fishes. I will bring what energy and passion I have to the job and God will multiply it in miraculous ways to feed many more.

    • Healthy boundaries is critical — as is some form of community. Stay connected, stay healthy, and enjoy the ride. There is immense joy and satisfaction in this glorious service!

  2. There is a positive purpose in wilderness, both today and in Exodus. While we are trying to understand it, enjoy the manna.

  3. I’m so sorry to hear that this is the case. But not surprised. I see this cynicism in my work on my conference’s BoOM on a regular basis. An orientation gathering concentrated almost completely on how hard we were going to work, how underappreciated we would be, and how painful the decisions would be. Never a mention of the importance of the work, the joy of spending time with those new in ministry, and what we could learn from the young and not-so-young candidates. And a recent District clergy gathering focused exclusively on decline in numbers. When challenged about the utility of the metrics being used, our Bishop warned us not to be “in denial.”

    Our default mode is becoming cynicism, complaint, and competitiveness. and I can feel some of that bleeding through this post! But I am amazed on a regular basis by what God can do and IS DOING among us. I have almost daily “gratitude attacks” that I have been called to be a part of it. I show up, I pay attention, and when God is at work, doing something good, I participate or stay out of God’s way. What’s not to celebrate?!

  4. I often wonder how we can remember to keep the joy in the ministries that we do– it is so easy to get cynical and sometimes I think that the system thrives on folks focusing on the fact that they are overwhelmed, overworked, and beat down. It is sometimes amazing to hear the number of people who will mention all of the crap they have to deal with first before all of the exciting things that are happening in ministry. I think that sometimes we are too afraid, or maybe just too tired, to attempt to change the system, so we just ‘deal with it’ instead of attempting to see the ways we might find a better way.

    I am inspired every time I hear John Edgar and George Howard at Annual Conference and other folks like them speak of not simply what current realities might be, but truly of what could be– and it makes me think of what I might do to be a part of that. If only more of us could focus on the church’s potential in the world instead of it’s limitations.

  5. No one is forced to be a DS or on conference staff. The salaries are much higher than the CAC. What’s sad is that they aren’t being paid enough if they are doing a good job but too much if they are just marking time and building their pension.

    There is a wide range in workload for DSs across the connection. In 2006 (the most recent numbers available), there were 119 charges per district in West Ohio all the way down to 35 charges per district in Desert Southwest (also the smallest episcopal area by number of charges) and 29 charges per district in Yellowstone.

    Also, the ReThink Church effort needs to start at the top rather than acting like the problem is with the local churches.

  6. I recall the “horror stories” that were a part of license to preach school. We got a lot of exposure to stories about small churches that chew up and spit out pastors. I went to me first Sunday of my first appointment half expecting to be pelted with tomatoes.

    Of course, I’ve also been exposed to the opposite problem. We sometimes talk up how great ministry is and how great the people and work will be, but we don’t put any real support in place, so they end up feeling like they are not living up to the call because they can’t do it alone or without support.

    Crazy system.

    • It is a crazy system. I hope some of my colleagues here post comments. I spoke with one other person who feels the same way I do, but I talked to three people just tonight who think this has been a wonderful, upbeat, and totally inspirational week. I’m glad to know that different people have had different experiences. As I said in the post, part of my experience is a comparison (contrast) with prior events. I feel it is more negative than before. For some people who have never been here before, it doesn’t seem negative at all.

      • No, it has carried a negative undertone all week. There has been a definite sense that the work we must do is not healthy or forgiving. God is good (all the time), but the work of DS/DCM is a “voracious beast” (I think you called it) ALL the time. There have been some very positive messages here, but there has been a consistent message of warning and caution. I have not heard anyone focus on the positive side of this work as much as on the negative. But I am still pleased and excited to be doing what I am doing, in spite of the heavy demands.

      • I’m glad I’m not alone and that I am not merely projecting my own personal feelings on the experience. I also admit that others have NOT experienced the negative side, and feel this has been a very POSITIVE event all around. For that, I am thankful.

  7. Boy am I ever glad I’m not listening to that “stuff”. Sounds like these presenters hate what they do and expect you to hate what you’re about to be doing. Ministry is difficult but oh so rewarding. Thanks for this post. It lets me know I never want to be in that part of ministry.

    • I don’t want to give the wrong idea. People here are talking about possibilities and trying to do good work, but there is a sense of being overwhelmed. I think everyone here loves the church, but there has been a sense of frustration. Actually, in small groups, we have been able to turn a lot of energy positive. More than blaming people, I blame our system that expects fewer and fewer people to do more and more. I don’t think that people are the problem, even when attitudes turn negative. Also, I want to reiterate — we have had some wonderfully inspirational speakers — Scott Morris, John Edgar, and Bishop Swanson. Each and everyone make me proud to be United Methodist, and hopeful about our future.

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