Stephen King wrote a novella entitled, The Running Man, about a brutal futuristic society where game shows and public executions were combined to produce the ultimate reality show. Prisoners were given the opportunity to try to escape death — on national TV — by facing unexpected and unimaginable challenges. The bottom line was to keep moving, keep running, because the moment a person stopped, they died. Now, this might seem an unusual metaphor for our current church situation, but sadly it is not. At almost every turn, well-meaning and good-intentioned people trade our Promised Land for Dystopia. The end result is that we run as fast as we can to lose ground, living in constant fear of imminent demise. Am I being too grim? I hope so, but here are five pieces of evidence that I think support the theory: clergy morale, clergy health, lay apathy, church debt, and lack of vision.
Ten years ago I did a study on clergy morale and worked with one of our annual conferences on the issues impacting morale. Fewer than one-third of our ordained clergy leaders feel good about their ministry. Only one-in-six feel they are effective, and only one-in-nine feel they are living up to their potential. Seventy-one percent feel that the church exerts negative and/or damaging influence on their family, and two-thirds have considered leaving the ordained ministry at some point in their career. Only 10% feel that their actual ministry aligns closely to their original sense of prophetic call to ministry. Almost eighty percent feel they work too many hours, take to little time off, take poor care of themselves, and that they are both misunderstood and underappreciated. And we wonder why we are struggling to attract new clergy? Ninety-one percent of clergy believe that a primary expectation for their work is to “grow the church” numerically, and an equal percentage fear they will be punished (or denied promotion) if they do not bring in big numbers. Eighty-four percent feel they are victims of unrealistic expectations from their congregations and conferences.
Different reports indicate that clergy are among the least healthy professionals in the United States. Above average obesity, nervous disorders, back pain (often an indication of psychosomatic illness and stress), heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and life-threatening blood pressure characterize American pastors. One APA study indicates that women clergy under the age of forty are 17 times more likely to show symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome than the general population. Alcoholism (generally hidden), smoking, and drug abuse are all on the rise among U.S. clergy. The impact on insurance rates motivated our denomination to make clergy health a priority, and global health a focus. Working with doctors at the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee I learned that in general clergy report more health complaints but are most resistant to taking preventative care measures. Almost universally, the doctors report that clergy are bad about diet, exercise, and proper rest. And those few clergy who do take steps tend to overcompensate. On the other side of the coin, clergy are also numbered among those who over-tax and over-stress the body causing exercise related injury, and female clergy top the list of adult anorexia, anemia, and malnutrition due to poor, non-nutritionally balanced diet. Clergy pop more pills than the U.S. population as a whole, also. Said one Vandy doc, “It isn’t too wide of the mark to say that on a given Sunday at least fifty percent of our pastors are preaching on Prozac, Cymbalta, or some other prescription mood enhancer.” Clergy are also among the heaviest caffeine ingesters in the U.S. “Something needs to change. There are pastors literally killing themselves for the church,” remarked on of the Vanderbilt physicians.
Passive consumption of church product and member inactivity have been on a steady incline during the whole period of membership and attendance decline in The United Methodist Church. Low expectations, lack of accountability, and a pervasive consumeristic culture account for much of the apathy, but surveys indicate that many laity simply feel they aren’t given anything to care about. The focus of much ministry in the U.S. has turned internal. I remember talking to some disaffected Nashvillians about their church in Brentwood. “We left because the church just kept spending so much money on itself. More buildings, more equipment, more staff, more parking, landscaping, statues, a fountain,” shared one couple. “It made us sick. There is so much need in the world and all the church was doing was trying to become popular and famous. People would preen about how beautiful our church was and how most churches could fit in our narthex. It was disgusting. We had to get out.” As more and more church leaders care more and more about church buildings, less and less laity are interested in church. Go figure. National statistics show people drifting away from the church — and the Christian faith — in record numbers. So many of the articles ask the question, “What’s wrong with those people?” Fewer wish to ask the question, “What’s wrong with us, that we are driving so many away?” And it isn’t the disinterested we are losing. No, we’re keeping those. The laity who don’t want to change, who want to be comforted and cared for, who see attending worship and participating in ministry as optional? We have all of those you could want, and more. No, the highly motivated laity, those seeking meaningful growth and discipleship — they’re the ones who are drifting away.
Having consulted with congregations and conferences across this denomination for over a decade, I am still amazed at the number of our churches that place themselves at economic risk for spurious and non-missional reasons. Building bigger buildings is a sickness in this denomination. Conference after conference is saddled with archaic dinosaurs in poor locations — huge churches supported in a bygone day that currently sap all resources just to slow the inevitable decay of the facility. And what have we learned? To do the same thing, at much higher cost, with less short-term return on investment so that we can support even larger monstrosities with even fewer resources in the future. Jesus wept. Ministry should not be bound by maintenance. Ministry centers (churches) are tools — means to greater ends — not the focus of what we do and who we are. The statistics are all over the map, but building and property debt-load keep rising while mission spending and apportionment payments decline. We actually have pastors who must take out life insurance policies in order to get loans to further bloat and expand. And when the pastor retires or leaves? No problem, somebody will pay for it someday — and the denomination will pay for it forever.
Lack of Vision
If we could mobilize The United Methodist Church to focus on one Christ-led, world transforming goal, there would be virtually no force on earth strong enough to stop us. Were we to discern God’s vision of a Promised Land for this world in the 21st century, we could live up to our mission. With a clear picture of a “transformed world,” we would know what kind of “disciples to make” to achieve God’s purposes. How cool would that be? Instead, we spend most of our time looking around at the Wilderness, griping about what we don’t have and how uncomfortable we are and how boring it is. Our best efforts are not aligned toward a Promised Land — merely how to survive in the Wilderness one more day. Getting through the desert has displaced moving toward a land flowing with milk and honey. Perhaps where there is no vision the people don’t actually perish, but they don’t make much difference, either. If Katrina taught us anything it is this — where there is great need, purpose, focus, and resolve we join together to do amazing things. We need an amazing thing — and we need leaders who will point the way.
It will take people a lot smarter than me with a lot more power and influence to get the church to stop running. Treadmills have their purposes, but they don’t get you anywhere. We are on a treadmill, generating negative energy. What must we do to change morale for the better? How can we support better health and wellness — not just saying it’s a good idea, but making self-care a mandatory priority? How do we reconnect the passions and interest of the masses of lay people so that our congregations are cultures of productive engagement rather than passive consumption? How do we pull in the reigns on unnecessary, non-missional spending so that we stop glorifying ourselves and do a better job honoring and glorifying God? How do we stop managing the Wilderness and make space to discern God’s Promised Land? I don’t have answers to these questions — but I do believe if these were the questions being asked, we would be running toward a bright new future rather than into a dystopia of despair.