Seth Godin and pastoral burnout

Riffing off a conversation with a pastor friend of his, the frequently-very-wise Seth Godin posted this yesterday:

This was sort of shocking, at least to me:

I was talking to a religious leader, someone who runs a congregation. She made it clear to me that on many days, it’s just a job. A job like any other, you show up, you go through the motions, you get paid.

I guess we find this disturbing because spiritual work should be real, not faked.

But isn’t your work spiritual?

I know doctors, lawyers, waiters and insurance brokers who are honestly and truly passionate about what they do. They view it as an art form, a calling, and an important (no, an essential) thing worth doing.

In fact, I don’t think there’s a relationship between what you do and how important you think the work is. I think there’s a relationship between who you are and how important you think the work is.

Life’s too short to phone it in.

Now of course I completely agree with his point that life is too short to be on auto-pilot and not be passionate about anything (loved ones, work, hobbies, etc.)

But I want to take a closer look at his anecdote for just a moment.

A PASTOR just phoning it in? Shocking, right? No, it shouldn’t be. But at the same time you aren’t going to find a lot of pastors who will admit this. It’s part of their burnout-inducing tradition not to.

Seth just says “spiritual leader” with a “congregation” but I think it’s pretty save to say this is a pastor in a Christian church. It’s most certainly not a group of Muslims and she’s highly unlikely to be Jewish. She’s pulling a regular paycheck from her congregation which assumes a fairly well-developed institution, not the local neo-pagan group meeting at a stone circle.

Seth’s pastor friend is a woman. There are only a few Christian groups that allow women pastors and most of them are high liturgical traditions. That is, contemporary non-conservative Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians. (Yes I know there are women pastors in low church traditions too, especially charismatic ones, but their reasons for existing and function is SO different, you really can’t group them together for most discussions.)

A central weakness of the high liturgical traditions is that it’s easy for the pastor to slip into a position where they just go through the motions: The read the selected scripture passages and prayers for the day, they give a very short sermon on a topic already chosen for them by the calendar, etc. Maybe they make the rounds visiting the sick every Thursday. They serve in lots of other ways too, but it tends to be rather structured. Holding a pastorate in these churches is closer to a nine-to-five than an “all consuming fire”. Now I’m not bashing these folks at all. This is just a potential weakness of “doing church” this way. Now we’ll look at the flip side. Seth’s friend is actually able to “phone it in” sometimes and still go on. That would get her fired in plenty of other places.

A vast number of Christian churches in America are not like this at all. In fact, at their roots and founding they are explicitly REACTING against exactly what the pastor in Seth’s story is talking about. They left the cold “going through the motions” church to go and be passionate about following God, just like what Seth is talking about here.

In many of these traditions though, the pastor is supposed to be super-human. (Almost always he) is always on. He has to single-handedly run a two-hour show on Sunday, take 20 hours to prepare for his hour-long sermon, coordinate with the worship leader, make sure the potluck is getting pulled off right, wake up in the middle of the night to go fix the plumbing in the church basement, counsel engaged couples and drug addicts back to back all day during the week, not to mention raise his own kids! And that’s just the beginning. And this whole time, he is supposed to keep up a happy demeanor and a smile on his face. Because he is called. Because he is so stoked to be living for Jesus. His work is SPIRITUAL work. It’s more important than anything! Rah rah rah!

To make matters worse, some traditions emphasize something along the lines of “everything of the holy spirit must be spontaneous”. Prayers are no good unless out of the depths of emotion. If you’re really good you can preach a whole sermon you made up on the spot without notes. To these folks, the high liturgical traditions are complete anathema! What could be more cold, dead and unspiritual than reading a prayer out of book? So even when the pastor feels exactly like the one in Seth’s story, he has got to pretend extra hard that he’s still really passionate about everything. In fact, it’s in his job description.

What happens? Burnout. A LOT of it.

“I guess we find this disturbing because spiritual work should be real, not faked.” Yes, don’t we believe this? But most spiritual work is just that: work. Hard work.

Godin seems to keep his personal faith intentionally vague. I’m not sure if he’s aware of these church leadership social dynamics or not.

Blessed is the man (or woman) who can serve in this capacity without ending up in a padded room. Somewhere in here, reform is needed, eh?