Out of the woods
Steve's burnout bout ended as unceremoniously as it began. A two-week vacation of hiking and camping in the Montana Rockies certainly helped. So did the slower pace of summer ministry.
"I didn't radically change my devotional life or get rid of three sins," Steve says.
Nor did he go for counseling—which many pastors in his situation find helpful—but not for lack of opportunities. Never have there been better days to be burned out. An entire industry of ministries targeting burned-out pastors has grown up in recent years. It now seems as if it is more professionally attractive to counsel a pastor than to be a pastor.
Louis McBurney, a psychiatrist, founded Marble Retreat in the early seventies. Sequestered in the Colorado Rockies just west of Aspen, Marble Retreat is a two-week program for morally fallen and emotionally weary pastors. McBurney recently told me that in one week he had received four calls from people wanting advice to set up counseling retreats or ministries to pastors. When he began in 1973, he knew of only one other nondenominational ministry specifically targeting pastors. Today, dozens of parachurch ministries offer counseling, newsletters, spiritual retreats, and other programs for pastors. A booklet (copublished by LEADERSHIP ) given away at a Promise Keepers pastors' conference listed 44 such ministries. There is even a network of ministries and counseling centers that work primarily with pastors called "CareGivers Forum."
In the New Testament, pastors got thrown in prison for preaching the gospel. Today, pastors end up on the therapist's couch instead.
But the current hubbub about the burnout rate among pastors drowns out what may be the bigger story: Many pastors are satisfied with their work. A 1994 CHRISTIANITY TODAY study found among pastors a remarkably high degree of job satisfaction. To the question If offered a well-paying position outside of ministry, would you consider leaving the ministry? seven out of ten pastors said no. And more than 80 percent said that if they had to do it all over again, they would choose a career in ministry. A study of mainline Protestant and Catholic clergy by the Christian Theological Seminary found similar results: more than 80 percent were satisfied with their pastoral duties and their role as pastor.
It is not that the issues pastors face are not severe; it is that the bad news tends naturally to get the press. Much of the talk of crisis is driven by anecdotal evidence, to which other professions are not immune. In 1990, for example, The National Law Journal commissioned a survey of lawyers precisely because "observers said so many lawyers were disgruntled that a mass exodus from the profession was imminent." The study concluded there was no major crisis: 79 percent surveyed said they were satisfied with their careers. Less than 10 percent indicated they intended to leave the law profession.
Compared to physicians, pastors fare even better. A 1993 study of board-certified family physicians in Pennsylvania revealed that only 65 percent indicated satisfaction with their professional lives. Other studies of the medical profession, including Gallup's in 1989 and 1990 for the American Medical Association, confirm roughly the same numbers.
That eight out of ten pastors, given our culture's climate of vocational restlessness, are largely satisfied with their life's work begs the more interesting question: Why?
The right reasons
Steve is a third-generation pastor. His father, Maynard, serves a rural congregation in Paradise Valley, Montana, just north of Yellowstone Park. Steve's grandfather, now deceased, served as pastor for more than 50 years in various capacities on the East Coast.
It seems almost a foregone conclusion that Steve, the oldest son, would have grown up predisposed toward a vocation in the church. But Steve says, "Since my father and grandfather were pastors, I had to make sure I was going into ministry for the right reasons."
The right reasons slowly accumulated. As he watched his father and grandfather, Steve saw the impact they had on people's lives. The Scripture they preached made a difference. They also modeled a healthy lifestyle.
"Some of the reason I was attracted to ministry, or wasn't turned off by it," says Steve, "was that they lived life—they hunted, fished, fixed up cars. I grew up not knowing that all some pastors did was work. My father and grandfather had a life outside the church."
In high school, Steve gravitated toward writing, speaking, and leadership opportunities—the skills and gifts he now uses in pastoral work. As a senior, Steve worked at the Tazewell County News in southern Illinois for nine months as a sportswriter and photographer. He enjoyed the experience, but he wanted something more. It didn't sate his thirst for meaning.
After his third year of college, Steve completed a summer pastoral internship that confirmed what had appeared to me as inevitable. I've known Steve for 16 years, since we first set foot on a small Bible-college campus in Montana as freshmen. Even then, as today, he seemed, well, pastoral—but not in the bogus way of someone who needs others to call him or her "Reverend." Steve, in fact, eschews the title Reverend. Yet he feels comfortable, almost casual, with the identity. "The harness fits," Steve says. "I want to be one of the guys, but I'm happy to accept the role."
The type of call that makes pastors satisfied, says parish consultant Lyle Schaller, a former pastor, is not simply a general call to ministry—that is, a call that would give someone freedom to serve, say, as a chaplain, a campus pastor, or a denominational official. It is a call specifically to be a pastor. It is not uncommon for former pastors to backpedal about their original call to ministry: "Uh, I was called to the church, not a particular church." It is a way of justifying their leaving the pastoral vocation. Or they reframe it in individualistic terms: "My calling is to find out who God wired me to be." Often, after leaving the local church, they find meaningful work in parachurch ministries or seminaries (or in selling insurance).
However, pastors with that sort of flexibility in their call, says Schaller, tend not to be as satisfied: "The clarity and the precision of that call is number one."
Seminary president McCullough is dismayed with the numbers of unhappy pastors. "But those who are happy," he says, "are those who live out a sense of call. They look at the hardships of ministry square in the eye. They have a larger perspective."
Much of Steve's identity as a pastor seems to flow out of his preaching and teaching. He had the grades in seminary for Ph.D. work and a possible career in teaching. "When I went into the pastorate," Steve says, "I had visions that someday I'd get a doctorate in Old Testament and teach at a Christian college. But the more I work with people, taking Scripture and bringing it to bear on their life issues, my conviction that this is what God has called me to do strengthens."
Out of all the criticisms he receives, he doesn't hear, "Your preaching leaves a lot to be desired." Steve says he has been influenced by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary preaching professor Haddon Robinson, who believes preaching is not talking to people about the Bible, it's talking to people about themselves from the Bible. But talking to a congregation about themselves is something a pastor earns. And it appears that Steve has earned that privilege. In a three-year stretch, Steve has (1) conducted a funeral for a 19-year-old woman whose husband, while cleaning his hunting rifle on the kitchen table, accidentally shot her, (2) led the congregation in publicly disciplining two individuals for abandoning their spouses, (3) sat through a lengthy murder trial with a church family whose son shot one of his best friends, (4) counseled a woman whose son was arrested for armed robbery, and (5) conducted the funeral of a 13-year-old who committed suicide. And that does not include the more "normal" stuff of pastoral care: marital counseling, hospital visitation, funerals, newcomer visits, and so on.
Freedom to stay
It ended up that Steve needed a strong sense of call. His first church out of seminary was a small, struggling congregation in Helena, the state capital of Montana. The church owned no building, meeting for worship in the conference room at a Best Western motel.
Four weeks after he arrived, Steve almost resigned. The church was considering a merger with another small congregation in Helena. Steve says, "I felt as if I were a liability. I thought the merger was a good idea and believed I should get out of the way."
But the merger wasn't to be, and Steve stayed on for five lean years. With three children, Steve and Priscilla were making $1,600 a month. After taxes (15 percent for social security alone), rent, and groceries, they had little reserve for emergencies and medical bills, which began to accumulate.
At one point, Steve wanted to use one of his weeks of vacation to take a week-long continuing-education class at a seminary in Colorado. He planned to take his family so they could spend the week in Estes Park. But as the time drew near, he realized he had to cancel the trip; there just wasn't any money. Several weeks before he and his family would have left, the church surprised the Mathewsons with a $900 gift. The gesture moved Steve to tears, and he resurrected their Colorado plans.
Shortly before they were to leave, however, the transmission in their Chevy Citation went out. Then came another surprise medical bill. The summer night before they planned to leave, Steve and Pris sat out on the deck of the house they were renting and admitted what they wanted to deny: there would be no trip. Steve wept. That week, his family vacationed in the basement of his parents' home several hours away.
During this time, Steve came as close as he has to leaving pastoral ministry. He toyed with the idea of moving his family to a large metropolitan area; he needed a well-paying job to manage their debt. But he always planned to return to ministry.
"I knew pastoring was what God called me to do," Steve says, "yet we weren't making it financially. But I didn't feel the freedom to pursue another occupation; I was called to be a pastor."
Torn, Steve went to the church board and asked for a raise—$600 more a month. With money in the bank and the church easily meeting its monthly financial obligations, the board still felt Steve was adequately salaried, but they deigned to give him $150 more a month. One board member said, "Have you ever thought of trying 'budget billing'?" Budget billing is a payment plan sponsored by Montana Power that averages one's monthly electric bill over the entire year. That would have saved, perhaps, says Steve, $10 a month. This same leader also suggested that if Steve needed more money, he could join the National Guard and become a chaplain. "It's only one weekend a month," he said.
When Steve requested that the church help pay for future continuing-education courses, the board went on record to say that such courses benefited Steve more than the church. They flatly denied his request.
Shortly thereafter, another church contacted Steve, and a few months later, he accepted the call at Dry Creek Bible Church, his present charge.
Satisfied other half
During this time, and his stretch of burnout several years later, Steve's ballast was his wife, Pris. She is at peace with being a pastor's wife; she says, "I always knew I would marry a pastor, so the money was never an issue." The daughter of a pastor, she says she probably struggled less with their money problems than Steve. Money was never a reason to badger Steve into leaving ministry. Her involvement in Steve's work is presently limited (now there are four children), but she views her role as Steve's partner in the work of the church.
In addition to the specific call to be a pastor, satisfied pastors have a support network. For male pastors, the support comes, not surprisingly, primarily from their wives. But that does not necessarily mean the spouse plays the piano, sings in the choir, and leads the women's Bible study.
Not all pastors' wives participate (or are able or want to participate) in their husbands' work. A 1996 LEADERSHIP study reported that almost two-thirds of pastors' wives work outside the home. But satisfied pastors are married to a satisfied spouse. Schaller says that when he finds a supportive pastor's wife, he finds three things: The wife is happy being married to a pastor, happy with the community in which the congregation is located, and happy with the congregation.
"Two out of three is good if you're a baseball player," says Schaller. "But here it's three out of three."
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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