We expect a lot from our pastors, especially the part-time ones who are forced to be bi-vocational. They speak candidly about their roles and their congregation’s expectations in this issue beginning on page 4, as interviewed by our Saskatchewan correspondent, Donna Schulz.
Are we getting enough bang for our buck, to use a cliché? Yes, and more, in most cases. Our expectations as congregants are high, perhaps in some cases unrealistic. Would we put in as many hours in our workplaces and not demand commensurate compensation? Or carry the same emotional load as much pastoral care demands?
Somehow we assume that because this is a “calling,” rather than a well-defined position with specific duties and hours, it doesn’t really matter how this might affect our pastor’s well-being. In some cases, we feel they are made of steel and have limitless levels of energy because “God will give them the resources to do the job.”
One of them confesses that she “went through a year of burnout because I felt so fragmented.” That is not a good reflection on the congregation. While we are hesitant to say this amounts to pastor abuse, it might come close. Healthy congregations with a good grasp of what the pastoral role demands give their leaders space for family time, self-care and a spiritual director who pastors the pastor.
One anonymous full-time pastor experiencing burnout in a moment of candour listed a number of frustrations such as: congregants expecting house calls but not telling the pastor they need one; having your work, social, family and spare time all wrapped up in one place; people thinking the pastor doesn’t work very much; having lots of responsibility but little authority; having to be an expert in a hugely diverse number of responsibilities.
Much as we would like to think this is the exception, rather than the rule, we should take a second look. If the future of our faith community pushes us toward more part-time pastors, an assessment of our expectations is crucial. We do not want to create a situation in which the pastoral calling and position becomes less and less attractive to those wanting to enter the ministry.
Perhaps our seminaries, while focussing on training pastors, should offer adult courses for congregational lay leaders on how to care for their pastors, giving helpful pointers on expectations versus how to preserve the emotional and spiritual vitality of their leaders.
But there is another side to what sometimes is perceived as a dilemma. It is the gift of “holy moments” for the pastor, so well described by Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, in a recent “Faith matters” column in Christian Century.
In graphic terms, he describes some of the most intense moments for pastors: “A phone call beckons you to a home where a teenager has died of suicide, and when you arrive, the family looks at you as if you know what to say. You hold a baby and carry it through the holy waters of baptism [or in our case, dedication]. At a fresh grave an old widower lingers next to you after you’ve buried his lifelong lover, then reaches out to take your hand. And every Sunday you stand behind a pulpit looking out at pews filled with people who believe you can offer them a word from God.”
Then Barnes asks a profound question: “Why do you, a flawed mortal, get such holy moments? Even your gratitude is so humbling that at times you wonder if you can continue.”
He goes on to describe our great leaders—pastors—as mostly “just true believers in a cause. And most people around them had faith that [their leaders] could make a difference.”
That is the privilege of their calling. We hold our pastors, part- or full-time, in high esteem. They are, after all, God’s representatives in our closely bonded fellowship of believers. Theirs is a sacred trust that we should regard and guard. We should be aware, for instance, that before every contentious congregational meeting, as Barnes describes it, every pastor silently prays, “Dear God, let this cup pass from me.”
Being a pastor should not put these kinds of pressures on them. Each pastor is a gift that, with proper receiving on the part of congregation, “keeps on giving.” But we have to do our part to protect and nurture that gift over the period of that leader’s term of service.
See also: “Meet the pastors who moonlight”