Clergy Burnout Season Epilogue | Podcast Season 02, Episode 08

by Sep 20, 2022Transforming Engagement: the Podcast

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In this final episode of our Clergy Burnout series, co-hosts Kate Rae Davis, MDiv, and Rose Madrid Swetman, DMin, revisit the many rich conversations they’ve had with our guests this season. 

In these conversations, we heard new perspectives, learned new things, and confirmed so much of the research that’s out there right now on clergy burnout. It’s real. It’s present. We hope that this has been a space where pastors and clergy will feel seen and known. For those of you who are not pastors but perhaps are part of a faith community or congregation, we hope these conversations have given you a greater understanding and empathy for the leaders in your faith community, and prompt questions as to how we can support these faithful leaders. 

What’s next? We invite you to join us in our fall session of Way of Life, which focuses on small shifts in our daily rhythms to bring more purpose, intention, and mindfulness to our lives as we lean into our calling. Enrollment is open through September 30, 2022. Click here to reserve your spot.

You can also explore our other online courses: 

  • In Centering Prayer, you can learn to intentionally cultivate a richer prayer life and relationship with the Divine.
  • In Career & Call, you’ll learn a process of discovery and discernment that you can use over and over again in making life decisions both now and in the future as it relates to your calling.

To learn more about individual and group courses, visit our Online Courses page.

More Supporting Resources:


Episode Transcript:

Kate: Welcome to Transforming Engagement, the podcast where we have conversations about changes that serve the common good and a higher good. Today, my co-host Rose and I are talking about everything that we learned in this season on clergy burnout from all of our wonderful guests and all the different perspectives that they shared on clergy burnout. And I think let’s open our conversation there with what did we learn? What –or maybe what was we also what was reinforced? What did we know but really heard strongly through these conversations? Yeah.

Rose: Yeah. That’s a good place to start because all through the current conversations, I was struck with how we were just so reinforced with what matters for clergy is people –who they surround themselves with, who, who are the people that they can be real with, be themselves with. Practices – what are the practices that for some of them, just help them get through the last three years, and, and that are still there putting into practice now because it’s really not over, we’re still in the midst of much of it?

Kate: Or practices for like really flourishing and thriving, and that next level practices.

Rose: Yes, absolutely. And then purpose, like, just a lot of I think the last few years brought on for many clergy is a reimagining or just sort of a discernment process. Am I in the right place still? Is this still the right vocation for me? Is the pastorate the right fit for me? So I think we were really, I was so, I actually I was sort of excited, not in a weird way, but in the way to say: oh, we are onto something. We were sort of looking– like the research has really borne this out, and then they sort of confirmed it for us.

Kate: For our listeners who are maybe have done less listening or reading of our resilience work in the past: we use a frame of resilience that there’s three essential components: people, practices, and purpose. And that was distilled down from reviewing a lot of scholarly research, academic research. And to hear it really reflected from multiple fields, fields we didn’t necessarily read into when we were designing that framework, as well as to hear it from actual lived stories, which is always the final test of confirmation of research, which sometimes doesn’t touch on human life as much we wish it did. Yeah. Yeah, that’s true, I think.

Rose: Yeah. I just would like to say I agree with you. So it just re-affirmed. This isn’t just theory. This is embodied. This is what clergy are living.

Kate: Yes.

Rose: So, yeah, it’s good. 

Kate: It’s a theory for how to live into, a very practical theory in that sense. Yes. And those are I think the best kinds, are the ones I turn to again and again.

Rose: Yes.

Kate: So yeah. And I think maybe we could touch on each of those a little bit. Like what, what was reinforced for us earlier, about people, about practices, about purpose. Should we start there?

Rose: Yeah, let’s do it.

Kate: I think on people, it was, so much that we heard about personal relationships, whether that’s your partner or that one congregant who comes through for you, so much on the, the relationships that sustain both because they care for you or because the relationships that make meaning. Like I’m thinking about Reverend Justin White saying that part of what was hard in the pandemic was not getting to do hospital visits because even that kind of giving relationship being something that is also such holy moments, and the sustenance of being able to be in a really intimate, vulnerable place with the person.

Rose: Yeah, I mean, as clergy, you sort of go into this vocation knowing that you’re going to care for souls, that it’s an embodied vocation. And, and then, of course, COVID took us all online. Right. And that was hard. It was. So as to Justin’s point, like it was really hard not being able to be in person with my congregants as they’re suffering.

Kate: Yes.

Rose: Yeah.

Kate: And bodies to be in–something we heard really strongly from especially Dr. Jessica Young Brown that, and it’s so easy to forget in this care of souls which we think of as a very nebulous thing, that our souls are all housed in bodies, not divorceable from those bodies, and really were caring for bodies as much as for souls.

Rose: Dr. Brown gave us some very good tips or ways to think about what are the symptoms that we are moving toward burnout by listening to our bodies. I felt like that was very helpful if you didn’t listen to that podcast recording. She was, she really articulated, here are the signs, here are the symptoms. You know, that you’re you’re moving towards burnout when this is going on in your body. So how we learn to listen to our bodies, that clergy are actually integrated beings, like we’re human and have bodies.

Kate: Yeah yeah.

Rose: And our emotional, our emotional, in the emotional stance that we find ourselves in. What’s the word I’m looking for, Kate? The emotional sort of state that I find myself in if I’m listening to my body, then I can kind of key in to, like this this high anxiety, this high stress, like what it’s doing to my body and learn the practices that can help me alleviate, bring down, diminish that stress and anxiety in my body.

Kate: Yes, yeah. Yeah. I think I’m remembering, who was it, maybe it was Lisa Sharon Harper talking about her practices of Sabbath and rest, which I think we also heard from Mandy Smith, and we heard this thread of rest as a practice, which I love, because it reframes–I think so often people hear practices and they think, yeah, I should be running more or doing yoga or praying like whatever the thing is I should be doing. And to say rest is a totally valid practice that our bodies very much need.

Rose: Yeah. Mandy Smith talked about that. She feels a little shame because she has to take a nap to refresh herself in the afternoon and that she has to really work at getting over that and understanding that we absolutely have limits. And that clergy have never really been trained how to identify those limits. Instead, they just blow through them, especially in a time of great societal upheaval. Then they, you know, we talked about that, about what COVID did. Now we all had to become tech experts on top of the other 64 jobs we had, the tasks we had. So the idea of understood what are your limits? And different people have different capacities, right? So so understanding what is your capacity, what is your limit? And if you have to lay down and take a nap, it is okay.

Kate: Hmm. Yeah. I think there’s so much of what clergy are trained in is the intellectual and the spiritual. I believe, where those two meet and really that, that deep, deep need for training to help us even feel our bodies and to understand, have language for what is happening in that experience and then to know how to respond to it, which are also distinct skills like what’s happening in me. Therefore I should be doing, therefore I should go take a nap.

Rose: Yes. Yes. I was recently with a pastor that was diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress syndrome. Meaning you have lived way too long in such a high anxiety environment that it has taken its toll on your body. So had to be put on medical leave. I mean, this is just happening more and more. So I think just that whole, almost all of our guests talked about their bodies, like we brought that up and that, yeah, we’re not trying that when we talk about practices add more things on an already very full life but what are the things that you have to let go? What are the things? Can you live into rest?

Kate: Yes, yeah. Yeah. The the practice of feeling your tiredness before it becomes an existential fatigue, and tending to it.

Rose: Right?

Kate: Yeah. Something else that we heard of–well, I guess we talk about purpose a little bit–and some ways purpose is always the least surprising thing, like clergy crutch on purpose. We all get into this field because as making meaning and wanting to be there for those reasons, people’s moments in their lives, from marriages to births to marriages to funerals. So it was, it’s always unsurprising to hear purpose, but I do want to acknowledge that purpose was also present in our conversations.

Rose: Yeah, I think Anne Helen Petersen, in our conversation with her, when we were talking about vocation, and in many Christian circles we call it calling. And however, that gets interpreted so many different ways. And the idea that clergy go into this work as like a sacred work, that they’re doing, and so when they start approaching burnout, they not only feel like they’re failing themselves or failing their congregations, but it’s amplified by the guilt or deep shame that maybe isn’t even, you’re conscious of that it’s underground, that you’re failing God, that’s really big.

Kate: It is. And we don’t really have –our theologies are all built to advance exactly that line of thinking that the burden is on you to convert people to save souls. And we really need a theology and and this exists and I’ll say less-white churches, the Global South, the Black church in America are much more open to like, we are not in control, God is in control. And I can stop and God will keep going. And we really need to allow ourselves to be adapted into those theologies. Yes. [Rose] Because there’s there’s life there that lets pastors be human alongside congregants. And I think so much of white church systems have really made clergy into these superhuman semi-god figures.

Rose: Which results in a congregation wanting them to be super-human. So if a pastor begins to make mistakes or maybe missteps, that all of a sudden they are just not allowed to be human, like they are expected to be superhuman, and which, which is that whole idea of that whole consumer culture in churches. Right. Like the pastor is, is responsible for whatever I experience.

Kate: Yes. Which I them, and we were talking earlier before we started recording about congregational infighting and the, the level of the heat that fights get in congregations and then that can become the well, the pastors should just resolve this for me. for us. The pastors do what I want them to do then we won’t have to fight about this. Yes. In the same way like if God (would) just do what I asked in my prayers, then I wouldn’t be having the challenges I’m having. It’s a very demanding spirituality that then is reflected in our human systems. And what Jesus said is: Love your neighbor. Not get your pastor to love your neighbor for you or get your pastor make you to love your neighbor like.

Rose: Yes, yes.

Kate: Just do your own work and yes.

Rose: I think as to the point of how our theologies, especially in the white church, set us up to be the savior, rather than who is the savior, which is so subtle. I mean, most pastors and clergy are working so hard they wouldn’t even think of it.

Kate: Oh, my goodness.

Rose: Yes, they mean. So it’s not like, it’s not, it doesn’t even enter their minds that maybe they are taking the place of God in this situation. And it makes me think of when Jesus says, you know, my, my yoke is easy. My burden is light. And, like, somehow we lost that. And many clergy are so not taught: What does that mean to be yoke to Jesus? What does it mean to allow Jesus to help carry this burden instead? And I don’t think it’s done intentionally. It’s the way we’ve been trained.

Kate: Yes, yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s and often not even our our like really critical, explicit training, it’s often just a cultural assumption that we came up with in the church, our own service and humility and giving and self-Giving.

Rose: I think of Walter Bruggeman’s book on sabbatical as a Sabbath as resistance, because, I mean, I think that is such an important work. Dan Allender wrote a book on Sabbath years ago. It’s so important for clergy because I did just a very brief, just a very brief survey, my own denomination of how many pastors take a day off, like completely take a day off, even two days, like normal, like work a 40-hour workweek and have two days off because clearly Sunday is not a day off for pastors, and so and staff people like churches, the larger they get, staff are demanded to keep working. And in so I mean I just think that’s where we get into systems, right? The systems and the structures that underlie all of this are, just have to be reimagined, I think, for this time we’re in.

Kate: Yes. Yeah. And I think it’s it’s always, I mean, I know, I know, that pastors don’t have the same legal protections for work or benefits that other organizations have for work. And hearing the human impact, I think, is, really, you know, can be lost sight of in what seems like very dry, boring policy. Yes [Rose]. But those policies have really significant impact on can you take time off, like can you take vacation? And also can you take leave when you have a child? Can you take leave when you have a medical emergency? For, for most congregants, we work in organizations that medical leave is required by law. And we’re, we’re entitled to it. We get to have it. And that’s not the case for pastors. It’s not protected for them. So, if you get sick, if you get sick even from burnout, even from chronic stress, [Rose:yes]. You aren’t necessarily guaranteed that you’ll keep your job, your income as you’re handling those. So a lot of questions on what are the policies at the denominational level. [Rose:Yes], I guess I don’t I’m not saying that the government should come regulate this. I’m saying the denomination seems to be doing better than what our government is doing.

Rose: Right. And if you’re an independent church, your board, that’s the governance piece. Like how are you caring for your pastors? I think a few years ago it hit me, Kate, that when I think about, you know, we would hear all about, you know, the Google, like all the tech companies and how you don’t even have to leave, they have restaurants, exercise, you know, like you can be there full time. I mean, how many of our churches are built like that? Maybe they don’t have all the As to your point, we don’t even get those benefits. Right. You’re just working for 60 hours a week without those benefits and it’s expected.

Kate: Yes, yeah. Yeah. I should also say, like leave time and medical benefits, medical, dental, vision, retirement. Retirement. Yeah. A lot of congregations and or denominations. Yeah these are not.

Rose: Yeah so denominational leaders you know the hierarchy and structure of denominations and then in the non-denominational I just think we’re at a time where we have to re-imagine care for our pastors and what does it look like. And and, you know, it’s interesting because I mean, I know because I was in that place that you think if you stop your the church will, oh, we’ll lose people or this or that like you are.

Kate: The momentum.

Rose: Up. Yeah. The momentum factor, all of it. And so what would it mean then if denominational heads and non-denominational boards were able to say to their pastor, look: we’re in this for the long haul, we want you to make it 20 years so we don’t have to have you working 60 hours a week. We we want to care for your soul and your body and your emotional well-being, right?

Kate: Yes. That and that really is those leadership boards. I think most congregants, it never crosses their mind to wonder, does my pastor have dental insurance?

Rose: Right.

Kate: I don’t know why it would. That could be a huge factor in that pastor’s life. To shift our topic a little bit – What did we learn that was –or what was in our experience in these conversations really surprising for us?

Rose: Mm hmm.

Kate: Well, I think one that, like, I can jump in here, and there was such a feel of resonance. Like the people that we talked with, even the invitation and sending out the invitations, you know, we had this long list of people we could contact thinking like, you know, if someone’s like, oh, now, like, that’s not really a thing in my life I want to talk about that. We had backup options, and we didn’t use any of our second options. Like everyone was like, yes, this is a conversation. That feeling of resonance was stronger than I expected. And I think that the maybe counter-side of that was in our conversation with former clergy. [Rose:Yes] I was so, I think in the moment I was just so sad. I’m actually like tearing up remembering that conversation because there was so much hurt so present in the room. And I was surprised by the pauses in conversation where it was, it was a little bit like, will someone else please give words to this? I don’t have words for this, which is a trauma response, losing their ability to narrate, articulate, to have language for. I was, I wanted to have former clergy represented, clergy who have experienced burnout represented in this. And I, I almost felt bad publishing the episode. Like I almost wanted to pull it just to, like, put some coverage over them. Yes. Because there’s there’s so much, there’s so much hurt.

Rose: Yes. As to your point, you’re right that for some, it was even hard to articulate their experience, like they just didn’t have words. And I was in that same place listening to them. I mean, this is hard and bless them for being willing to participate. But yes, almost wanted to say, you don’t have to do this. Yes. But they seemed like they were okay to do it and that they wanted to represent how many other clergy are in that place right now. When we look at the stats of how many have resigned in the last few years. Yeah.

Kate: And, and that these were, these are people that we had identified as being super emotionally articulate and open, and willing to share their experiences. And they were. And how many clergy are there who aren’t in that place, because of either the shame, the guilt of I’m not doing my ministry anymore, all the social and spiritual reasons. There are so many clergy who wouldn’t give any voice. And I’m so, I still feel the holiness of these three being willing to share their experiences of a really hard experiences. Yes.

Rose: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. That I agree with you. The more that we talked with that, especially the two panels of former clergy and current clergy, how much I realized this is just almost universal, this is like for for clergy in the in northern America for the last few years that there is really an undercurrent of deep, deep pain and grief, and that many just keep going. They just keep going. And so hopefully listening to some of this, they will get ideas of how to get help, how to get support, how where do I find the people that I can be safe with to show up and be just who I am and where I am in this moment? Mm hmm.

Kate: Yeah. And I mean, it’s a counter. It felt really, for some of our current clergy that, well, one, just to know all of our former and current clergy are like, yeah, burnout is a real thing and a real risk. It’s not like it’s not not present in the room with them. They’re just working with it differently or managing it differently. I think for some of the current clergy, for them to hear their meaning making the the work they’re doing with these hard, hard narratives to get get the difficulty to mean something significant for their community, for themselves which we shorthand “meaning making” as “purpose” to make it fit with the same letter as are other streams of resilience. But to hear that put in practice with such nuance. And sometimes such a long term vision for that community can become much, much farther beyond what’s happening this year, this pandemic.

Rose: Exactly. I was thinking about with the the current clergy when we, the question was asked like, well, why do you stay? What has kept you? To hear deep, the depth of their commitment to, and not to just plow through and keep blowing through their limits. But more, I heard like redemptive narratives starting to be told, like, I have to redo how I do this. I have to redo how I think about this. I have to, you know, like they’re they’re beginning to think this is not sustainable the way that I’ve been living. So what are the things I need to put in place in order to do this for them? That was actually very encouraging to me that they were beginning to do the meaning making and lean in to the Lord for redemptive, you know, redemptive narratives to start being written.

Kate: Yeah. Yeah. That also felt really loud for me in our conversation with Lisa Sharon Harper. That like the burnout might actually be a necessary and eventually positive stepping stone onto making a more just church, a new chapter for your church. That the burnout might actually be exactly what was needed because it’s signaling a shift in the way that you’re holding your pastoring role, and the way that your church is relating to its pastor. And the way it’s going into its community, into the world.

Rose: So powerful. And what I really hope from that, what you just described and if you listen to that podcast, that clergy will listen to that, and especially those that are on the verge of burnout or have already resigned to be able to do like just as we said, lean in, go through the process of healing, making meaning, and who knows what will open up. I mean, I always do. I’m 65, so I view life in chapters, oh, that was that chapter. But when you’re younger you don’t really, I don’t know how much you view your life that it’s going to be in chapters, but you get to a point where you start reflecting on your life in that, Oh, that was that chapter. You start naming the chapters. And so for that type of thing, for giving clergy hope, that if that is the place that you’ve been in and as you go through and do that work and make meaning, who knows what the next chapter will open up to you? There’s so many possibilities.

Kate: Yes. And not just to you, but to your entire community. That burnout unto justice was such an epiphany for me, oh like your burnout can actually be for the good of and part of that that drawing all things near to God for God’s purposes. Yeah, yeah. It really just goes into that whole episode. I probably going to listen the episode again too. It was so rich. I could listen to her preach at me all day.

Rose: I think. I think with all of this part of what a big I hope takeaway is for clergy, we’re so trained to compartmentalize our lives. We are. And so my hope is, like through listening to all of the voices and in the podcast, is that clergy will be able to receive the gift of, I don’t have to compartmentalize. I can be an integrated being if I have the right support around me. Mm hmm.

Kate: Mm hmm. And I hope that whether clergy at a denominational leadership level or lay leaders in their congregations, even laypeople in the congregation who aren’t yet in leadership yet, but are maybe, maybe going to start getting involved, to be advocates for these things that are often really uncomfortable, putting that support system in place for yourself. It’s asking, you have to ask for a lot of help as a pastor, and it needs advocates both above, at that policy level and in the shaping systems level, as well as from below in the congregation to really be allies in this work of tending to the Spirit of God in your local context.

Rose: Yes, yes. Well, I’m trying to remember. Do you remember what Lisa Sharon Harper said was the job of the pastor? I want to go back and revisit because I remember when she said, but what I mean, that is the question.

Kate: She kept tending the sheep, like it’s tending to.

Rose: Feeding the sheep.

Kate: Least of these among, you.

Rose: Know, that’s what Jesus said. Feed my sheep, right? Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Right. And so what does that mean? What does that really mean? Does it. Yeah, we could go into all of the other tasks that pastors are called on because we talked about that with Anne Helen Petersen. Like you were saying, I did not have in my MDiv course, a communications class. 

Kate: I didn’t have to like fix the toilet class. 

Rose: Exactly. Exactly.

Kate: And like when the toilet breaks, like that’s that’s who’s in there is especially in the smaller congregations where it’s maybe just a solo pastor, like you are everything from facilities to end of life care. Right. And that is.

Rose: Right.

Kate: Too many job descriptions. Yes. Anne Helen said how many it was and –

Rose: I thought she said 64. Was it?

Kate: Maybe 64 tasks.13 jobs. Yeah.

Rose: Yes, yes, yeah.

Kate: Too many. Yeah, 12 too many jobs. I’m also now like oh yeah, Jesus had 12 disciples. There are 13 of them. They could each have a job, right?

Rose: Yes. That’s a fair battle. There should be a.13-person leadership teams. Right.

Kate: So their facilities guy really got off easy. Just keep the sandals up. Well, last thoughts on learning. I was going to shift us to going forward and what’s kind of that work, but if you had another thought–

Rose: But I think I think we’ve sort of covered it. I’m I’m really grateful for everyone that agreed to participate, especially the clergy, the current and former, that just their courage to come. And really, and I remember at one point Donelle said, okay, I’m just going to tell the truth, right now. Like, yay, great. And you know, so I just really grateful that they showed up and were able to be with us and share the truth of their experience in this time. Leading congregations.

Kate: Yeah. To share your expertise. I mean, we’re so grateful for our experts coming on to share your personal story as different level of risk and you feel gratitude for that.

Rose: Yes.

Kate: So going forward, really, I mean, this season has been such a joy, like, yes, I can’t believe this gets to be my job. But this has been the start, it’s been a point in the conversation, a conversation that’s really ongoing through our work here at the Center for Transforming Engagement. And so we have ways to go deeper into that conversation coming up. And one of them, registration is open now, it’s called Way of Life, and it’s a course with Rose Madrid Swetman. So how do you say a little bit about what that offering is about?

Rose: Yes. So it’s called Way of Life, which some of you would maybe understand the the rule of life.

Kate: Yeah, the Benedict, the Benedictine.

Rose: Yeah. So really way of life is a bit like that. And it’s, it’s going to be for clergy leaders, late leaders and not nonprofit leaders, current way of life. We will look at what is your current way of life? So what is what it is? It’s an online offering where you will get videos and then once a week for six weeks, you will come on to an online community with me for 2 hours, where we will discuss what you had learned that week in small groups together in a big group, and then break down into small groups. And really, it’s about making small, doable, achievable changes in order to live a life that you you might be able to do this for 10 to 20 years and not burnout. Right. And so.

Kate: I mean, some say small changes, but ones that will have a big impact in their felt experience, your days in life.

Rose: Yes, absolutely. So part of that part of our time together will be looking at just examining our current way of life. And then the next will will have ways that you can look at: What can you kind of let go of? What small thing might you add that will bring more life? And then we’ll end with How do we live this way of life? What is the way that we live it? So I really hope you will check it out. I think it’s going to be really, really interesting. I don’t know how fun it will be, but I’m hoping it will be a little bit fun. But I think it will be very meaningful for to just take this pause and be able to say, okay, where am I in this journey as a leader? How am I caring for my own soul in order that I can give that out to the others that I, I work with and serve?

Kate: Yeah, very focused. Rooted and that practices stream of resilience. What I love about the way you set up this offering is that you guide people through with information and an exercise in the video, and then they have time on their own to do that activity, to reflect and then coming together in conversation, and new relationships which you know, are so important for support. So really you have these very different learning styles, and they all work together to make changes for more positive practices, and a more resilient life. Very excited for this to be launched as well. So registration for that is open now: transforming engagement dot org is our website and coming up more into the distance, we will have a seven-week virtual offering on practices, more in depth, which will have more time in the community to get to know each other and hold each other’s stories a bit more. That will be in January. So follow our Instagram or website or newsletter for that. And then in the spring we’ll have another one on purpose, which is really that meaning-making skill, that how do you take something hard and find a hope from that hard experience? Rose, thank you so much for doing the season with me.

Rose: Well, Kate, thanks for inviting me. I really, really love this. I think it’s so important. I mean, I, I love the church and I love clergy, you know, just because I have been one for so long. And so it’s very, very close to my heart. And so I think this was really important. And thanks for inviting me.

Kate: Of course, it was such a gift to have to the point of our clergy bringing their personal stories for you to bring both your expertise and your personal experience into this role of drawing those out from others. I’ve just been so grateful to have you as a partner in this.

Rose: Okay. Thank you.