Clergy Burnout with Anne Helen Petersen | Podcast Season 02, Episode 05
In this episode of our Clergy Burnout series, we’re joined by writer and journalist Anne Helen Petersen, to take a look at clergy burnout through a systemic and cultural lens. As the author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation and contributor to the Clergy Burnout Report from the Center for Transforming Engagement, Anne Helen has explored the topic of burnout at length in her research and writing and provides a unique perspective on some of the societal circumstances that are contributing to this exhaustion.
Co-hosted by Kate Rae Davis, MDiv, and Rose Madrid Swetman, this discussion centers around the warning signs of burnout and the potential impact that addressing burnout – or letting it go unnoticed – can have on pastors and their communities. We discuss practical ways that pastors can foster greater awareness and care for their own physical and mental health, and how congregants can also grow in awareness to step in and support their pastors.
We hope that this is 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 will be enlightening and give you a greater understanding and empathy for the leaders in your community, and prompt questions as to how we can support these faithful leaders.
Each episode, we’re asking our guest to highlight an organization that is doing good work. This week, Anne points us to Mutual Aid, which are grassroots, local organizations committed to freely providing funds and resources to community members in need. Find your local Mutual Aid by typing “Mutual Aid (your city)” in your search engine.
About our guest:
Anne Helen Petersen, PhD, is a journalist and author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation (2020) and Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home (2021). She previously worked as the Senior Culture Writer for Buzzfeed and has been published in The New York Times. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter, and subscribe to her writing on the Culture Study substack.
Kate: Welcome to Transforming Engagement, the podcast where we host conversations about serving the common good and a higher good. Today we’re joined by Anne Helen Petersen, who’s a writer and journalist with a Ph.D. in media studies and is a regular contributor to The New York Times. She’s perhaps best known as the author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. And also her most recent book is Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working From Home. Her ongoing work can be found at Culture Studies. Welcome, Anne.
Anne Helen: Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here.
Kate: We’re so happy to have you. So we’ve been having these conversations about burnout, which have often focused on more of a small systems and often the individual response to it and all the guilt and shame that come around – “I wasn’t strong enough to do it”. And I’m so excited to talk to you because you are so good at framing burnout as a systems issue, as a problem that is co-created by a culture and the real systems that we live in. Help us make that shift to seeing burnout as something bigger than an individual problem.
Anne Helen: Yeah, you know, I think that burnout was historically understood as something that happens to people who are, like, in war, right? Like war correspondents or exclusively emergency room doctors, you know, people who were in the most mentally and physically taxing sort of occupations where there is no choice other than to just keep going. Right? But if you think about it, those are structures. Those are, those are backdrops against which any person, almost any person will burnout. Like it’s not that the individual has some sort of failing, some sort of frailty of spirit. Right. It’s that you are in a war zone and this is what the system creates in a person. And I think when we expand that understanding of burnout, to really think about the workplace and also to think about what living under capitalism and growth capitalism, right like rapid growth capitalism, does to people and also living, you know, alongside that rapid growth capitalism with precarity, with the feeling that there’s no safety net. And then also in many cases, this feeling of the disintegration of the social safety net, the people and the organizations and the groups that for some of our parents and grandparents generation just felt much more present. Right? Like we just had much more in the form of the loose ties that could be there in case of catastrophe. And so you have those two things happening at once. And both of those things are macro phenomena, right? There are things that you as an individual can try to gird yourself against. You can try to make your way on a path that seems most protected. But like the larger, the larger map, right, that that path is on, is still really dangerous, is still incredibly fraught. And so I think that that’s why my essay, that was talking not just about like, how did I personally burnout but how has an entire generation really become characterized by this feeling of burnout? And of course, that feeling expands to people who aren’t just within this, like 20 year designation, 15 year designation of millennials. It’s something that is much more a character of living in society as we are now. It’s just that millennials are in this place, age-wise and year-wise, right? Like the way that we grew up, the way that our milestones coincided with larger structural failings, like the Great Recession, that we feel it very acutely in this moment. So I think that that’s one way of really approaching this understanding of structural burnout instead of individual burnout.
Kate: Thank you. That’s super helpful. It’s – the war zone analogy can feel like a little extreme. But also think about the context in which you’ll have a larger percentage of people will just be stressed out and then burnout in that context, and think about how rapidly the pace of change has accelerated in our generation. Yeah. You named the Great Recession, which I yeah, graduated right at the start of that from college and before that too, 9/11, so formative for our generation, as like really feeling like the world is a war zone and the constant media feed of, you know, war on terror, war on drugs, war on poverty. We’re in a war-declaring culture that gives us a kind of baseline of stress.
Anne Helen: I think it’s also, it’s different than, people often compare what millennials or people living right now are going through with like, oh, what did the greatest generation have to go through? Like, my granddad lived through the Depression and then served in World War II, and you’re like, how can you compare what you’re doing to that? There’s actually really real differences. Granted, I am not experiencing, like abject poverty. Neither did my granddad, but like some people during the Depression experienced that. But also, during wartime, there was incredible loss, but there was incredible solidarity. There was a feeling of like, this is a sacrifice that we are making as a nation, as a community, as a family. And there is a tragedy and there is deprivation. But it is for something. There is a catharsis. There was a catharsis at the end of a war. We are just slogging along. And again, I don’t think that comparison is actually productive in this case, but I think that it’s just a different understanding of what that feeling can feel like.
Rose: I just want to say, I really appreciate that comparison because I hear it all the time. I also hear like the sixties, I was a child in the sixties. Anyway, the sixties like, okay, well we went through that in the sixties, the race riots, Chicago was on fire, but today feels very different as to your point. Like there are so many. I mean, I think today when we look at what’s happening with racism in America, we think, wait a minute, we’re back to the sixties. We fought this and now we’re fighting it in a new generation. So I think that, that also has people give in to sort of despair, like how, how do we, if we just keep fighting this over and over and then ten, 20 years later, 30 years later, we’re back to square one. So.
Anne Helen: Yeah, I think that that’s so true because the comparisons to the 1960s, in fact, they’re absolutely apt. And also I think the feeling of some like the bottom kind of giving way after a period of financial stability for white people. That also is a similar comparison. I don’t think that democracy was under threat in the same way that it is now. And I think that you’re right that there is this feeling of repeating history that is very depressing. Right. There’s the the Martin Luther King quote that that President Obama used to bring out a lot about the arc of history bends towards justice. Right. And it doesn’t feel like that right now. It feels like we’re re-waging the same fights on access to the polls, on marital rights, on women’s rights, that, like we fought before. And so if you are a person, if you’re a person my age, and you talk to people who are older and especially the older feminists in my life, like how are we doing this again? And that can feel demoralizing and unmotivating. And I think that that like this is that’s slightly different than like how people experience their work lives. But again, it’s the backdrop against which all of this stuff is happening.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah, I think what’s striking, I think about the 1960s and Robert Putnam’s work, who wrote Bowling Alone and more recently and another one I’m not going to remember the name of–yes –He, he talks about like the social cohesion that was so strong in the fifties and sixties. And to your point, also, of, you know, the greatest generation and the social cohesion they had, all the bonds both tight and loose. And I think part of, to pivot us to the clergy topic a little bit, part of the role the church played in those eras was as a place where you would humanize the other side, in many ways. So if you had political disagreements, like, oh, yeah, but also I kind of get why Ralph thinks that way, because I know him, because we’ve gone to church together for 15 years. It was a place where you could come together across something that was bigger than any one of your identities, except for racial, always been the most segregated hour in America, on Sunday mornings, right?
Anne Helen: No. And I think that’s so true, because even if you look at the polarization numbers right there, incredibly stunning stats about the fact that Democrats went to church at higher rates than Republicans in the 1960s and seventies. Right. And also, there wasn’t the same sort of polarization as in like, oh, the Episcopalians are pretty liberal. Right? And like all of the Baptist, like, you know what I mean? Like there wasn’t that same sort of denominational polarization that I think we see developing more and more. And a lot of that has to do with decisions that different denominations have made about who can be clergy and that sort of thing. But I also think like if you went to church and half of your congregation was Republican and half was Democrat, you were going to have those sorts of conversations on a regular basis. And the other important thing to note is that, what we think of now is Republicans and Democrats, that distance was not as far even on things like reproductive rights. Right? Like reproductive rights did not become a wedge issue within the Republican Party, within the parties at large until the 1980s. So a very different experience.
Kate: Yeah, it’s it’s been a, it’s interesting. I haven’t put together the political polarization of the denominational polarization, that as the parties have decided, oh, that’s really like let people know the issues that they are for and against by being a foe of the party which has polarized them, I haven’t correlated that to like of course then our denominations and choosing their leadership and choosing their stances on the same issues are feeling those tensions. And I think COVID accelerated a lot of that around mask mandates, mask requirements in services, vaccine requirements in services. There was no longer a way that clergy could walk that varnishing thin line. Yeah, they had to have the argument with that. They knew that any decision that they made or not making that decision, was all going to alienate some contingent of their congregation.
Anne Helen: Yeah. Yeah. And like, I mean, this is, this is fast forwarding us a little bit, but most clergy aren’t trained on how to be public health communication officers. Right. And that contemporary clergy member is essentially performing ten, 12 different jobs, some of them very basic, like janitor or tech master and some of them very sophisticated, like, how do I grapple with misinformation spreading on Facebook within my community?
Kate: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I definitely didn’t get the health communications class as part of my… I could’ve used it.
Rose: Seminary now needs to offer comms classes for pastors
Anne Helen: 100%.
Rose: Right. How do you communicate these things?
Anne Helen: Well, this is something like I think about in higher ed generally. Is that like my Ph.D., there was a couple classes on how to be a better teacher, like pedagogy classes, very, very secondary. There was nothing on like, how do I write for a public audience? How do I pivot away from, you know, if we have dwindling numbers of PhD jobs, how do I figure out, you know, where, where are places that I can take my knowledge and use it? And that’s happened in some ways, right? Like the the way that the educational system for our humanities, PhD is pivoting to try to accommodate the changes in in field, and I think seminary absolutely needs to do so as well. But that’s hard because I think some people think that it, it degrades the purity of like the theological study that you’re talking about how to do comms. But it’s, it’s part of the job its part of the job.
Rose: Think that’s it’s a huge part actually. It really is. Yeah yeah.
Kate: Yeah. I really like the only class we get in communications is Homiletics. It’s how we preach. But there’s so many more communications that need to happen throughout a week. And of course, our congregations are misinformed around what the pastor’s job is – a lot of congregants think your job is to write that one sermon, and that’s all you do 40 hours a week, which is far from the truth, right? Yeah. Yeah. There there’s so much loyalty to the academic structures as they have been and the ordination structures as they have been. It’s not just seminaries. It’s also churches need to reevaluate what constitutes credentialed leadership. Yes. And maybe that’s a three year full time master’s degree, but maybe it’s also– you’ve been a faithful volunteer in volunteer lay leadership positions for a decade, and that equates something of community’s trust in you and your ability too.
Rose: Yeah, it seems like we’re living in a time where we have to re-imagine competencies for clergy because it’s so changing. I mean, it’s been changing. I think since the 1960s, really, at least in the church in America. And I think these last five years have exacerbated the change. Like it’s sped it up probably 25 years. So I think we have to reimagine what are the competencies that clergy need to have a sustainable life leading a congregation?
Anne Helen: Yeah, especially given the amount of debt that so many clergy people take on. And that was the through line when I spoke to clergy members about what is burning them out right? Like the fundamental things that they worry about on a daily basis. A lot of the things are things that you would expect, like they are just like stretched to the limit in terms of what is asked of them, in terms of emotional support, in terms of, you know, playing all these different roles. But so many of them just have this specter of massive debt hanging over them, too. That feels inescapable. And that they’ll never pay back, right? That they might be eligible for public loan service, public service, loan forgiveness. But, you know, years.
Kate: Yeah, the student debt feels both true of millennials in general, but maybe, maybe what’s distinct in clergy is you have such a low return on investment for a master’s degree, especially that is such low paying jobs. What are, what are some other factors that you see contributing to clergy burnout that you’re saying that, many different fields, because your conversation on burnout is so broad, so broad, some of different fields of professionals will talk to you. What other pieces make clergy distinct from those other fields?
Anne Helen: I think the huge one is that idea of vocation. And if anything, it’s actually the easiest to talk about. That’s when we talk about the church because like you actually use the language of a calling in many different denominations, right? Like you use that. I am called to serve language and other fields, what I call passion jobs, what people call passion jobs, have similar understandings of why you do the work. Anyone who works in nonprofit, right? People who are teachers, people who do these jobs that you do because you love it. Right. You feel there’s nothing else that you can imagine yourself doing except for this work. And when you do this work and you find yourself beaten down by it. Right. And, and on this path to burnout or arrived at burnout and you feel like you are failing yourself, right? You’re failing your passion. And the extra addition when you’re doing clergy work is you’re also failing God. Right. That is an incredible moral weight to bear, that feeling of failing yourself, your congregants, and also the higher power that really makes you feel like you are worthy as a person. So all of those things combined together and then also the debt and then also the difficulties of like dealing with polarization within the congregation. And I just think that it’s amplified in ways that even people in nonprofits, even people who are teachers, can’t really completely understand.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah. And as you, as you differentiate calling and passion and feeling like, oh yeah passion is internally motivated, calling is externally motivated. And so you have that added guilt layer. And also like I think my friends who are teachers, like they have hard days feel like, but as reminds us, oh boy I love this, I love this work, so important. And I think clergy have hard days and because that external locus of where we locate that call versus passion, like it’s so much harder to say, oh but I’m committed to this, and instead the language turns to I need to sacrifice because God wants me to do this, which is also, you know, you can build a very easily theology around that from Jesus sacrificed.
Anne Helen: Like martyr syndrome, right? Like I think that there are a lot of clergy who martyr themselves. And I would say that this is also true in, in education and nonprofit work. A lot of times, as well. The God in those cases, sometimes it’s a you know, a lot of his work is religiously affiliated, but sometimes the God is like I am serving these children, and I need to martyr myself to serve these children. Right. Or I need to martyr myself to serve the infirmed or the suffering in some way. But the problem is that, like when you are martyring yourself, when you are suffering so intensely, you can’t do your job well, right? Like you can’t actually serve in the way that I think in in clergy’s case especially, the way that God intended you to serve.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah. We don’t all resurrect on the same timeline Jesus did and we don’t all need to go to the cross, someone already does that for us. But yeah it’s, it’s interesting.
Rose: Like what we’ve already talked about in the church, the systems are set for pastors to be martyrs. Like, like we already just talked about, like you have 12 to 16 jobs, full-time jobs, but you’re getting paid for this, hardly what you’re worth for this, because yeah, all of it. And so I think that whole martyr and sacrificial, like the weight, the weight, I have to do this and I have to do this well because lives… it’s like I’m responsible for these lives, like spiritually. I mean, that’s what I think a lot of clergy take on. So they won’t rest, they just feel overly responsible.
Anne Helen: But the other thing, too, I like to put myself in a, in a theological framework is like you are, that’s like incredibly hubristic, right, to think that you are responsible solely for this life, right? That like that God doesn’t have agency. And also putting other people in these people’s lives, too, you know what I mean? Like that that I think, and it’s very familiar to me too. I’m like, I have to do this. But there are other people.
Rose: In a theological frame, part of what I what you pointed to is like, this idea of Sabbath in in, you know, where I mean, the idea is you take this time off because you trust that the world will keep going without you. Right? Like you’re, you’re breaking from having that over like, it isn’t on my shoulders. There is this higher power that is carrying things through. But so many clergy that I know don’t, they just get caught up in the grind and forget about that.
Kate: When there’s a “I have to be God to this person” versus, kind of what I heard you say Anne, a minute ago is– there’s other people. like viewing the pastor’s role as helping people be God to each other. It’s a very different location that can actually allow for difference as well as for some more space for the pastor to not, not be the sole bringer of justice and grace and decisions, but to give that people back – give that work back to the people.
Anne Helen: And I think that’s where a lot of clergy suffer, is that people in the congregation don’t know how to be that for one another. They have lost that skill and so they really depend on these, yeah, How do I describe these – one directional? You know, like it’s like, okay, let’s say you have a congregation of 50 people. All 50 of those people are relying on this one relationship with the pastor, instead of– the pastor is here as like a unifying force and we are relying on each other and we have the energy of 50 people to take care of one another. But because of those divisions, because of that animosity, because of, you know, the good old-fashioned, like I just don’t like that person, I think they’re annoying –they’re not providing that care.
Rose: I would also say to your point of rapid growth capitalism has leaked into the church in America. So we got all about our church growth and numbers. And so we’ve created a consumeristic culture within our congregations that look to the paid staff should do all this. I just come and show up, and receive the services so.
Anne Helen: Yup. And also that you are beholden in some way to the people who are your top donors, right?
Rose: Yes, oh my goodness, yes.
Anne Helen: Horrible
Rose: No, it’s the worst. Oh, my goodness, no. Yeah.
Anne Helen: And I understand absolutely why clergy feel like they have to be careful not to alienate those people. It’s the livelihood of the church. But at the same time, it is incredibly counter to the entire message and understanding of how the church should work. Right.
Kate: And in your example, the church of 50 people I look at, I’m a congregant there. I have these 49 other people who love and support me. I mean, maybe if we, if you remove the I just don’t like that person factor, like 45 people who love and support me and that doesn’t scale. If I go to a church of 30,000 people, I don’t have 30,000 people who love and care for me. I’m lucky if I can find ten in a church that size. So actually, as the congregation scales, my community within it shrinks, and that, I haven’t – the rapid growthness of that, like there’s there’s some benefit of like, yeah, you can hire a really amazing rock star preacher and get really incredible teaching on your Sunday mornings every week when you pool your resources that way. But you, you trade out that, that sense of connection, and yeah, like who will bring you meals when you get sick, who will drop off groceries when you have COVID and are isolating, like that doesn’t it’s so much harder to cultivate that in a church that’s functionally a city.
Anne Helen: And I do think, you know, I’ve seen it work fairly well in some of those larger churches that use small groups. Right. Like as those kind of like smaller understandings of the church and really the people leading those small groups are like lay pastors, right? Like for better and for worse in ways that I think sometimes can lead to a lot of tension and problems, but then sometimes can take a load off of the larger pastors. But the other I think that you’re right that this the understanding of what the church can be often goes back just smacks into how we think all entities in American culture should be, which is growing all the time instead of maintaining a baseline of engagement and care, like what can we do? It can’t be everything to everyone. So what are the limits of what we can do?
Rose: I was in a denomination for many years that really was adhered to the church growth movement of the early eighties, and we used to always hear messages, “healthy things grow”. And it was just when they thought, Well, that’s not always true. I mean, somebody with a tumor in their brain and that grows is not a good thing, you know, like it’s not always the best. It’s the way in which we grow, right? So yeah.
Anne Helen: Yeah, yeah. Actually, I love the tumor example because a lot of really toxic things grow very fast and then they explode, right? Or implode. So it is not necessarily a model that that’s the church needs.
Kate: I’m also thinking of your comment of I mean that engagement and care and like the yeah and those are so hard to measure like we we have no metric for measuring care in a church which would be what would be the real metric of health.
Anne Helen: Yeah.
Rose: That would be a great metric. Yes.
Anne Helen: And I think you actually, you could poll for that. And there are questions that I think I’ve actually seen it done, deployed in businesses, and in organizations to think about things like how is working from home affecting organizations. So they say, ask questions like to ascertain a sense of belonging, a sense of alienation, sense of “I feel like you can speak up in meetings”, feel like your voice is being heard, those sorts of things. And I think that that, I think those are worthy questions of figuring out how to ask of your own church and if the numbers are low.
Anne Helen: What do we do?
Kate: And yes, worthy questions, would be so important to develop that metric for a different kind of congressional evaluation, and even sending out a poll, so much more work than just counting heads in pews on a Sunday morning.
Anne Helen: Yes, 100%.
Rose: No, I, I’m I’m hoping we get into that.
Kate: I was going to pivot there but I didn’t want to jump if you wanted to say more.
Rose: Yeah. No, no, that’s awesome.
Kate: Yeah. So you’ve written about the shifting role of women in society and especially unruly women, which I love. I love that characterization that pushing against rules, unruly women who are changing what’s acceptable for women in society. And I think, even doing that work highlights that, we do have different standards for what’s acceptable for women and what’s acceptable for men. And I want to narrow some of that to, in leadership, that our standards for women who lead are differently defined, different constraints than for male leaders. And I wanted to invite you to speak of some of the challenges that might be particular to women leaders, with an eye on how those might contribute to burnout?
Anne Helen: Oh, well, I think you see this in a lot of fields. My primary experience with this is really, you know, as a professor, as a teacher, there is an understanding with women in those fields that they be accessible at all times, that their demeanor be incredibly warm, nurturing, mothering. And if they’re not those things, they’re bad at their jobs. Right? For even a moment, they’re bad at their jobs. If they try to draw a boundary around themselves, if they try to behave in a way that is more associated with a masculine style of leadership, right. If they’re abrupt, if they are declarative even, that it’s not that they’re like, oh, that’s she’s acting like a male leader. It’s more– she’s a B-word. I won’t say the word, but like that she is that right. And that by extension, she is bad at her job. And I think that we see this, in leadership, in businesses, in organizations where it’s like that person is pushy, that person is disrespectful, even if they are modeling behaviors that are valorized in male leaders. And sometimes I just think it takes time. Like you need to be around a lot of women leaders in order to figure out how like the norms, right? This is what leadership can look like in all these different forms. I also think that there’s nothing great about acting like a male leader either. Right. Like it shouldn’t be on women to try to just like – how can we figure out how to act like male leaders and people not get mad at us – like that’s not great either. A lot of male leadership characteristics are pretty toxic and bad. So, it’s more reinventing the category and not limiting people by their gender in the way that they behave, like. Are they a good leader as a leader? Not –are they a good male leader? Are they a good non-binary leader? Are they a good female leader?
Kate: I feel I should preface that I’ve been super blessed, and I think this is a gift to the millennial generation that we do have some women leader models ahead of us that are available for mentorship and learning. So Rose taught my leadership class. Archbishop Melissa Skelton was a mentor to me. Like I’ve gotten to learn and study under these really incredible women leaders and that I think that what feels not even stressful but an added layer of work that is very invisible, is you’re not trying to do the male leadership thing because you’ll just get kicked for that like you already talked about; you don’t want to the reaction formation where, well, because I don’t want to be declarative, I’m just going to be super diffuse and okay with everything and accommodating –because that is ungenerous to the people in your care who will, you know, a power vacuum will be filled and then your congregants will be susceptible to that person. But that to find the what, what is the way of leading that doesn’t rely on, yeah, some of those more toxic male traits, I also want to say, penetrative leadership, very top-down authority, what I say goes but to even form an imagination for what that leadership looks like and then to live into it and to pull your followers along enough that they can see what you’re doing as leadership and not just as
Anne Helen: Yeah.
Kate: …some weird, confusing behavior that our new pastor does. All of that work is super invisible and necessary for our culture to get to a different type of leadership. And I don’t have a question here. I then just to say, like, it’s a little bit crazy-making about a major foundational piece of your work being so invisible.
Anne Helen: Yeah. And I think sometimes the way to make it visible as work, which is work itself, is to be transparent about it. Right? If there’s a way that you can explain, like, hey, this is what I’ve experienced, this is what a lot of women clergy experience, like educate without being didactic, your congregation on why this is hard. Why this is something that you’re you’re doing in a really mindful way. And like, here’s one way we’re going to experiment with that. Let’s see how we feel about it. Right? Like I think letting, de-centering that, letting the congregation, letting in the people that you’re leading in on that process and that work is a great way to get them on board.
Rose: Right. I think it’s interesting because in the mid-nineties when I was ordained and came into being clergy, I didn’t, people back then, like there wasn’t the internet and stuff. I mean, like people were recording sermons on cassettes. So like it wasn’t public. I searched for women preachers that I could find a preaching voice that wasn’t male. And I ended up buying every book that Barbara Brown Taylor wrote because she had her sermons published. That was the first woman that I saw a woman’s voice preaching in a way, and it was beautiful. And so I think back in those days or even like second wave feminism, all the pioneering is the first women. The first women, the first women and all these things. I think we’re in a different place now completely. And but there’s still there’s still that sense I see in some of the denominations I travel in that women are polarizing just because of who they are. That is so yeah, it’s very interesting to me because I think there’s way more women coming into clergy leadership and some things have moved and change, but other things are still hard and so to your point of de-centering, explaining, modeling, sometimes I wonder, like, I mean, I’ve been literally told, why do you have to talk about it so much? Why don’t you just model it like, please stop talking about it. And so which I get like of course there’s a place for modeling. Of course, you know, I’ve had women say I didn’t even have an imagination to be a lead pastor until I met you and saw your work. So, yes, but I also think back to like women’s rights to vote like there was all these women that were doing the work. And then we Lucy Paul and Alice Burton. They come around and agitate the system. Like there’s moments that I think we we have those moments discerning when is it time to agitate a system? So I would really love to hear you talk about that. Oh.
Anne Helen: Well, I think that I mean, part of as to what your comment made me think of is there’s this understanding of like, oh, we elected Barack Obama. Like there’s no racism anymore. Yes. Like this post racist understanding, which has obviously been proven to be false. But you also see this with what’s called post-feminism, which is like, women can be clergy in this case, in this example, women can be clergy. There’s obviously no gender discrimination anymore, which is incredibly false. So how do you make those assumptions– that a lot of people hold without even knowing that they hold it– visible in a way that is not alienating, but then also, what is the value of alienation? How can you create a congregation, a group of people that you were leading, who is resilient and graceful in their ability to be alienated, to feel like, Oh, I’m mad right now, you’re making me feel uncomfortable, and then come back to like do that work of learning. And I just I have so many memories of like listening to a sermon and listening to something that like some part of Jesus’s message. And it’s like, that’s alienating. I don’t want to hear that. Like, this makes me mad. And then you think about it, right? Like, you have to, like, sit with it and you’re like, okay, here’s how I’m learning from it. Like, this is something that is modeled so clearly from Jesus’s teachings, and I think there is a way to connect the dots.
Kate: And so the way I define spiritual maturity – I should back up–I view a pastor’s role, primarily as to develop the spiritual maturity of their congregation. I define spiritual maturity as that ability, ability to tolerate discomfort, uncertainty, ambiguity, and exactly that that you’re talking about. They’re actually alienating people on the arc of “Can you stay? Can you stay in conversation? Can you return, can you repent?” You know, and then return becomes “Can you stay with the discomfort long enough for us to stay in relationship?” is actually the work that could be happening–happens in many churches and that’s not the loudest conversation around what happens in churches these days.To your point in making it explicit– like that would change the conversation of what does it mean to have that feeling? Because I think so often when we have that feeling, we think, oh, I better, I don’t belong here. I better leave – rather than saying, “Oh, something’s happening I need to go sit with it.” We’re very bad at sitting culturally.
Anne Helen: Well, but I think sometimes too, and I’ve experienced this myself, it depends on what direction the advice is going, right? The calling, you know, like there were some churches that I went to after I graduated from college that were much more conservative than what I grew up in and what I believe. And those churches were saying women need to be smaller. Right? Like women need to submit, women need to get out of the way. And also a lot of different very conservative messages about other things. Right. And that, like there’s a way that you could take that message. You would be like, you need to sit with that, right? Like God is asking you to sit with this calling for you to be smaller. And so that’s where I struggle sometimes, right? Because I think that there are messages that can also be bent that are saying you need to, you need to, think, you need to close your understanding, you need to be less graceful instead of you need to be more graceful in your understanding of others.
Kate: I like that you keep coming back to the word grace. And yeah, that really is the telos, that’s the end point of, is this leading me more towards receiving and giving grace or away from it? Rose, do you want to?
Rose: It’s interesting, this is maybe a little off-topic, but just in some of the women clergy that I work with, I, I think about – Anne, I heard you talk about in your own burnout, how you got to the point of task paralysis, couldn’t make decisions, lots of crying. And when I heard you talking about that, I mean, that has been many women’s experiences when they have just had to fight so hard til they get to the point where they’re just paralyzed. They can’t make a decision anymore. They second guess every decision they’ve made and started obsessing about, you know. So I don’t know. I just was kind of tying it back to the clergy burnout especially. I mean, it happens in men and women, but I do think women have to work really hard in the church.
Anne Helen: Yeah, I think that that it’s like a destabilization of confidence, right. That you just everything is shaken. You don’t have the energy to feel confident in your decisions. The other thing that I know that I point to is that a lot of times not always, but many women don’t have the same sort of familial help as male pastors do. And so, you know, a lot of the work of pastoring as a man is done by a man’s wife. And that is visible but invisible. And, yeah, a lot of clergy women are married, to women, to men. But don’t those spouses don’t necessarily take on the same role and that expectation as the traditional heterosexual male pastor and female kind of social manager.
Kate: The role of pastor’s wife is a real role. And sometimes– I wasn’t aware of this until adulthood –some congregations, there’s even training programs for pastor’s wives, which is both like, you know, the logistics of the social management pieces, as well as the very, like, concrete how do you set a table for a proper afternoon tea? Because these are things pastor’s wives are supposed to know. And there’s also too the added burden of women clergy is when you’re, when the pastor’s spouse is a man and– or even just when your pastor’s spouse for any sex is someone who doesn’t want that role has no interest in that role or is going through their own period of doubt and differentiation from the church. Like there can be so much resentment in congregations that have historically anticipated that they’re hiring the couple or hiring the family. And then it becomes an added responsibility of the pastor to hold that boundary on behalf of her partner.
Anne Helen: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Rose: I have also seen for women who are the clergy and their male spouse is not –I mean, in my own life, 24 years ago when I had a baby, my husband, I would go to the pastor’s senior pastor meeting. He would take the baby in the little carrier and go to the pastors’ wives things and people. I mean, that made people in our denomination angry, really. Like they– it was not looked upon as –like it just felt so –I mean, so many times where he would do the thing that men are not supposed to do. Right. The male spouse, like I could just –you could just feel it. You could see it on people’s faces. Like, somehow we are a polarizing couple because we live this way. It’s very interesting.
Anne Helen: Even though, you know, now I think you would get, oh, what a great partner he is, you know, even though he’s doing the same work that all of the other spouses are doing.
Kate: The special cookies for doing the bare minimum.
Rose: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Kate: Well, so I always like to wind down our conversation by making the topic super practical, especially when talking about systems and cultures, these are huge changes. It can feel hard as an individual to know where to step in or what to intervene. And so I wanted to ask you, and maybe this is a two part question. What you would hope to see changed for clergy to thrive and maybe that’s at a like big culture or denominational level, maybe it’s a small congregant, personal familial level. But what are changes that you would hope for clergy, hope people take from this conversation?
Anne Helen: I think at the structural level, this is the same advice that I actually just recently gave to librarians. You have to rethink the accreditation process and what it costs and the debt that people take on. It is. The old model was based on a different understanding of educational costs and also how churches could support people through those educational costs. Doesn’t work anymore. Right. Like you can– it is indentured servitude to have people graduating with the amount of debt that they’re graduating with, which is oftentimes in the triple figures. And many times congregants have no idea that their leaders have debt in the triple figures because it’s undergrad debt plus seminary debt. Right. And so how do we, if we want to still have what we used to call a learned clergy, a clergy that goes through seminary, how do we fund that? How do we reimagine it? And then the second, like the smaller thing, I think, is that for denominations, if you’re within a denomination, you have to think like, okay, how are we providing health insurance? If we can’t? How are we subsidizing if someone is on the ACA, how are we thinking about subsidizing that? How are we thinking about providing dental care? How are we making serving as a clergy member a good job? Not the most amazing job, right? Like not that I like the sickest benefit package. But like there has to be some stability and safety net there for our pastors and how do we make that happen? And on the smaller level, if that’s not happening on a denominational level, I think leaders in a church, anyone who feels like, has the intimacy and trust of a clergy member, should really have a sit down to be like, what are the things? What are the vulnerabilities right now? What are you– like what are you sleepless about? Personally, I think that’s an important one. It’s like I we can’t afford braces for my kid and I don’t know what we’re going to do. And then also structurally, like, what are the things about the church that we need to to pray about and then also figure out a plan to spread that worry and that fear over more people and over the congregation. Here’s what we’re, here’s what we’re working on. And I think that that sort of vulnerability goes a long way. But pastors themselves need to learn how to ask for help and receive it. And leadership and congregants need to learn how to –they spend a lot of time asking for help. How do they how do they figure out different ways, nontraditional ways of offering it?
Rose: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
Kate: Those are good words. I want to circle back to the health care piece. I’ve always been in denominations that do offer some benefits. And so I just learned recently that religious leaders, because of the way our government structures and policies work –those organizations are exempt from having to follow the federal baseline requirements for medical leave, family leave, like you don’t have access to those federal protections as a clergy person. And I had no idea. And so I imagine there are plenty of congregants whose pastors have needed those services even, and haven’t been able to get the time off because their denomination hasn’t matched their policies to the federal standards. And it was a question I didn’t even know to ask until recently. So I appreciate you highlighting those benefits pieces.
Anne Helen: Yeah, I think sometimes the understanding of clergy as a calling, as a passion job can eclipse the very real and practical understanding of it as a job. And it can be a bad job and it can be a good job. So how do we make it into a good job?
Kate: Mm hmm. Thank you.
Rose: I like that question.
Kate: Yeah. Make it a good job. Yeah. I also am definitely taking to heart your what are our requirements for ordination? And, you know, as part of a larger school that does confer degrees, yeah, it’s a real conversation and a heated one. And I think it’s really important for our time and especially for rebuilding some of those social, social fabric, social connections that we talked about earlier. Yeah, my ending question is always –just want to end with gratitude, like your time is valuable and we’re so grateful that you chose to spend this hour with us.
Rose: Yes. Yes. Thank you.
Kate: And so we want to do something to honor that. And wanted to end with giving you a chance to speak to an organization that you see who’s doing good work in the world and work for common good, higher good. Both. Either. We will make a small donation to them and we also encourage our listeners to donate as well, or to go check them out and find other ways that you can connect or support. So, Anne, what’s an organization that you see doing good work?
Anne Helen: So I’ve been thinking about this for the last couple of days and the answer I have is, is not pointed. It’s I think you should find the Mutual Aid Association in your neighborhood or in your your city. And almost every mid-sized city or larger has organizations that are doing this work. You just Google Mutual Aid plus your city’s name. And the thing that I really appreciate about mutual aid is that in many ways, they function as the church has functioned. Right? But they are for all people, regardless of their current religious beliefs. And, and what I love about them is the way in which they trust. They instill trust. They say if you say you have a need, you have a need. We’re not going to vet you. We’re not going to make you jump through hoops. We’re not going to and like, you know, it’s not, there aren’t, like, levels of need that you have to, like, certify or any of these things. You give freely and receive, you know, as needed. And to me, that actually really reminds me of how God is, right. Like you don’t have to prove yourself. And so I encourage people to find those organizations. And also if, if you want an organization to be a part of, they always need help, especially a lot of them have, like, public fridges and stuff that they are collaborating with and that is an incredible resource for many in the community.
Kate: So good. I love the local nature that you picked– find the one in your own neighborhood. We will be making a donation to mutual aid here in Seattle. I just want to tie back and say thank you for choosing the organization that you see as doing such God-related work. Because even as you were saying that giving freely, I’m like, Oh, that’s grace. That’s, that’s how we talk about grace. So go give some grace and participate in some grace with mutual aid, wherever you are. Thank you, Anne Helen Peterson, we will link to all of your ways to follow you in the show notes. Anything that you want to leave our listeners with as a final word?
Anne Helen: And I just think, like, you’re not alone. Like, I think that this is something that so many people are struggling with in different forms, even if they haven’t named it. And so thinking about it as a structural problem where they create solidarity and I hope we can have more of that.
Rose: Yeah. Thank you.
Kate: Thank you.
Anne Helen: Yeah.