Who cares for the shepherds? The secondary trauma of faith leaders must be addressed
I call a pastor friend to ask him for a favor, and we’re engaging in pleasantries.
“How are you?” I ask.
He pauses and then says, “I’m good. Well, yeah, I’m good.”
I pause. I have a decision to make. Do I stick with my mission and move on about my day? The truth is, I can’t.
So many times in the past few months, I’ve had this conversation — the pastor calling to ask for a mental health referral for a member, the executive minister calling to schedule a Zoom-based session on mental health during the pandemic, the clergy member arranging a panel on responding to race-based violence in the U.S.
The purpose of the conversation is service to the people we all care about, but when do faith leaders make time to attend to themselves?
“I don’t believe you,” I say to my friend. He just responds, “I know.”
“I’m here,” I say. “You know I’m here.” He replies to my invitation with three simple words: “It’s just everything!”
Immediately, I get it. He doesn’t need to explain. The past six months have been a whirlwind for all of us. In March, the arrival of a pandemic that stopped us in our tracks. What we thought would be a few weeks has turned into a half-year-long saga of reinventing the ministry wheel and responding to emotional, financial and programmatic needs.
In May and the months after, the ubiquitous reminders of the racialized violence that is embedded in the bones of this country, reinforcing how perilous the very concept of “safety” is. Add to that a contentious political battle in which it seems that we are fighting for our very souls. Ministering has never, ever been an easy job, but this year has made it even harder.
Ministry as a profession trains people to orient themselves outward and upward; less often are they encouraged to orient inward. For clergy, this season has been a call to action.
In heroic efforts for which they have not always gotten appropriate credit, clergy have worked to transition churches to online formats, shift their pastoral care strategies, manage financial concerns, and respond to the fears and anxiety of congregations who are wondering what to do in moments like these.
While the buildings have been closed, the phone calls and requests for help have not stopped. In fact, the work has somehow increased! Parishioners have needs, and they call clergy first.
Clergy have had front-row seats to the pain: the COVID-19 deaths, the isolation from family and friends, the despair about how long this period will last, the racial unrest and calls to protest, the mental health consequences that come along with this turmoil. They see and feel and hold it all.
Our trauma is their trauma, on top of their own. The simple definition of trauma I give to clients who have experienced it is this: something happened that shouldn’t have happened, or something didn’t happen that should have happened.
Isn’t that this year in a nutshell?
Secondary trauma is bearing witness to these happenings (and not-happenings) for others. For clergy, it’s bearing witness for lots of others — and in times like these, there is often a sense of hopelessness or powerlessness that simply overwhelms. Clergy are doing what they can, but many simultaneously have the sense that it is not enough.
As this internal and external war rages on, the things that can serve as little reminders that their labor is good and their efforts are appreciated have faded away: no hugs or high fives, fewer smiles from people who can see how hard they are working, no faces in the sanctuary reacting to the sermons, no real-time responses to the proverbial sermonic call.
A funeral, which at one time was a balm for collective grief, suddenly turns into a graveside service with many left watching at home. A wedding or baby dedication to celebrate the cyclical nature of life is either canceled or transformed into something nearly unrecognizable.
The anxiety and angst of this time in our collective history means that people need more. And clergy, being who they are, have responded.
But who takes care of the shepherds? While they have the responsibility of leading churches during these tumultuous times, they are still whole people with their own anxiety about COVID-19, maybe their own financial issues, their own angst about the state of the world. Still, their churches might be needing more and more.
It is a precarious place to be, and the reality is that when people are used to being in the role of caretaker, it can be hard for others to see them (and for them to see themselves) as needing love, care, support and encouragement. The shepherds need this care and support more than ever. Theirs can be a thankless job, and we are in a particularly unforgiving season.
Add to that the uncertainty. When will the church building open back up? When can we return to “normal” life? What’s our responsibility in response to social unrest? Where is God in all of this?
I imagine that some clergy are tackling another uncertainty in addition to this list: How can I go on like this?
I have said over these past few months that I firmly believe we are all doing the best we can. What is the best we can do in this moment? What is the best we can do for the shepherds?
One place we can start is simply giving clergy places to name their struggles. Many of us know the isolation that can come with this profession. What clergy need now, more than ever, is connection — even if that connection is not through the traditional methods. This can be personal and emotional, but it can also be professional.
Clergy can benefit from spaces to share best practices, technology hacks and helpful resources. They also need spaces to cry, scream and lament.
Now is the time for denominations to rethink and rework renewal leaves, sabbaticals and time away.
Now is the time for churches to evaluate their benefits packages to make sure they include comprehensive medical and mental health care, paid leave, and professional funds. For many churches, this means getting creative, collaborating with fellow churches and capitalizing on the strengths of the leaders in each congregation.
The clarion call of rising clergy burnout rates has been ringing for quite some time, and for us to be the church, we must equip the clergy. They have risen to the occasion, and now it’s our turn.
A part of this equipping work ideally happens before a crisis occurs. In most traditional seminary training, there is at least a cursory discussion of self-care as a part of pastoral care or some other foundational class. But what we are learning in this time is that ministry during a crisis requires something different as clergy attempt to care for congregations and to care for themselves.
Seminaries can be a part of the solution by helping seminarians build crisis-specific skills: collaboration, understanding and responding to personal needs, setting appropriate boundaries. The strategies might be similar to those of general self-care, but they are executed differently in times of crisis.
It will take all of us to come together and envision processes for being well and even thriving as these challenges continue.
My vocation is not at all what I would have answered had people asked the 12-year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Rather, my vocation is a lifelong journey that has been unfolding for longer than I can remember.
I identify as a clinical psychologist who stands at the intersection of faith and mental health. For me, this started as a teenager. I watched my father, a lifelong pastor, battle depression that seemed to be the result of doing the thing that he was undeniably called to do, something that he wholeheartedly loved.
At the time, we didn’t talk about what was going on with him or why. We all knew something was wrong. He took a sabbatical, went to therapy and seemed to recover, but no one ever sat me down and said, “This is depression that is the result of burnout.”
Perhaps even he could not articulate or understand how it was possible to be totally sure of your vocation (and he was) but still need to reckon with what seemed to be consequences of choosing that vocation. Perhaps what none of us could see in the moment is that God does not just call us to a vocational position.
God also calls us to a vocational process that allows us to bring the fullness of our personhood into the way that we do ministry.
When we focus only on position, allowing our jobs to rule us rather than integrating our jobs with the other pieces of our lives, we suffer, just as my dad did. Unfortunately, some of our doctrinal frameworks and theological arguments work against doing ministry from a whole-person perspective.
Parker Palmer, in “Let Your Life Speak,” writes:
“As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.”
Too often, we fall into this dangerous trap of believing that the position runs the show. There are templates for doing ministry that don’t account for the individualities of personality, mental health needs and the reality of time constraints.
Some of us have taken too literally the apostle Paul’s description of his ministry — “I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31 NASB) — and end up sacrificing ourselves for people Jesus already saved.
Maybe we do things the traditional way, the path of least resistance, rather than recognizing that changing times call for changing methods.
Thriving in ministry requires reflection, creativity and adaptability. It requires that we honor the wholeness of who we are by recognizing that our physical health, mental wellness, relational stability and vocational clarity all serve and support our call. When we over-attend to one element to the detriment of the others, it is difficult to thrive.
Valuing process over position means that being fully engaged in ministry does not require us to leave any part of ourselves out. God does not call us to neglect our physical health for the sake of being available whenever a parishioner calls. God does not call us to forsake family for the ecclesiastical commitment.
God is not interested in a hustle mentality that leaves no space for reflection or Sabbath.
Moreover, valuing process means reckoning with the realities of poverty, injustice, oppression and discrimination as they affect us as individuals and the communities we serve. This framework calls us to be whole, real people serving whole, real people and leading them to see and understand God in new and liberative ways.
Valuing process over position cannot be divorced from who we are as cultural beings. There is something in us, as Howard Thurman famously said, that “waits and listens for the sound of the genuine” in ourselves. It is easy to get distracted by things that are not really us — things that are external rather than internal.
“There is so much traffic going on in your minds,” Thurman said, “… and in the midst of all of this you have got to find out what your name is.”
What is your name? Who does God say you are? How is God calling you to serve?
To truly know our names, we must connect with God and God’s intentions for us. Even in the face of a hectic reality with multiple demands at play, we cannot do this work without Sabbath, reflection and restoration. We in ministry can no longer view these moments of reflection and restoration as expendable.
I urge clergy to rework and reframe this belief as an everyday practice. Reflection and restoration are not bonuses when we get a break; they are necessities for doing effective ministry.
This work demands that we make time to move toward balance — to evaluate and reevaluate our priorities and boundaries, and to take care of our emotional health. It is not a luxury; it is an act of stewardship that honors what God has given us.
When we truly connect with how God is calling us (not just where God is calling us), our sense of discernment about our yeses and our nos becomes clearer and our decisions easier to execute.
In this particular moment, when we are called to re-envision church and community in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand to get clear about God’s intentions for us becomes even more urgent.
As we seek to be the church and to be in community in the absence of proximity, we need to know both our personal gifts and the particular space God is calling us and our communities to fill in this new iteration of church.
More than ever, we must know our names. To know our names, the focus must be on the being — being with God, being with each other and being with ourselves. In our moments of stillness and reflection, God speaks and God directs.
A pastor confides his frustrations to me in my office — not about church drama or a capital campaign, but about the stress of being a bivocational minister.
He works a full-time job in information technology and must be on call a few nights a week in addition to the 40 hours he spends at the office. On Wednesdays, he often works 15 hours. He goes directly from work to church for Bible study, often finalizing his lesson plans while scarfing down his lunch at work. Saturdays are filled with meetings or various members’ events, and then he locks himself in his downstairs office to prepare the Sunday sermon. On Sundays, he gets up early, spends the morning at church and then tries to have an unhurried Sunday meal with his family before crashing on the couch. Too soon, it’s time to go to bed and start it all again.
He’s tired, and his family is as well. His wife has expressed that she’s not getting enough of his time or attention. His kids are complaining that he misses their sports games more than he makes them. He feels committed to his call, and he needs his job, but he can’t seem to figure out how to make everything fit.
This narrative is common in my conversations with clergy as a professor and counselor for ministers. We work hard to discern Niebuhr’s “providential call” — what specific work am I to do in the world? In 2019, this question is not easily answered.
Many seminaries train clergy for full-time ministry, often in a parish context. However, in reality, fewer and fewer clergy will end up with full-time ministry jobs. Bivocational ministry is becoming the norm rather than the exception. As we adjust to this new way of doing ministry, it’s helpful to frame the changing landscape as an opportunity rather than a tragedy.
A 2017 survey by The Association of Theological Schools revealed that about 30% of graduating seminarians anticipated bivocational ministry. When these numbers were broken down by race, people of color were much more likely to believe that this was their track: almost 60% of black seminarians and over 40% of Hispanic/Latinx seminarians noted preparing for bivocational ministry.
In denominations across the globe, attendance at traditional churches is declining, leaving them less able to pay ministers a living wage. To fill the gap, ministers are finding that they need to juggle their ministry work with other forms of employment.
The natural reaction is fear. But if we prepare for a future with more bivocational ministers, we can equip both ministers and congregations to thrive in it.
Bivocational ministry requires us to be open to the multiplicity of gifts in the body of Christ and the unlimited ways that God can call us to service. Some of us are called to do work in communities, in business and even in governmental agencies. Rather than thinking about a dichotomy of sacred and secular, we can focus on a simple assessment of whether we are living out our purpose and operating in ways that leave us feeling connected to God.
There is still the very real possibility that a second job feels disconnected from our calling but is necessary to pay the bills. In such cases, we can focus on what human resources professionals call “transferrable skills.” A minister with an accounting job might provide valuable insights in the area of church administration. An IT professional might help ensure that the church’s technology is effective and up to date.
Bivocational clergy must maximize efficiency by focusing their efforts on their particular areas of giftedness and seeking support for other tasks. This requires communicating clearly with ministry partners and managing the expectations of both minister and congregation. One pastor with a background in training and development engaged in intensive education of lay leaders to help manage the pastoral care needs of the congregation, including requests related to bereavement and pastoral visitation. Those leaders became so engaged during the process that a new ministry was formed.
Another major key to success in bivocational ministry is time management. There is no standard, one-size-fits-all strategy; each person must examine his or her life tasks and devise a plan for making things work. This might mean, for example, dedicating certain time blocks to ministry work. But it will definitely mean setting aside time to reflect, engage in self-care and be present with family to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
One minister told his church that he was not available for Saturday morning meetings because his son’s soccer games were at that time. Another blocked out Friday nights as nonnegotiable play/relaxation time, whether with friends or family or by herself. While this may take an adjustment, being upfront about unavailability helps all involved to set healthy expectations for each other.
Bivocational ministry requires both ministers and congregations to be flexible, to collaborate and use everyone’s skills to accomplish tasks. It also requires clear communication of expectations and time management.
I have often heard bivocational clergy wonder whether they misunderstood their call: “If I can’t find a full-time ministry placement, did I get it wrong?”
The answer is firmly no. Bivocational ministry is increasingly the norm, and while it is a challenge, it also presents an opportunity to understand God’s work in us in new and exciting ways.