Pastoral Burnout

It’s been a rough go the past couple of years, for a lot of us.

Our nation’s anxiety is at an all-time high because the world and the economy are limping along. Even the weather, just about everywhere, is making us grouchy, pushing us to limits we didn’t we had.

In the church, budgets are being cut, dire reports are coming in about shrinking numbers in the mainlines, and many denominations are in the throes of debates around changing worship, sexuality, and issues of church authority. It’s as if pastors are eternally, nightmarishly caught in that children’s game “The Farmer in the Dell” and we’re the cheese, standing alone. How did we get here?

We know what we need to do. We need to find other colleagues who support us, we need to eat right and exercise, we need to stay in touch with family and friends, we may even need to find a therapist or spiritual director, we need to separate our role as pastor from that as a human being. We need to have fun. But, it feels as if some days, all these things we need to do are one more burden upon us, one more ‘should’ that only makes us feel guilty and overwhelmed.

And then, to beat all, we, as preachers, have this string of Matthew texts which makes our exegetical hair curl, and we haven’t even gotten to the ‘thrown into outer darkness where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth’ texts yet. Boy oh. As lovely as the gospel of Matthew is, it feels like it’s the gospel that tells you if you keep making those faces, your face will stick that way, and you’re not sure if that’s true but you do start to worry a bit.

So, what are we doing here? Does preaching even matter anymore? Many experts claim it does not. And yet, yet…isn’t it central to who we are that the Word of God and the sacraments are efficacious? Doesn’t the Word work upon us through the Holy Spirit (usually taking its own sweet time)? Do any of us ever really know the difference we make in this lifetime?

It seems that all we can do, all we can have control over, all that is within our tiny realms is to lean into promise. It’s funny; we never question that God’s promises are working in baptism or Holy Communion, but we doubt all the time that God might be working in our words. Sure, the baptismal font is a relic, the bowl hardly large enough to baptize a hamster, or there’s a leak in the pipe beneath the font. Sure, the wine we use for the table comes to us in gallon jugs with screw-on caps or maybe we use wafers, which stick to the roof of parishioner’s mouths like a piece of Styrofoam.

Yet somehow, we never doubt that God’s promises are working in such second-rate worship products. We trust God will show up in the sacraments, the ordinary (sometimes more ordinary than we’d like) bearing extraordinary promises. So, why do we doubt that God won’t attach the same promises to our words, even when WE are weary and hopeless and chubby?

Most days, all we can do is keep pulling at the plow. We do our best, we take time for Sabbath, and we keep preaching that God, in Christ, does indeed forgive sins and raise the dead. In fact, this is what God loves to do. And we confess that we are never quite up to this task, even at our best, when our hair looks good and our teeth are their whitest.

God will inhabit our words, even when we are feeling most alone, most like the cheese, most worn and forlorn. Even when only 10 people show up and you realize you’re the ringmaster in a sheep rodeo. God does many things well, one being keeping promises, and even though your words might not seem like enough, dear preacher, they are. Not because we think so, but because God said so. The first Word is also the last.