Posts Tagged ‘clergy burnout’

lost symbols

Landon Whitsitt, the Vice Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) used a great word to describe what I’m writing about today: kerfuffle. And I’m about to add to it!

The excitement is over some recent articles on clergy burnout in the New York Times (click here and here) and in the Huffington Post (click here.) Each article offers some insight into the problems of clergy and congregations falling short of their goals (and the gospel.)

I’m beginning to wonder if part of the problem is symbolism. Whether we care to admit it, symbols and the meanings we attach to them have a huge impact on our beliefs, opinions, and everyday activities.

I grew up with grandfatherly pastors who carried out their ministry in beautiful, historic buildings. Although I’ve had a variety of church experiences since my childhood, I have to admit that those symbols hold a lot of meaning for me. My thoughts of the kind silver-haired man and the musty old building evoke a feeling of being grounded and connected. Moreover, I grew up watching M*A*S*H (yes, that dates me) on TV, and enjoyed watching the meek and scrappy Father Mulcahy.

Anyone who has gone to church for several years has developed a relationship with symbols as well, even though some would ardently deny it. Churchgoers have fond or painful memories that become entrenched in their minds: memories of pastors, places, songs, and experiences.

Unfortunately, some of the symbols we hold on to so tightly are incomplete, or even obsolete. Yet we still hold on to them, thinking that if we can just find a person or place that fulfills the symbol, God will smile on us and things will be great.

One of the symbols most appealing to mainline Protestants is that of the young male pastor with a pretty wife and smiling children. I can understand why this symbol is so powerful. After all, a beautiful family greeting people outside the church after Sunday worship sort of looks like a Nativity scene, and who doesn’t like Christmas? Maybe that’s why I have fond memories of the older pastor: he looked like a Santa decoration we had at home.

The problem is that God calls people, not scenery or statues or stereotypes. And the essence of God is deeper than the trappings we assign to it. All people of faith burn out, or just slowly simmer into nothingness, when the scenery becomes the main object of worship. When clergy have trouble breaking out of their role as props, they are bound to feel worn down. When congregations can’t see past the decorations, they are bound to become petty and lacking in purpose.

How do we fix this problem? Some denominations have a tradition of assigning pastors to churches instead of allowing the churches to choose, but I’ve even heard of churches seething and waiting until they get assigned a “real” pastor who fits the mold they want.

Maybe it’s as simple as choosing more meaningful symbols. How could Christians go wrong if we focused more on the cross, the cup, the bread, the empty tomb, and the flames of Pentecost? In trying to fit our faith into a box, we create our own coffin: in the ancient symbols of faith we may just find something that helps us break out into life.