The challenge of being a priest today
I was shown a blog recently entitled “Eight of the Most Significant Struggles Pastors Face” and it made me think about what I find challenging about being an Anglican priest, specifically, and a Christian leader in Canada, generally.
Thom, in his blog above, mentions the following as struggles pastors face:
Criticism and Blame,
Family Problems (expectations laid on clergy families and lack of time spent with families),
Sexual Problems (often pornography or marital unfaithfulness)
Time Management (unrealistic expectations placed on pastors)
In the lengthy comment section below his blog there are many other comments like a lack of close friends, loneliness, and seeing a lack of spiritual growth in the congregations they lead.
It inspired me to think about what I personally find so challenging about being a priest. When I hear older clergy talk about the church in the 50’s is sounds like a different world as far as the church is concerned. People went to church because nothing was open on Sunday and there was a certain expectation in the general public that you should go to church. Your motivations for going might not be to hear the Gospel, but it was at least a place to make friends with like-minded people (which often meant people who look like them and had the same ethnic heritage). There was a lot of respect and support for the church. Things have changed.
The church presently is not all that respected (sometimes even by the people who attend). I have been sworn at when wearing my collar in public (not at church) and I know a priest who has been spat on while wearing a collar. No doubt some clergy choose not to wear their collar in public for these kinds of reasons (some just think it is an outdated fashion). This is nowhere near the awful treatment Christians get in other countries, but there is no doubt that the public view of the church and clergy has become negative. Representations of Christians (and their leaders) on TV are becoming increasingly negative and show us to be out of touch with reality, foolish, or even dangerous. A former head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC, Michael Wakelin, commented that, “in 1986, religion was certainly more high-profile on TV…I’m afraid the media do tend to treat religion as a problem, and only as a problem. In some ways, [it is] like only covering football from the point of view of hooliganism and never actually showing the game being played” (Bailey 186, 189).
There are many more options on Sunday morning, plus life seems to have gotten busier (or at least more complicated), so people just tend to stay home (or take the kids to hockey practice). Not going to church is the norm now, so there is no longer much social pressure to attend. There are many other contributing factors such as cultural changes in attitudes to “Truth”, the growth of materialist assumptions (what you see is all that is), and hyper-individualism (which doesn’t really value community unless it serves the individual in specific ways). This means that we have been left with maintaining buildings that were built in the 50’s and 60’s that are designed to hold at least 2 or 3 times as many people as now attend (and those are the healthy ones). In many ways “fixing” the church to those who now attend (especially older members) means returning to “the good old days” when the church was full and providing the same programs that were provided then, but this is not realistic. The culture has changed and the church has not adapted to the new situation. There is real danger that there will be no Anglican Church in the not too distant future. The Church of Jesus Christ will always exist, but that doesn’t give a guarantee to the Anglican Church of Canada. The church will have to look different, but this attitude of nostalgia makes it very hard to make needed changes without numerous people being disturbed. This means stress for the pastor. The pastor has to choose between not changing and therefore consigning themselves to being chaplains on the Titanic, or being agents of change and facing criticism with no guarantee of success.
Lack of attendance has resulted in a lack of resources, which means lack of staff, and the lack of ability to care for our buildings. The demographic of the people who attend is mostly older retired people (at least in my denomination). This also means increased health problems and therefore increased pastoral demands, but the lack of resources has resulted in a lack of adequate pastoral staff. The structure of my denomination tends to be very “top heavy” and there is an expectation that the priest will do a lot of what the pastor in the 50’s did- including visiting every member and especially members who are ill. Even if other members of the church see and care for an ill person they will feel forgotten by “the church” if the priest hasn’t personally tended to them (The pastor is also supposed to be able to read minds and know when people want to be visited). The shift in demographics means that there is likely more demand for the pastor to tend to the sick than there was in the 50’s because a greater percentage of our church members are older and dealing with more health problems.
The cultural shift has been dramatic and there are increasing demands (because of consumerism) to entertain and create services that “feed me” (not exactly sure that’s why we are gathering. I thought it was to worship God). But, there are also expectations to be the priest from the 50’s and keep things the “way we do it”. What is likely needed at the moment are Christian leaders who are thinking about the church 50 years from now, but that means making choices because there are only so many hours in a day. It means sometimes choosing visioning and reading and praying and evangelism over some of the other tasks a priest is expected to do. Some expectations will not be met. When expectations are not met this is a recipe for anger and criticism. An additional problem connected with this shift is that we have no idea what the church will look like 50 years from now. We will have to experiment with a prayerful mind and many of these experiments will not result in thriving groups of Christian disciples. Many of these experiments will not be remembered as “successes” (I actually think the attempted experiment itself is a kind of success in a church culture where we are afraid to try). The pressure is on church leaders to “fix” the church or to at least facilitate the “fix”, but without rocking the boat too much and keeping up with people’s expectations. One of the pressures older clergy feel is that they have failed the church because the decline happened on their watch. Younger clergy now face a fantastic challenge. With limited resources and training that really was meant to train priests 50 years ago we are to imagine the future of the church and deal with the frustration and criticism that change brings with it. On top of this most of us joined the Anglican Church because we sort of like a lot of how it is, so the change can be hard for us too.
Church members also have many ideas about how to “fix” the church and have many ideas about things the church should be doing. These expectations fall squarely in the lap of the leader. If a church member discovers a new social justice issue they may ask accusingly or politely what the church is doing about it? The real question being “what are you doing about this by leading the church”? The implication being “if you aren’t doing something then you don’t care”.
The position is additionally stressful because of blurred boundaries. When am I off? Is my facebook account “work” or “personal” (when the majority of the way I use it is for church activities and for communication with church members). The same blurred boundaries happen around email and cell phone use. I can imagine this being a question in church member’s minds. Is he my friend or my priest? To some degree this is a lovely blurring because it means I am encouraged to unify my very self to my vocation. But, it also makes it difficult to determine when I’m “off”, especially when I am always on call and my cell phone is always on my hip buzzing with texts, facebook messages, emails, or phone calls from church members. I also love what I do. I love the people I serve. I love the Church. Most of all, I love God, and I want to serve Him. That’s why I gave up being whatever else I was going to be to serve as a priest. I felt God called me to this, but that also makes it extremely tempting to not get enough down-time. There is also an attitude among some of my colleagues that to be a leader in the church is to walk the Way of the Cross. It is to live a life of sacrifice. So some clergy don’t feel that they can hold back and they are encouraged by their theology to ‘give it all’ and ‘burn out rather than rust out’. Most clergy I know work 60 or 70 hours per week. I know we aren’t digging ditches, but it is tiring and often intense mental work. This is why there are so many church leaders that struggle with addictions and depression. When they can no longer ‘give it all’ they burn out, feel like failures, and self-medicate.
The position also tends to be blurry as it can include tasks as diverse as sitting next to people and praying with those who are dying and changing light bulbs and shoveling snow. It has been said that 90% of what a pastor does is unseen, which can lead some to think that the pastor only works 2 hours on Sunday morning. The tasks of the position can include leading youth groups, building relationships with the neighborhood and other churches, facilitating stewardship, facilitating building renovations, leading multiple worship services, leading services at nursing homes, designing creative worship services, organizing Bible studies and study groups, writing sermons, attending staff meetings, church leadership (vestry) meetings, music selection meetings, diocesan meetings, special project meetings, pastoral care group meetings, worship planning meetings, attending various parish groups, giving spiritual direction, visiting the dying and the suffering (in body, mind, and soul), answering numerous emails, planning retreats, funerals, weddings, baptisms, seasonal preparations (Holy Week, Easter, Christmas, Ash Wednesday, etc.), distributing aid to those in need, as well as numerous other administrative issues that come up on regular basis. The training we receive to be clergy is mainly Biblical, theological, and pastoral. We are taught to be teachers, not small business managers. But, the skills used to run a small business are many of the skills used to run a church. The training we receive in seminary is great, but it is often out of touch with the times we live in and the day-to-day reality of the life of the church.
Reflecting on Thom’s blog mentioned at the beginning of this post, every clergy person I know has criticism and blame directed at them at some point. That is just part of leading a community and part of living in a culture that no longer respects authority. There are wonderful people in the churches I have served, but the psychological reality for most leaders is that the negative comments are the comments that are remembered and cause us to lose sleep. There are lots of opportunities to criticize a visible leader. The majority of people in the church, however, are wonderful and supportive and caring.
Everyone has issues in their families, but if you mix long hours with high expectations and high stress that has an incredibly negative effect on a family. I remember sitting down with a pastor’s child who was then a grown woman. I asked her what it was like growing up in a clergy family and tears immediately came to her eyes. Her father worked long hours. He gave his heart and soul to the churches he served. She loved him but felt like he didn’t have time for her. At the moment we were having that conversation her father was in the hospital journeying a long painful road towards death. She was bringing him communion in the hospital. Everyone else had forgotten about him. His was moved every 5 years by his bishop and never really had the opportunity to develop close relationships. The people he poured his heart out to were not there to care for him. It was his family that he neglected to serve the churches that were there for him in the end. Most grown children of clergy I speak to carry a deep pain in them over feeling a distant relationship with their clergy parent.
Clergy often are dealing with financial strains. At present we aren’t sure the money we are putting into the pension will exist for us when we get to retirement age. Your average Anglican priest has spent at least 7 years in university (4 year Bachelor’s degree and a 3 years Master’s degree), and they often have the student debt to show for it. As is the expectation for all Christians they are to be generous with their money, and many of us live in difficult housing markets where houses are expensive and renting often is more than mortgage payments. This can lead to financial strain. With decreased attendance and decreased income the church has established a pay scale so that salaries are not negotiable when it comes to making the yearly budget. The reality of a lack of resources means many clergy don’t ask to be reimbursed for many things. The reality of pastoral work often means meetings at coffee shops or over lunch and driving to meetings all over the city. Money for coffee, food, and gas adds up quite quickly, but many clergy feel they shouldn’t ask the church to reimburse them for much of this and just consider it part of their donations to the church or as a personal expense. They ate the food after all! But, they probably wouldn’t have eaten in a restaurant if they weren’t having the meeting. Clergy are also expected to have a computer and cell phone, and it would be difficult to do this work in this culture without them. Clergy are not paid poorly (my T4 shows a gross of about $56,000 before deductions), but in comparison to other jobs requiring a master’s degree it is on the lower end of the scale.
Because of high expectations and a passion to serve God clergy often over-function. Most of us work many hours. It is a rare church leader who is organized enough to manage their time wisely. I have known many clergy and I have rarely seen clergy who don’t over-function. I have tried to attain a “balanced” schedule, but I continuously fail at doing this. I have worked as clergy in the church since 2009. And I have worked mostly in two different churches. Before this I also had experience working in a church as a youth minister. Long hours means time away from family and little time to develop deep friendships. Also, it is often difficult to be open with those in the church one serves because part of you is always “on”. You can only truly be deeply honest with your pain in proportion to the degree that you are serving a person. The more you are serving a person as their pastor, the less you are able to express the specifics of your brokenness. This causes a distancing that is just a reality between congregations and their leaders. Paradoxically it can be a lonely job even though we are continuously surrounded by people. The best thing for me has been to meet regularly with other clergy.
There is no doubt based on my experience and numerous surveys on clergy health that clergy are dealing with high levels of stress, and depression. They have been handed a nearly impossible task- Incredible expectations with minimal resources (from an earthly perspective). So yes, many clergy end up self-medicating through things like alcohol or sexual addiction, or they end up burning out.
I think one of the biggest challenges clergy face is the issue of discipleship. Dallas Willlard has said “non-discipleship is the elephant in the church”. For a long time there has been little expectation or method teaching Christians to develop their character. Matthew 28:19-20 says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Have we in the church really been concerned with doing what Jesus command us to do? Read over Matthew 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount) and consider how much we focus on becoming the kind of people Jesus is describing. Many churches don’t purposefully teach people to pray or mentor people to learn to obey Jesus in their daily lives. The church usually assumes it will just happen through worship and Bible study, even though many are bored during worship, distracted during sermons, and most are not attending study classes. The clergy were nurtured in these churches and so quite often they are trying to learn spiritual formation as they are trying to teach it (I hope this is an overstatement). It is not uncommon for me to meet an older person who has spent their entire life in church- hearing innumerable sermons and coming through Sunday school programs and youth groups as a child- but still having a very elementary understanding of the Bible and of prayer. I’m not trying to be judgmental. It just saddens me that we haven’t served these people better. How would their lives be different if we taught them to transform their anger (Matt 5:21-26)? How many marriages would have been saved and a family spared the pain of broken relationships if we taught people to conquer their lust (Matt 5:27-30)? How would our elders’ lives have gone if we taught them to not live with contempt of others by actually learning to love their enemies (Matt 5:43-48)? Or, how would their lives have been different if they could release their worry (Matt 6:25-33)? What if the majority of our people really had a felt intimate daily relationship with God? Unfortunately, many churches appear to be little more than social clubs. And so the pastors are left wondering about all the time and care they pour into the churches they serve, sacrificing time with their families and time caring for their own souls, but they can be hard-pressed to see a substantial result. The really devastating thought is that the 3 pastors that preceded them poured their heart and soul into the same church and yet, they are still feeling the need to do the same, but was it worth it? Did the sacrifice of those previous leaders produce Disciples who “obey everything that [Jesus] commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).
All this leads to a large pile of straw on the proverbial camel’s back. Pastors are often left wondering which straw will be the one they crumble under.
So why write this? I know it likely comes across as very judgmental, but I don’t think it is too far off base from where the Anglican Church and their leaders stand. I suppose I don’t think many people are aware of the strain clergy feel.
To balance this post I should probably write a post “the Blessings of Being a Priest Today”. It would include the blessing of being invited into intimate moments in people’s lives, being freed from other work to study and teach the Bible and prayer. Most people in the church are extremely supportive and loving and it is lovely to work in an environment where the ideal everyone is aiming at is ‘loving your neighbour’. I am continuously blown away by the amount of care and time church members put into their communities. I am honoured to meet deep disciples of Jesus Christ who somehow managed to be spiritually formed apart from the lack of purposeful training on the part of the church. I am encouraged by the prayer and love I see between members of the church. I am encouraged by the desire of church members to see the church move into the future. I am encouraged by parents who bring their children to church even though there are numerous other things they could be doing (resting or doing neglected housework). The church is filled with blessings and encouragements and I continue to see Christ working among the members of his body, even when I mess up and am at my pastoral worst. While it is a challenging time to be a priest, it is also an exciting time. We get to be on the front lines imagining what the church will look like in the future. This can be scary, but it can also be exciting and an opportunity to use all our creativity and prayer to listen to God leading into new places. So there are many blessings that go along with being a priest. I feel those blessings as well as the challenges.
Bailey, Michael. “Media, religion and culture: An interview with Michael Wakelin.” Journal of Media Practice 11.2 (2010): 185-189.