Talking about the health problems many clergy face, an article in the New York Times said, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could. Public health experts . . . caution that there is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy.”*
Though, of course, no simple answer to this dilemma exists, I propose that at least one important factor is involved—the challenge to remain human in the midst of the attraction to be otherwise. Of all other professions involved in the call and art of assisting other human beings, none but ministry seems to demand a denial of the human condition and experience.
What do I mean?
The challenge of remaining human
For starters, the greatest source of grief and disillusionment in ministry today hinges on an unbalanced approach to identity formation and delusions about ministry. As a clinical pastoral education supervisor, I get calls and hear stories from many colleagues in ministry who struggle with basic human needs. And what I have seen is that, too often, we have inverted the paradigm of pastoral formation, putting the emphasis on the doing rather than the being. As a result, this causes some of the burnout and difficulties ministers encounter in providing balanced care for themselves and others. In other words, pastors are so busy “doing” that they have lost their sense of being. Yet who we are informs what we do; thus, would it not make sense that we spend more time working on self-awareness and identity formation because, after all, these parts will eventually inform what we do anyway?
At the risk of sounding too simplistic, let me take this to the most basic place of development: our humanity. We are all human beings. The temptation and attraction to be and live life as human “doers” rather than as human beings brings incongruity into life and spirit. It is at the core of sin, as sold to us by the serpent in Eden, when it said, “ ‘You will be like God’ ” (Gen. 3:5, NIV). In other words, “You will be able to know and do things that are beyond the realm of your humanity, of who and how God created you to be.”
We bought the lie, and so, here we are today. “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4, KJV), not only as expressed through the Ten Commandments but as defined by the law of life and how God created us. If this basic concept startles or catches you off guard, chances are you may already be on the road to burnout. There are two basic components to the phrase human being. The human is the part of self that experiences all aspects of intimacy conveyed through emotions and feelings, which, in turn, create an awareness of life and what life means. Pain, fear, sadness, joy, and anger are all primal places where the human being ultimately finds a sense of self.
The being part is the meaning-making aspect of self—that which creates meaning out of perceptions, relationships, and surroundings. A human being is a being who has the capacity to create purpose and meaning in life as a created being in the image of God.
The capacity to do amazing things
Yet, it is not all about being, either. God did not create us to meditate all day under a tree in search of self-awareness and meaning while life passes by. God created us with the capacity to do amazing things as a result of who we are. In fact, we call them amazing because they push the common boundaries of our human condition and existence. They are to be celebrated and enjoyed to the fullest. But a healthy life and ministry live in the tension of figuring out a balanced approach to both being and doing. Our challenge and demise come when we live in the either-or polarities of life, either all being or all doing.
Some time ago, my wife had shoulder surgery. Before long, her healthy shoulder and arm were hurting. “Your healthy arm hurts,” the doctor said, “because you’re overusing it now to compensate for the other. When you heal and are able to use both arms again, the pain will go away.” Much of life’s pain subsides when we learn to live in the tension and grace of both being and doing.
Following are four polarities four areas of tension—that must be balanced out.
Polarity 1: Finitude and possibilities. The first polarity I call the tension between finitude and possibilities. When God created the human race, He said basically, “Here are your possibilities, and here are your boundaries. See that tree? Stay off it. However, see the rest of this place? Have a blast.”
In ministry, we face the temptation of pushing away our own fi nitude or dismissing our own possibilities, especially when we have people around us requesting stuff that goes beyond the realm of our human condition or capabilities. When we push those boundaries, we suffer by moving into unrealistic places of ministry, or we make others suffer by providing unrealistic expectations and answers. I hear this tension and cry in the voice of patients when they confront a fi nite moment in their illnesses and ask, “Chaplain, what can I hope for?” This is a normal and healthy question that reflects the grief and hope of being human.
Polarity 2: Contingency and control. The second set of polarities in life and ministry includes the tension between contingency and control. This is a particularly difficult tension in ministry, because, as pastors, we are surrounded by people who are calling us, seeking answers, explanations, and directions for their lives. The euphoria and delusion of control kicks in. After all, we are trained to figure out theological answers to life’s difficult dilemmas and mysteries. Meanwhile, there are things in life that do not have explanations. The fear of losing control, of coming across as incompetent or not spiritually savvy, creates pressures that push ministers into irrational expectations and grandiose interventions. In that place of human vulnerability, explanations become more of projections of our own needs and desires rather than of comfort, care, and support.
There are things in life that can be explained, and I can have a certain level of control over them. But a healthy life is lived in the tension of figuring out those things that are in my control and those that I must leave in God’s hands. The most honest and humanlike response we can provide at times is to say, “I do not know.” Again, this question comes up when patients ask, “Chaplain, this just happened. What can I depend on?” We can depend on the same God who, when asked by His Son, “ ‘Why have You forsaken Me?’ ” (Matt. 27:36, NKJV) did not give an explanation but sustained Him in silence and was faithful enough so that His Son could also say, “ ‘ “[I]nto Your hands I commit My spirit” ’ ” (Luke 23:46, NKJV).
Polarity 3: Autonomy and dependency. A third set of polarities in the human experience exists in the realm of autonomy and dependency. Here patients usually ask, “Chaplain, what am I responsible for?” God created us with the capacity to make decisions, to select where to go, what to do, and whom to be with. Babies are born, and their first cries are calls for immediate attention, announcements to the world of their autonomy as human beings. At the same time, they are in complete dependency on others to give them warmth, comfort, and sustenance.
As we grow up, these interpersonal dynamics change in form but not in principle. We continue to exercise our autonomy at new levels while needing the support and comfort of others. Isolation and loneliness are two familiar but unhealthy places that ministers go when the balance and tension between autonomy and dependency becomes compromised.
Polarity 4: Meaning and nothingness. The fourth set of polarities lives in the tension of meaning and nothingness. We were created by God as beings who, at their core, cry out for meaning and purpose in our lives. They are intrinsic capacities and needs that we bring as humans. However, there are moments when life just does not make sense, and the meaning we seek just does not seem to be there.
If I think that everything has to have meaning, I will either create that meaning out of my own needs and projections, or I will impose irrational forms of meaning in order to avoid my human vulnerability and ultimate reliance on God. If, on the other hand, I live in the polarity of nothingness, I run the risk of constant suspicion, sarcasm, and cynicism. Patients raise this healthy tension when they ask, “Chaplain, what or who can I trust now?” This is a question of faith and a search for balance between meaning and nothingness.
The biggest challenge for pastors in the journey of sustaining a healthy sense of self-identity is to remain human in the midst of the attraction to be otherwise. Not embracing the balance and tension leads people to rely on unhealthy behaviors that numb the suffering and pain that arise from a sense of inadequacy and futility. By living life and ministry in the polarities, going from one extreme to the other, we push away balance and end up in cynicism, shame, depression, and despair. Then we start relying on artificial things to keep us going, such as overeating, antidepressants, egocentric behaviors that damage our closest relationships, and unhealthy behaviors that end in greater suffering and pain.
When toddlers begin to walk, what we desire most is for them to keep their balance so that they do not fall and hit bottom. But then we grow up and something happens: we start taking balance for granted until one day when we fall and hit bottom too. Some realize the pain and grace of hitting bottom, and they search for balance, get up, and walk again. Others ignore the need for balance and keep trying to walk sideways from one extreme to the other, hitting bottom from time to time. Falling down and feeling the pain of a sore bottom may be the grace needed to raise our hands to God and ask Him to lift us up and teach us to walk in balance through His grace.
Four principles for sustaining a sense of self-identity
First, slow down and take time to reflect on who you are in God’s eyes. “ ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ ” (Ps. 46:10, NIV). The implication in this verse is that unless I take regular time to be still, to slow down, to rest and reflect, and to gauge how balanced or unbalanced my life is, I may forget that God alone, and not myself, can sustain me.
Second, surrender to God the need to overextend your God-given boundaries. This is an ongoing process of recognizing daily those things within yourself that push you to be who you are not and to do things that you were not created to do. I suspect that Paul knew something personally about this spiritual-human struggle when he wrote in Romans 6:17–19, “[T]hanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations” (NIV). Paul then says in verse 23,
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (NIV).
Third, remember that humans discover meaning when they are able to experience and express their feelings and emotions and process them through a balanced, rational-reflective approach to life. Be kind to yourself; open your heart to the possibilities of healthy personal and professional relationships that can help bring perspective to life’s precious moments of grief and hope, pain and joy, isolation and community, anger and gladness, rejection and acceptance, fear and trust, and forgiveness and grace.
Fourth, do not lose sight of the eternal impact that your caring pastoral presence has when that presence is shaped by the gifts of your humanity. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, NKJV). That verse calls to human vulnerability and transparency in ministry as we bring the good news of salvation, just as Christ did when He lived on earth as one of us. When that mystery of the gospel made flesh touches the human race, we will then behold God’s glory, a glory that has touched and transformed millions of human hearts.
The words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9, 10, summarize my prayer for ministers: “It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become” (The Message).
* Paul Vitello, “Taking a Break From the Lord’s Work,” New York Times, August 1, 2010, accessed March 2011, http:// www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html?scp=1&sq=clergy%20now%20suffer%20from%20 obesity&st=cse M
There are many resources I have found helpful in my own journey toward learning who I am as a minister, a unique person, and a child of God. Here are four:
White, Ellen G. Mind, Character, and Personality. 2 vols. Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1977.
These two amazing volumes are well worth your time. I have personally found the thinking and writing in these books to be helpful and far ahead of their years—a remarkable blend of spirituality and psychology. In particular, I recommend chapters 1, 8, 45, 48, and 72.
Tupper, E. Frank. A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.
A wonderful resource that helped me to understa nd how the providence of God rarely conforms to t he expectations of His people. It did not happen in Christ’s time, and rarely happens in ours. Yet evidence of God’s loving care and purposeful guidance of His church and people remains abundant. Do not miss chapter 8, “The Mystery of the Death of God.”
Sorajjakool, Siroj, and Henry Lamberton, eds. Spirituality, Health, and Wholeness. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 2004.
Chapter 1 by Richard Rice is worth the price of the book alone. It is entitled “Toward a Theology of Wholeness: A Tentative Model of Whole Person Care” and looks at the healing ministry work of Christ during His lifetime and how it applies to our own. The rest of the book is equally powerful.
Kurtz, Ernest, and Katherine Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Journey to Wholeness. New York: Bantam, 1992.
The title of this book may be enough to put ministers off, but, after a fellow minister recommended the book, I gave it a try. I did not agree with everything, but I found chapters 3 and 4 particularly interesting in their discussion of the reality of limitation and finding a sense of balance.