Clergy burnout: theological anemia

This post continues a series in The Shape of Practical Theology by Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click a number: 123456789101112, 13, 15.

Anderson's review of pastoral ministry now focuses on the very real danger of clergy burnout, which he identifies as "a symptom of theological anemia" (p284). By that he means that when pastors burn out it's often because their approach to ministry lacks grounding in a robust incarnational and Trinitarian theology. In short, they see themselves working "for" God, rather than "with" the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. Because of this, they tend to take too much upon themselves and that places them at risk of burnout. It's ironic that the very people who have devoted their lives to sharing the message, My Redeemer Lives, operate as though Jesus is not truly present and alive, and as though he is not active in accomplishing, through the Spirit, his continuing ministry on earth in fulfillment of the Father's mission to the world.

My Redeemer Lives, by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)
Sadly, some (many?) pastors find themselves weighed down by a sense of inadequacy that, if unchecked, can lead to a sense of despair over never being able to satisfy the demands placed upon them. This becomes a vicious circle where, as Anderson notes, "the minister can only seek to atone for spiritual failure by throwing herself even more into the work of ministry." Anderson comments further on the steps in this debilitating circle:
The demands of ministry produce a sense of inadequacy. Inadequacy carries the overtone of spiritual weakness. You turn to God in desperation, seeking some relief, escape, if not renewal. Failing here too, you find nothing to do but throw yourself more deeply into the work of the ministry. And the cycle repeats itself (p285).
Faced with this burden, some pastors "grin and bear it," feeling, in their drivenness, that this burden is a necessary (even admirable) aspect of pastoral ministry. Anderson warns:
"We are driven" is not only an effective advertising slogan for automobiles but a shrill echo of the divine call sunk deep into the psyche of a minister who seeks salvation through ministry (p286).
"Salvation through ministry"---an absurd concept to all pastors (at least in their formal theology), but an operating principle for some in how they view their calling to pastoral ministry in practice. As Anderson notes, those entering pastoral ministry are encouraged to do so as a "divine calling" with the implied understanding that this call, being unavoidable and thus inevitable, is one's fate. "Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel," they proclaim to themselves and to others, quoting Paul in 1Cor. 9:16 (ESV). Unfortunately, rather than understanding their calling as a call "to ministry" it becomes a call "to the ministry." Though this shift may seem innocuous, it can be devastating as the person hears a call "to do things for God" rather than their actual call, which is "to God" himself. Anderson comments:
Here, I believe, is the source of the "quiet despair" that can seep into our celebration of the sacred task and turn it into a joyless marathon of sheer endurance" (p286).
With this misguided approach, ministry becomes "an insatiable and unrelenting master we serve in the name of Christ" (p287). In Anderson's view, what is needed to break the vicious circle that leads to clergy burnout is the theology of ministry modeled by Jesus himself:
When [Jesus] reached the point of exhaustion from teaching and healing, he had the freedom to stop and to spend time alone or with his disciples. His instincts told him that his freedom from the [ministry] claims on him was upheld by the same gracious Father who gave him the freedom and power to teach and heal.... (p287).
In contrast to Jesus' theology of ministry, many pastors, quite unfortunately, ground their ministry in a different, quite unhealthy, theology. Anderson comments:
It is bad theology to have to love the world more than God, and to confuse our service to God with our being sent into the world. It is bad theology to interpret the calling of God in terms of the needs of the world, rather than in our being sent to the world to do God's work and reveal his glory....
A theology that cripples and destroys the self-esteem and sense of worth of a minister is not made better by "success" in ministry. A theology allowing no "sabbath rest" for the one who does the work of ministry is a theology of the curse, not a theology of the cross. A healthy theology contains healing for the healer and freedom for the fighter of God's battles. A healthy theology, of course, is a theology of a loving God who knows that to be God is to be responsible, even for our faltering and fallible efforts (pp287-288).
Anderson faced a time in his own ministry when he was on the precipice of the abyss of burnout. Thankfully, he came to understand Jesus' theology of ministry and was delivered. Note some of his comments:
Through the realization of my inadequacy when only the grace of God could suffice, I experienced in a new way the reality of God as the source and sustaining power of my "call" to be a minister. My ministry no longer could be equivalent to my salvation or destruction.... 
No longer was I living on the edge of that terrible marginality in ministry, where the abyss always looms threateningly over and against every action. Driven back by obstacles, confronted with failure and frustration, attacked by symptoms of overstress, I experienced the healing of God's goodness from within....
We who are called of God for Christian ministry are called first of all into the sabbath rest that Christ himself completed through the offering up of his own humanity in obedient, faithful service to God. With our backs straight up against the rock of his healed humanity, we reach out to meet human needs, do battle with evil and take the Word of God on our lips to proclaim his salvation. No temptation has ever overtaken us, says the Scripture, that has not already been experienced and healed in Jesus (Hebrews 4:15). I venture to say that no injury can ever be sustained in the work of God's ministry for which there is not already healing waiting at home (pp288-289).
Pastor, are you now experiencing or headed toward clergy burnout? If so, Anderson offers some advice from his own experience:
  • Turn to Jesus. He is the source of all good theology. He is the paradigm for pastoral ministry.
  • Explore the inner correlation between ministry and theology: "A ministry that produces dissonance and distress in the minister is theologically impoverished" (p289).
  • Consent to be one of the sheep as well as being the shepherd, thus "experiencing absolution for our sins of being a minister and the affirmation we need to continue to minister" (p290).
I'll close this post with a prayer adapted from Anderson's comment on p290:
Father, we pray that you grant us all a healthy practical theology of pastoral ministry that rests on the truth that all ministry is your ministry, through Christ, by the Spirit. May this knowledge console, empower and equip us to live out the calling you have given us by your grace. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.

Here are two helpful resources on this important topic: