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Clergy Burn and Bust Out

Clergy Burn and Bust Out

 

Last Thursday's issue of The New York Times featured a front page article on, what the newspaper termed, a recent development with clergy: they're getting fat, sick, and hypertensive. 

Just like the rest of us.

The Times, which has not previously been famously interested in the ups and downs of my former vocation, thinks pastoral dysfunction newsworthy. That those of us thought to be next to God were previously immune to the agonies of the present generation?  Au contraire.  I cannot cite a statistic for support, but I would guess that less than one quarter of those who graduated with me from seminary and went into the pastoral ministry stayed with it for the majority of their working years.  Like my first year roommate, the class valedictorian in 1956, a fellow who was steered into the ministry by a philosophy professor when he, my roommate, thought to be an actuary.  A few years in the pastorate and, after run-ins with his church council, he opted out and became a CPA.  That is, many wannabe preachers discover in the parish that they are in the wrong profession. 

On the other hand, I did, in fact, develop high blood pressure working in the hot house of professional ministry.  But I was well into my 60's before diagnosis and treatment for borderline hypertension (140/80).  Some of it is genetic.  Grandpa Johnny Weir died at a relatively young age from congestive heart failure... I think.  My mother too, though she lasted to 72.  Working like a whirling dervish in the parish didn't help.  I began to list the jobs, pastoral and otherwise (for an inquiring Email correspondent) I performed for Grace Church and stopped in embarrassment when the list reached the second page.  How on earth I managed it all, God only knows, and he was probably tsk tsking at my exertions like those lay people who frequently told me, "Pastor, you shouldn't do that."

Or maybe all those exertions were what kept me from developing a middle-age potbelly.

One of my fellow exercisers at Cornerstone Aquatics, a lean and mean cyclist who fancies himself an atheist, found me the day of the Times article and teased me loudly about obesity in the pastorate.  David asked me, knowing the answer, "Isn't gluttony one of the seven deadly sins?"  Others present, like me naked as the day we were born, only considerably larger, rushed to my defense.   "Bob isn't fat," they chorused.  But Dave was having too much fun to stop.  The news fit nicely with his certainty clergy have it easy, too easy.  My companion in the hot tub, an Irish world traveler in the construction business, had also read the article which inspired David.  Eamon was more sympathetic, citing his knowledge of priests in the Auld Sod who worked themselves to death tending their flocks.

Days after the front page article in the Times the online Op-Ed page carried a piece by a UCC pastor in Swampscott MA who blamed clergy burn out on congregations unwilling to allow the preacher to speak her mind on current issues... and when saying anything, limiting the saying to seven minutes.  I've heard that song before, that clergy are prevented from voicing their real thoughts on current issues for fear of losing favor with their congregations.  Would that it were so simple.  

Let me explain.  It's not a lack of courage (as I was accused by a colleague in Valley Stream) that kept me from sounding off on every hot button topic that came down the pipe.  What stopped me was my carefully considered idea of just what I was supposed to be doing in the pulpit.  Which didn't include offering my opinions, however wise and righteous they might be, on issues roiling the public and, therefore, the flock.  My job, up there (as my homiletics professor joked) "three feet above contradiction," is to speak for God... God in all of the mystery, infinity, omnipotence, and inscrutability with which he or she is appropriately described.  That is, it ain't easy. To try, to try with every ounce of one's soul, to divine the world the way God does, without playing favorites.  We don't succeed, at least not very often.  Abraham Lincoln did (succeed), in that most famous of sermons, which wasn't delivered in a church, his Second Inaugural Address, written on the wall of his D. C. memorial.  Abe sets the tone for a badly divided nation, now no less than then.  What the church, the nation, and the world do not need is partisan politics in the pulpit.

Not that the pulpit should steer clear of controversy.  No subject is too hot to handle, although many may be too small to be worthy of comment.  It's how the subject is handled... always with a clear sense of one's own fallibility, that God has purposes and strategies beyond our discerning, no matter how smart, spiritual, or impassioned we are.  And when "hard" things need to be said, as they often do, the impression should be unmistakable that the preacher thinks the judgment is on him no less and maybe more than anyone else.  Like that anecdote I've repeated before, about the newcomer in town who was trying out a couple of churches.  The preachers in each shouted hell-fire and damnation.  One congregation loved their pastor, the other grumbled about theirs.  Why the difference? A happy congregant explained that his preacher didn't like doing what he had to do and had some burns of his own from the brimstone; but the other guy delighted in self-righteous anger.

My hypertension is under control (120/70) and my pot-belly is still a small work in progress.  If I were a Hindu, I'd consider being reincarnated as a preacher a blessing.  But maybe next time I wouldn't refinish gym floors.

 



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