December 7, 2017 / Praxis
Jason Byassee describes Mary as a sign that God is scandalously enfleshed.
Into the Numbers: Seeing the Satisfaction
In 2006, over 4,500 people across the United States were asked about their satisfaction with their work as part of the General Social Survey.1 After tallying the occupations of the respondents, the researchers found that clergy had both the highest mean satisfaction score (3.79 out of 4.00, just edging out physical therapists) and the largest percentage of any group of respondents who said they were very satisfied (80 percent, the top spot by more than 7 percent over firefighters).2
When I (Rae Jean) first learned of these number-one rankings as part of my early research work into the mental health of clergy, I immediately dismissed them. Clergy pretty much have to say they are satisfied with their jobs—saying you aren’t satisfied would be like snubbing God or being ungrateful. I may have stopped thinking about the study entirely, except that a lot of clergy researchers cite this finding, so it kept coming up. I looked for a reason to doubt the findings and found that only sixty-eight clergy took the survey. Moreover, it was impossible to know how representative these respondents were of clergy in general—perhaps they were all from a denomination that has cornered the market on happy clergy.
But after performing my own surveys and interviews with clergy, I’ve come to believe the finding—although I believe that it tells only half the story. I suspect that clergy are satisfied with their work andexperience many difficult situations on a routine basis. I suspect that clergy experience lots of satisfaction and lots of dissatisfaction but that those experiences don’t average out; instead, clergy hold both the highs and the lows.
Indeed, a 2012 study suggests that clergy are rather unique in the wide range of emotions they experience. The researcher analyzed data collected from Episcopal priests and found that while people usually report experiencing either a lot of positive emotions or a lot of negative emotions, the clergy reported experiencing a lot of positive emotions and a lot of negative emotions.3 In other words, they hold in their world funerals and baptisms, and one doesn’t wash the other out. Of course, clergy experience negative emotions around activities devoid of meaning, like administrative hassles, but when they do, it does not seem to cut into their overall satisfaction with their work when compared to other workers.
Longtime pastor and author Eugene Peterson offers a sense of how this might work:
I’ve loved being a pastor, almost every minute of it. It’s a difficult life because it’s a demanding life. But the rewards are enormous—the rewards of being on the front line of seeing the gospel worked out in people’s lives. I remain convinced that if you are called to it, being a pastor is the best life there is.4
Notice there that Peterson uses the word called. I would agree that being called to one’s work makes a difference in being satisfied with work. If one examines the top twelve occupations in the General Social Survey, one will see several jobs that one might feel called to, including being a firefighter, a psychologist, or a teacher. Finding great meaning in your work, whatever it is, leads to higher satisfaction at work and in life.
But being called has a very special meaning for clergy, and I think it’s essential to understand what call means for clergy if we seek to understand clergy physical and mental health.5 To that end, I sought out my colleague Jason Byassee, a pastor in Vancouver, Canada, for the inside scoop on clergy and call.
Behind the Pulpit: Hearing the Call
I (Jason) find that the archetypal call story for Christians is the call of Moses from the burning bush. Although it’s likely that most ministers haven’t had such dramatic experiences, we can’t think about calling without reference to the bush, the flame, the sandals, the voice. Moses’s experience makes sense of ours.
His story is the exodus story of Israel being called out from slavery. It’s a story that includes all of the best attributes of the God whom Jews and Christians worship. This God hears the oppressed and sets them free. This God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. Sorrow may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
All the best hits are here, but there are puzzles too: Why did God let his people groan in slavery for years, for centuries? Why does God let his people wander and suffer for so long? We don’t know. God’s ways are not our ways, and we have no ability to discern whether and how God should have worked differently. All we have are these stories.
The Jews began as a people when God called Abram to leave his house and his land and his father’s people to go to a new land that God would show him. By then Abram was ancient and his wife, Sarai, was barren, yet God promises to give them a son and to bless their offspring and make their descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore.
God appears unexpectedly to Abram and says, “You! You’re going to have a kid.”
“I can’t have kids.”
“Hush! Your kid will have so many kids no one can count them, and the whole world will be blessed by them.”
“Oh and one more thing: leave your country and your family and go to a new land I will show you.”
And Abram went. That wasn’t the hardest thing Abram ever had to do—far from it (see “Isaac, sacrifice of”)—but it secured God’s promise to bless their descendants and all the world through them. And so the good news has been ever since: God chooses one unlikely family through whom to bless the world. Now all of us unlikely, unpromising types have a God who, at great cost, is determined to bless us and others through us.
Exodus also includes another calling. And it doesn’t start well. “Now a new [pharaoh] arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1:8 NRSV)—a verse Christians often use to describe the ascent to power of someone who means us ill. This new pharaoh notices that the Israelites are too numerous, that he could have a revolt on his hands. So he turns them into slaves, and then he tries to wipe them all out by murdering their sons. But right under his nose one Israelite boy, Moses, is delivered miraculously—pulled up out of the water from a wicker basket where his desperate mother had put him in hopes of an escape. Pharaoh’s own daughter lifts out the baby and takes pity on him, raising him as her own. God’s people are intertwined with their taskmasters, their foreign oppressors, in a land that once meant deliverance for Joseph and blessing for his family. God’s ways are intertwined with human sin and self-regard writ large and small.
Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s house and sees Pharaoh’s murderous policies firsthand. An Egyptian is beating a Hebrew (Exod. 2:11–15). Moses looks around, sees no one, and kills the Egyptian. The next day, two Israelites are arguing. When Moses attempts to break them up, one asks if he means to kill him the way he’d killed the Egyptian the day before. And so Moses’s murder is unveiled by his own people. The rabbis point out that Moses has an anger problem—he didn’t need to kill the Egyptian, but he lashed out in anger and went far past justice.6 Now he’s paying for it. He flees to the wilderness, helps a band of women water-gatherers from Midian, and ends up with a wife and a job—herding sheep. He’s a long way from the palace.
The church has always spied pastoral wisdom in these stories: the people we lead will turn on us. Power can be dangerous, especially if we’re momentarily in favor; things can turn in an instant, and we can be on the run for our lives. Our lives are wrapped up in the promise of a God who calls old men and women to dream big dreams and put their lives on the line, a God who will do something staggering before our eyes and then depart the scene for centuries, leaving his people groaning under slavery, an unpredictable God who keeps his own counsel and clock and yet will show up in the unlikeliest of places—like one bush on one hillside one day that was otherwise unremarkable.
God’s intervention started out so ordinary for Moses. He was working for his father-in-law in a profession not known for its cleanliness, its excitement, or its intellectual engagement. I think of the first shepherd I met in Israel, leading camels, wearing a Michael Jordan T-shirt and trying to sell me Michael Jackson cassettes—it wasn’t romantic.
But then one day there’s a burning bush. It won’t go out. A commanding voice: Take off your shoes. Go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go. But I can’t; I won’t. You can, and you will. Well, who are you, for when Pharaoh asks? I’m “I Am.” Now go. And Moses went and did. God resurrected his people from slavery in Egypt. And the world’s not been the same since because every tyrant everywhere now has to wonder if a bush might light on fire and a washed-up refugee might come back and lead the people the tyrant oppresses to freedom. The God of the universe works on behalf of the oppressed. And his I Am is always in present tense. Moses endured a lot; his people endured more. But you can endure a lot when you’re working for I Am and can remember the sight and smell of a fire that won’t burn out and the voice saying, “You will go.”
Millennia later, another call occurs when God speaks, this time to an unmarried Jewish teenager from the sticks.
“You! You’re going to have a kid.”
“But I am a kid.”
“Like I was saying, this kid will also be my kid. And all the world will be blessed through him.”
Israel and the church have been trying, and usually failing, to emulate Abram’s and Mary’s “OK” back to God ever since.
Most of our callings are far less dramatic—a nudge, a suggestion, a hint, an acceptance, an assignment. But we have these lively stories of an unpredictable God who calls all kinds of people who are just as disreputable as we are and does astounding, world-changing things through them, like starting a nation to bless the world, ending Israel’s slavery in Egypt, and birthing salvation itself.
Into the Numbers: Sanctifying the Work
Like Jason begins to suggest, pastors’ sense of their call to be clergy is not set in stone. At times, pastors are certain that they have been called by God to be a pastor, and at other times, they doubt this call. Matt Bloom at the University of Notre Dame has conducted interviews with clergy in which he asked them to tell their call story and then later asked them to tell their call story again at follow-up interviews. Bloom found that when all is well with the church a clergy person is pastoring, that person’s memory of her original call story is stronger and more definite. However, when the church is struggling, the clergy person’s memory of her call story is weaker.7
Ken Pargament, a longtime researcher of spiritual well-being and health who has studied how people sanctify aspects of their life, like marriage, has developed what he calls sanctification theory. This theory is especially helpful to consider with clergy. Sanctification theory proposes that when we give sacred meaning to something, when we believe that thing is set apart from the ordinary and has God at its heart, we exert substantial energy and time for it, fiercely protect it, experience strong emotions around it, draw on it as a resource, and become desolate if it is lost.8
Clergy define their work as sacred, so what are the implications of Pargament’s theory for them? First, we expect pastors to experience stronger pulls to their work than other employees might experience in their professions. Although anyone who feels called to their vocation can struggle with when to give lower priority to their work, this may be particularly challenging for clergy. After all, if your backdrop is burning bushes and parenthood at age ninety, who are you to turn down a relatively minor request like leaving vacation to perform a funeral?
When we see our work as sacred, sanctification theory suggests that we will exert extra energy to do that work. Given how hard it often is to be sure of God’s will, perhaps it is safer for clergy to say yes to requests than to say no. When work is sacred, clergy might end up with a default approach in which everything is equally important, meaning that they are more likely to overwork and, at the same time, less likely to take care of their own physical and mental health. Here’s an example from a series of interviews I conducted with clergy:
Even if I scheduled to go to the gym at four in the afternoon, if someone walks into my office at three fifty, I have a really hard time pulling away and saying, “You know what? I can’t deal with you right now. I know the gym is only open until six, and I really do have to go now.” And of course, I’ll stay for an hour and just shoot the breeze.
When my colleagues and I conducted a health intervention for clergy, we found that clergy needed to be given permission to take care of themselves over and over again. It seemed they were defaulting to saying yes to everything and taking care of everyone except themselves, even after they decided to change this pattern. I believe it is essential for clergy supervisors, lay leaders, and parishioners to give permission—repeatedly—for pastors to spend time on themselves. It may also help to clarify a church’s priorities and publicly recognize that the pastor can’t make every task a top priority. During a focus group I conducted with clergy, one pastor provided an excellent example of this:
I have a lot of support. I have three mothers [in my congregation] that I basically have to show my three-month doctor’s report to make sure that I’ve got my blood sugar under control, that my weight is OK, that I’m riding my bike my six hours a week, and that I’m doing the things that I need to do. They encourage me to take more time off, to be away more.
A second implication of doing sacred work is that the stakes of perceived failure are higher for clergy than for other workers.9 The converse may also be true: perceived success may be more meaningful to clergy than other workers. It therefore seems likely that clergy will experience extremes of both positive and negative emotions when engaging in their vocation, partly because their work exposes them to the full emotional spectrum that their parishioners encounter but also because clergy are emotionally invested in the work that is sacred to them.
With this emotional investment, criticism from parishioners may have an extra potent effect for clergy.10 Of course, there needs to be a way to give constructive criticism to all church members, including pastors, but given how powerfully clergy might take that criticism, a few guidelines could help.
Behind the Pulpit: Giving and Taking Criticism
Pope John XXIII, who summoned the Second Vatican Council, summed up much churchly wisdom on leadership this way: “Overlook much, correct a little.”11 As a pastor, that would be my (Jason’s) advice as well: encourage a lot; correct a little. And before confronting a clergy member, pray. Pray afterward too. Ask others to pray with you.
But if we want the church’s thriving, then we need to see criticism as a desire to love. You don’t criticize something you don’t care about—you just move on. There is something from God in every criticism, however hidden and however unwelcome. We ministers need to learn to see criticism as an unwelcome gift. Of course, it hurts more than hearing praise, but it’s vastly more likely to make us, and the whole congregation, better.
And if you’re bringing critique to your clergy, just don’t do it in the handshake line after church. I’d prefer to hear trenchant criticism surrounded by praise. I’d love to hear it offered over a meal someone else is buying. And I’d love to hear it in the context of the parish’s mission. What is God trying to accomplish through us? How is this problem holding back that mission? And what is something tangible I can actually do to get out of God’s and the church’s way? How will this make me a better minister and the church a better local instantiation of the body of Christ? I clearly remember the times parishioners approached me in this more personal way, and I’ve tried to incorporate what they said ever since.
Our culture is descending into a kind of barbarity where we scream first and ask questions later (I blame cable news). Folks are becoming conditioned to act this way. When they come after clergy with critique, sometimes it’ll feel like 90 percent nonsense. Fine. We should take the 10 percent that’s not nonsense, the advice that might be helpful, and do something about it. We don’t have to respond to everything. Overlook a lot; correct a little. They’ll feel heard and honored if we respond to the 10 percent.
Seize on that as a strange, unwelcome gift and dive into doing better. Be like the Syrophoenician woman who heard a harsh criticism from none other than Jesus in Mark 7:25–30 (can you imagine?). She perseveres, thinking about what he specifically said no to and reframing her desire, and she ultimately receives the blessing she seeks. Martin Luther points out the obvious: Jesus says no to her. Yet, Luther says, there is a yes hidden in the no.12 She pushes until she finds it. So we should do with criticism, however harsh—even a no from our Lord. Push through it and find the yes that’s also there. And we’ll be blessed, the dead will be raised, and the kingdom will come.
OK, maybe not quite, but we’ll be better at what we do. And that’s something.
Jason Byassee teaches preaching at the Vancouver School of Theology.
Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell
Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell is an associate research professor of global health at Duke University. Since 2007, she has been the research director of the Duke Clergy Health Initiative.