'I Can't Stop'
Recently, I was listening to a clergy colleague as she unloaded her stress. She was trying to get her congregation to be more engaged - with the community, with their own spiritual lives, with the life of faith.
“They are lovely people,” she said, “and eager to learn. But only if I plan every meeting and find every resource. I am constantly coming up with new things: coffee shop Bible study, a knitting and theology group, packing backpacks for school kids in need.
Everyone thinks this is great - but it’s me doing all the work to plan and coordinate each step. Then when it happens, it is so fun … the first time. Maybe the second. Then people start to drift away and I start again trying to get them more interested and active. I don’t know how much harder I can try.”
“Why don’t you stop?” I asked, and she looked at me like I was crazy.
“I can’t stop! The church needs to grow, people need to know more about the love of God, we need to reach people outside of the church. I need to teach my congregation how to do this.
If I don’t do it, who will?”
This is the most important question in ministry today. And not for the reasons we usually think.
This can be seen as the rallying cry, the driving force, behind congregational ministry - it’s our JOB to introduce and encourage the life of faith in those we serve. But if we are doing everything, and we see ourselves as responsible for everyone’s faith life, then we are doing work that truly belongs to others (and this goes double and triple for work like building maintenance and financial planning).
Rabbi Edwin Friedman once said, “Burnout does not come from working too much. Burnout comes from doing work that belongs to someone else.” It is crucial - especially in today’s church - for clergy to NOT do all the work for our congregations, or anyone else we serve.
And here’s why:
1. We’re not leaving room
It’s a tricky balance between functioning and over-functioning. One of the strangest things I’ve noticed working with churches is clergy who say, ‘I do everything’, while members say, ‘no one asks me to do anything.’
The truth is, they are BOTH right! Clergy believe it is our job to make sure everything is done, from administration to worship to education to pastoral care.
We put this pressure on ourselves, often by saying ‘my community expects this of me’, but without really checking if this is true. At the same time, church members aren’t sure where to start, but with guidance and invitation, they are very willing to devote more energy to growing in their own faith, and sharing that with others. The trick is to notice the dynamic that makes the clergy ‘in charge’, rather than professional faith practitioners, there to offer guidance to disciples. We need to leave room for others.
And we need to leave room for God.
2. We’re secretly afraid
There is so much fear in the church today - fear that we are not growing, that there is too much work and not enough people to do it, fear that we can’t afford our buildings and salaries, fear that maybe nobody cares enough to continue sharing the love of God, and learning faith traditions and practices.
Fear that if we don’t do it, it really won’t get done.
All of these things might happen. It’s possible. But working ourselves to exhaustion won’t prevent it!
And - we are in the resurrection business..
We know our work is holy, and so we know that even if where and how we do ministry is changing, WHY is still the same:
to share the Good News. It will keep happening, with or without us.
We can count on that as we face our fears.
3. We don't know what else to do
The great unspoken assumption of clergy life is that we are in a congregation to do ‘everything’.
That we basically run a small non-profit organization and everything it entails, and we do so with fewer people than we have had before, and with little to no other paid staff.
Clergy are often the only full-time paid staff members (if we are paid full-time), and our salary and benefits are often 50% or more of a congregation's budget. Of course we do everything!
Of course we think it is all on our shoulders.
If there is one thing I wish all clergy knew it is this: less is more.
Our job is not to make our congregation larger, or more financially sound. It is to share the love of God, and to bear the sacraments, traditions, and Scripture of the Christian faith to others. It is to meet people where they are with this. It is to trust God in this process, and to leave ourselves - and others - the energy to feel God’s presence in this.
It is to DO less, and BELIEVE more.
Yes, it is possible that if we don’t do it, it won’t get done. But then we have to ask ourselves, ‘Was it something that really needed to be done?’ Is it possible that by letting go of some things, other things will grow?
Are we willing to put our faith before our fear and find out?