Burnout is no joke. We have seen plenty of it, among colleagues and also -- in our youth -- among schoolteachers. It often affects the most seemingly gifted, too, rendering their bright eyes dull, their creative approaches mere rote, those in their charge resentful and unhappy. Not to mention the secondary evils that accompany the condition, such as boozing and getting fat. Everybody is served by finding the roots of burnout, and the remedy.
G. Jeffrey Macdonald, in a Times op-ed piece (for which the biretta tips gratefully to Fr. William of the Beach) writes that burnout occurs because of "consumer-driven religion," in which "churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them," rather than challenge, admonish or lead. The claim is broad, but not without evidence. He points to the mass defections from a few extremely large congregations "when their respective preachers refused to bless the congregations’ preferred political agendas and consumerist lifestyles."
But, as Scott Fitgerald said, mega-churches are different from you and me. Macdonald's most compelling evidence is his own experience: "In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves."
Yikes. This is theology of glory in the purest sense. And yet it does ring true. A seminary classmate once described the entire churchgoing experience of his denomination, which shall remain nameless, in similar terms: "They just want to to hear how great they are."
He's surely on to something. Years ago, we sat with an especially acerbic and counter-cultural priest of the PECUSA, who warned us that only the clergy itself could protect its call to the cure of souls. He explained that people don't want pastors anymore, but rather that "half your people want you to be a performance artist, the other half want you to be a cruise director." We saw his wisdom immediately.
Yet we aren't entirely convinced by Macdonald's analysis. In our own experience, a very significant number of parishioners have come to church looking for more than entertainment. They come willing, sometimes even eager, to be poked and prodded -- so long as the poking is done carefully, and with many assurances of love. (We have also found this to be more true in the city than the suburbs.) But perhaps this simply means that the new school of religiosity has not yet obliterated the old.
One thing we know for sure is that the need for rest and relaxation isn't the source of the burnout problem. At most, it is a symptom. The most convincing explanation of burnout that we have ever read was in (of all places) New York Magazine, a couple of years ago. Quite compatible with Macdonald's piece, the article proposed that burnout occurs when the disparity between expectations and reality becomes too large. As a result, it is people who set out with the highest ideals -- teachers and pastors -- who are prone to the deepest despair.