Clergy burnout is more rampant than ever. The stats bear this out. But pastors are also far better equipped, educated and resourced than ever. Despite the calls for intellectual, psychological or administrative increases in the ever-lengthening list of “ministerial” skills, pastors receive far better practical training than they used to. Yet well-trained clergy are leaving the ministry in droves.
I wonder whether an aspect of the problem lies in the very idea of ministerial training as the acquisition of aggregate skills. “If you have an intermediate skill level in these twelve loosely related areas, you will be qualified for a successful ministry.” Now I certainly want pastors to be good exegetes, good listeners, good preachers, good at running stuff, etc. But there must be something beneath all these skills that ties them together. There must be something that grounds them, motivates them and gives them life.
A clue to this puzzle dawned on me while reading Romans 10. The famous passage of the necessity of preachers for the salvation of the world actually follows directly Paul’s strange interpretation of the ascending and descending mentioned in Deut 30 as the death and resurrection of Christ. It is only on the heels of this elusive exegesis that Paul move into his praise for the necessity of preaching. He moves from the greatest mystery into the need for ministry, without a pause or transition. Mystery (typically reserved for ivory tower theologians) and ministry (the practice of those aggregate skills) stand side by side. And if you think this is just a fluke, then check out Ephesians 4 where Paul moves comfortably from a similar mention of the descent and ascent of Christ to the giving of gifts to the various ministers in the church. Apparently, it is the mysterious cosmic Lordship of Christ that unites, grounds and motivates a minister’s preaching, leading, listening, etc.
In other words, when asked why we do what we do as ministers, the short answer might go something like this: "Jesus is the resurrected Lord of the universe and I am pressed into his service."
Will this simple thought alone prevent clergy burnout? Certainly not. But maybe it can help us begin to think through the unity of theological education (both initial and continuing) that gets beyond the "grab bag of skills" mentality. Because being good-at-stuff won’t get one through a dark night of the soul.