I’ve read your article, “The Coming Pastoral Crisis” several times now. Some clergy seem to be resonating and identifying with your words. For them, I’m glad. I am deeply offended by your words. Your broad generalizations are critical and damaging to clergy. You see us as victims and martyrs. And your words denigrate our work. And so, I beg to differ.
While you may not claim to speak for the brotherhood of clergy, I’m glad to speak up for the many clergy siblings I know and love who are criticized, betrayed, and mischaracterized by the insulting and pedantic way you describe us. I cannot speak for all clergy, but I can speak for a diverse group of inter-faith clergy colleagues. We are of many gender identities and sexual orientations, of many different races and ethnicities, of many different ages. We speak many different languages, occupy different stories, and come from different socio-economic backgrounds. And yet. We are united by our love of God, our love of peace, and our love of the people that we serve. We are, along with our people, the tapestry of God’s diverse, perfect love.
You say we are serving in ways for which we were not trained and have no experience. I am humbled every day by the work of ministry, and I am keenly aware that it is often too big a task for mere mortals. I am also aware of the many different methods of training, formation, and continuing education in which we participate. We spend time in hospitals for CPE, in fellowships, internships, and degree programs. We continue to read and study. And John, while the platform(s) of our ministry have changed in the time of COVID-19, the work itself has not: our job is to love God’s people and to point them to God. We are highly trained and experienced in this work. And as we form new clergy, we prepare them for the unknown because the future is cloudy. We know that we won’t always be able to see what’s coming. The days of clear vision and neatly packaged mission statements are over. Really, they’ve been over for a long time. And still, God never fails the faithful. So we are inspired, empowered, and ready to go.
You say we are doing our best, but are unable to keep it up. Ministry has always been demanding work. God’s work is never easy. It’s heartbreaking, challenging work. John, I agree that ministry is harder now in some ways. But I’m sure that you’d agree that none of us signed up for this expecting a sunny day, a walk in the park, and an ice cream. When I took vows at my ordination, I had no idea what was coming, but I knew that I would bury the dead, counsel struggling marital couples, bless babies, confront injustice, be loved and unloved, insulted and celebrated. This is what we all sign up for. By God’s grace, and with a little help from our friends, we will keep it up as lovingly and urgently as we always have. While you paint us as helpless and hopeless, I see a people who are adapting, transforming, and rising to the occasion.
You say that we are worried about ministries that are unable to operate and that the collapse of job and financial markets impacts the church. This is true. The pressure from every direction to open or not, to keep things going, to keep everyone connected, to pay all the bills is difficult. You’re quite right. There aren’t enough hours in the day to answer all the emails, make all the phone calls, run all the programs, and do everything else we’d like to do. And because we care, we carry this close to our hearts.
You say that we are exhausted. Less gathering does not equal less work. We are exhausted. I agree. All of us are making the best decisions we can with the imperfect information we have. All of us are working at least doubly hard. And still, we are not victims. We are not martyrs. I do not see the doom and gloom you describe. I see dedication.
You say that we are not feeding our souls. And that is hogwash. The clergy I know do a great many things to find and be fed by God. We cook. We bike. We write. We pray. We run. We sing. We write music. We write midrash. We march for Black Lives Matter. We vote to protect and respect the dignity of every human being. We paint. We create Facebook baking groups that turn into beloved community. We pet our dogs and feed our cats. We might even be thinking about getting a bird. Perhaps, John, you might consider that some of us are private people, even though we are often in the center of things. Perhaps we feed ourselves quietly, privately, alone with our God.
You say that we are not physically healthy. You don’t want to mention it – but then you do! You are critical of our bodies. Your words are ableist and fat-shaming. As if to be a good clergy person, we have to fit into the bodies society airbrushes to perfection. Each one of us is made by the same Creator, each one given the divine spark of God. Our bodies belong to us. And you have no right to judge how we keep them or how we use them. Each one of us is beautifully and wonderfully made; there need be no shame, here. Your criticism panders to a society that focuses far too much on individualism and superficial beauty. Is it not true that God looks upon the heart? And does not see with human eyes?
You say that we do not seek out mental health. Every clergy person I know sees a therapist, a psychiatrist, or is a part of a clergy support group. Including me. Some of us do multiple configurations of these things in order to keep ourselves mentally healthy. We know that our work is hard. So, while we don’t pass on things shared in confidence, sometimes we need backup. We have safe places to talk when congregational politics wound us and sensitive situations pull on our own stories. Mental health is built into the expectations of our ordination processes, requiring that candidates begin working with therapists and spiritual directors in order to learn these healthy habits. And when we are ordained, we lean on each other, on mentors and friends, we share our struggles, we share our stories, we build each other up.
You say that we have conformed to a 7 day a week schedule and are unwilling to take time off. Yes. Being online has changed the way that we work. Yes, it has meant significantly less time off. And yet, because it’s important, we are finding ways to take time off this summer to recharge. Many of us are grateful for the gift of lay people who step in to help so that we can unplug, even if it’s just for a few days at a time. I feel this personally, and I know that many of my colleagues do as well. What you say here is damaging to us, you make our generosity and our devotion look weak and ego driven. And I couldn’t disagree with you more.
You say that we are in dangerous spiritual territory and you suggest that this time has made temptations irresistible. You name them: drugs, alcohol, porn, gluttony, and excessive television. Could you have picked a more dramatic list? For many reasons, I must ask: How dare you? Your list of vices and temptations is nothing more than the kind of scandal that St. Paul warns us against, urging us to mark our words and watch our tongues so that we don’t lead anyone else astray. It’s tone deaf and insensitive to our colleagues who are in recovery and it creates chaos and doubt where there is none.
And so, to all of this I say: You underestimate us. You underestimate the people we serve. You underestimate the God we serve. Your words serve only to criticize hardworking clergy all over the country who are doing their best to love God and serve God’s people. It’s offensive and it’s irresponsible. In making these accusations, you encourage the people we serve to worry, to wonder, to question our ability to serve them. And in so doing, you defeat the entire project of ministry.
There is a very real clergy crisis in this country. This crisis isn’t coming. It is already here. There are many clergy retiring early, burning out, and leaving the ministry altogether. My colleagues who are leaving during this time all cite the same reasons, and none of them reflect your reasoning. Clergy are leaving congregations because of a general lack of support from lay leadership. They’re leaving because they can’t meet half the items on an ever-growing laundry list of consumerist desires. Because congregational politics are rarely centered on faith. Clergy leave congregations because of a lack of sacred relationships. Because they feel bullied, because they feel betrayed, because they feel undervalued. We aren’t leaving because the work is hard. John, the work has always been hard. Clergy leave congregations because loving God and their people at the same time has become too painful.
A dear friend of mine said a few weeks ago that, “the most painful thing is thinking you’ve invested time in sacred relationships with lay leadership, and then discovering that you’re actually just the help.” Instead of a sacred partnership, the shared leadership you thought you were building, it becomes clear that you’re just the help. And my friend is spot on. This is a deeply painful experience that happens to all of us. It happens many times throughout our lives as clergy, and it hurts every time. This is why clergy are leaving positions and congregations in higher numbers than ever before. COVID-19, with all its challenges, has highlighted the lack of sacred relationships, the lack of respect, the lack of gratitude. And where clergy are leaving because they’re healthy, because they know they deserve better, I commend their decision. Each one of us deserves to live, work, serve, and be in a place where the people we serve are as grateful for us as we are for them. Mutual sacred relationships are the key.
I’ve been asked several times to write a piece about the pressures clergy are facing now. And I’ve put it off. Because we are not the ones who are truly suffering. John, I don’t have to tell you that there are too many people dying of COVID-19, too many people are sick. As clergy, we are (most of us) not on the front lines the way that healthcare and essential workers are. We are not wearing PPE until our faces bleed. We are not bearing the brunt of this. Yes, our work is certainly harder than it was in February 2020. And yet. We are not the ones bearing the weight of this crisis. And that isn’t our only problem right now. Violence continues to be inflicted on black and brown bodies all over this country. And hatred and racism are alive and well. Not to mention our folks who have lost jobs, loved ones, and are experiencing many other kinds of injustice and oppression.
So, John, the next time you write an article about your sibling clergy, I hope you’ll say something different. When you acknowledge that lay leaders don’t understand the ministerial life, and seek to give them advice about how to support us, I hope you’ll say something more like this:
Thank your clergy. You would be amazed at how much a simple, heart-felt thank you means. A lot of us actually save them in a file or a special archive spot in our email. And we go back to those notes on the hard days to remind ourselves that our work does make a difference. A thank you – with no strings, no agenda – means the world. We don’t need grand gestures or emotional displays. Just some thanks. Last week, I received a 2 sentence thank you from someone about an email I sent to the parish. It was simple and kind. It acknowledged the consistency of my work. And it made my month.
Support us with your words and your presence. Be present. Come to events, encourage others to come, too. Show us that our work matters to you. Remember that if you talk about us, we will always hear it eventually – whether you said something kind or critical. Eventually someone always tells us. Critical comments and accusations are especially damaging if they come from a lay leader. And it’s the kind of thing that encourages clergy to leave otherwise happy positions.
Give your clergy the benefit of the doubt. None of us have worked through a pandemic before and none of us know what’s coming next. You may not always agree with the decisions we make as we navigate this time, but chances are, your clergy person has made them with you and your best interests in mind. Remember that we are people, too. We take our work very seriously, but it isn’t all of who we are. We also have personal lives and struggles that we often carry quietly. Most of the people we serve don’t know us well enough to know what’s going on in our personal lives – and that is a good thing! Like you, your clergy person has a life that is sometimes hard. Give us the benefit of the doubt and encourage others to do the same.
Let us do our jobs. We have been called, hired, and chosen to do the work we do. From our positions of trust, we see a bigger picture, often in detail that we cannot share with you. If you’ve offered an opinion or an idea that we aren’t accepting, if you’re disappointed in something, if we disagree – remember that we see things differently. We are charged with the health and wholeness of the whole congregation. Be present, participate, and do the work that is yours to do, whatever that is in your tradition. That supports us in our work in hugely meaningful ways. Don't try to do our work. Support us by doing what's really yours to do.
Don’t tell us how to take care of ourselves. We already know how to do this. And you are not the judge of how well we’re doing it! We have mentors, friends, Bishops, spouses, therapists, and more. Don’t assume that you know what we should do or how we should work.
Know that we love you. That’s why we’re here. Because we love God. And we love you. And when we work hard and make sacrifices, we do it joyfully.
Dear John, you are in my prayers. If your words reflect how you and some of your colleagues feel, know that I am praying for you. And know, too that this is not the truth for many of us. Also, I pray that you’ll keep in mind that we have a larger responsibility to each other, to be mindful of the way we speak about one another. To avoid scandal and salacious accusations. The long-term damage, not only to us, but to our people, is simply too great. I hope that you'll encourage a different kind of support for our clergy siblings, support that includes respect and gratitude. Support that really is support. God bless you and keep you.
The Rev. Marissa Rohrbach +