Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Stopping Clergy Burnout

On the Sojourners website, Layton Williams has an interesting post on clergy burnout: .

She makes some very good points about the tendency toward workaholism, and the failure of clergy to look after their spiritual life and physical health.  I myself have observed these problems in clergy practically my whole life, and have suffered from them myself.  Part of the problem is that we have adopted the ways of the world, and the expectations of worldly success.  A priest is expected to marry, have 2.4 children, live in a suburban house, advance up the career ladder from small parish to medium-sized parish to large parish, and end up as a cardinal rector, senior bureaucrat, or (real success) bishop.  Then one retires and plays golf or travels around.

Is it surprising that having adopted this pattern of worldly behavior, clergy suffer worldly ills?  Perhaps we need to rethink this.

Why are these choir stalls empty?

In many of our older churches and cathedrals we have choir stalls.  Historically that was for the clergy of the place to get their posteriors out of bed and go pray matins, and then pray in common the other offices of the church's liturgical day (for which those laity who could were encouraged to joi
n them).  They are designed, in short, for the common celebration of the mass and the offices of the day.  Nowadays those choir stalls are empty most of the week, except perhaps for an hour or two on Sunday morning.  Of all the signs that something is wrong, that we are not doing common prayer and the rest of a balanced priestly life as we ought, this strikes me as the strongest sign.

I think we need to rethink the idea that all clergy must be married, live suburban lives, move from place to place up the ladder, and then retire.  We need to rethink our rejection of the common life, and the assumption that the daily office is a private devotion that, in a few spare moments, we squeeze in, and then often say the bare required minimum, or less.  We need to rethink the idea that public worship is a show we put on to draw people in the door for one hour out tf the week.  We need to reoccupy the choir stalls.

The solution, I think, is to have a Rule for a balanced spiritual life for priests. One such rule for celibate clergy that I have been researching lately is that of the Canons Regular.  It is arguably the oldest form of religious life.  Prior to the destruction of the religious houses in the 16th century, monasteries of Canons Regular were the most common form of religious life in the Church of England (and in the rest of the West).  The canons regular committed themselves to stability (staying in one place), the common life, the common celebration of the Daily Office and the mass in choir, and to communal property.  On this basis they devoted themselves to pastoral work of various kinds.  What better model for priestly balance than this?

This is one model.  There are others.  However, whatever the model, I think only when we have gotten a handle on questions of stability, common life, and rule of life we we begin to tackle clergy burnout, and the destructive behavior—alcoholism, sexual misbehavior, etc.—that proceeds therefrom.  Only then, when we have a rule that puts God first, will we be able to address our own spiritual emptiness, and that of our people.

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