Trying to Squeeze Blood from a Turnip?

Michael Metzger

Protestant pastors in America report high stress and burnout. Is some of this the result of trying to squeeze blood from a turnip?

These are not happy days for American pastors. 75 percent report being “extremely stressed” or “highly stressed.” 91 percent have suffered some form of burnout. And get this: in one survey, 100 percent of 1,050 Reformed and Evangelical pastors reported having a colleague who had left the ministry because of burnout, conflict, or moral failure.

And these stats are pre-Covid. Burnout rates have risen over the past year.

I know a bit about burnout. After eight years in the pastorate, I resigned. Burnt out. That was 1995. Since then, I’ve occasionally wondered whether Reformed and Evangelical traditions operate in a system perfectly designed to yield burnout.

I say that without malice. For me, it’s more about compassion for compatriots… and whether our system takes into account equilibrium. That’s Charles Taylor’s term for a tension found in older societies: that people move at different “speeds” toward sensing the fullness of what Taylor calls “the enchanted background.” Precious few are fast on the uptake and sense it. Most folks are slow. In fact, most hardly ever sense it.

Older civilizations were organized around accepting this spread between the dedicated and the less committed, with a kind of exchange between the laity and the clergy. For instance, in many Buddhist societies, the laity feed the monks, and thereby gain merit. It’s a see-saw, the committed few lifting the less committed, creating a kind of equilibrium.

If you think that’s unbiblical, think again. This exchange is very much in evidence in Asian, African and even the Western Christianity that emerged from the Dark Ages. It “involved accepting that masses of people were not going to live up to the demands of perfection.”[1]

Then something changed. The Enlightenment. In Western Christianity, it stirred a deep and growing dissatisfaction with equilibrium. This was manifested mostly in Reformed and Evangelical movements. Reform was a drive to make over the whole of society to higher standards. Reformers didn’t seek to abolish equilibrium altogether, but serious attempts were made to narrow the gap between the fastest and the slowest.

Evangelicals were less concerned with society, more concerned converting more people from slower to higher “speeds.” Efforts were made to get everyone in a small group, or make everyone a disciple, and so on. Both movements meant well but Taylor says they’re “destructive of the old enchanted universe” for they largely dispensed with the mystery of sacrament for the mechanics of a simpler faith that they felt more believers would grasp.

It hasn’t seemed to work. Sociological studies indicate the efforts of Reformed and Evangelical clergy have not “sped up” slower believers in congregations in any appreciable way. What has sped up is the rate of burnout among Reformed and Evangelical pastors. Are they trying to squeeze blood from a turnip? That’s an idiom meaning it’s impossible to produce a desired outcome where the conditions to provide it don’t exist. Equilibrium would say the conditions to “speed up” slower believers simply don’t exist… and never have.

A lot of social science supports this. Research indicates only 10 percent of a population is dedicated to making a difference. 90 percent simply tag along. And when we consider deeply dedicated influencers who change the world in a global way, the percentage is even smaller. The uncommitted majority are “lifted” by the few who are deeply committed.

Missionary studies support this. In 1987, I listened to the president of a large missionary organization report on his two years of travelling the globe to assess missionary impact. He concluded that only 10 percent of the total number of missionaries worldwide were effective, influential. 90 percent were not. He recommended bringing the 90 percent home and reallocating our entire worldwide resources to the 10 percent.

Never happened. He resigned two years later.

I close with three thoughts. And a question.

Over the years, pastors have asked for my advice on increasing their congregation’s involvement in ministry. I suggest they don’t try. Love the 90 percent, the less committed. Invest most of your church’s resources in the ten percent most likely to do something.

I’ve yet to see that happen.

Second, it seems we glimpse equilibrium in marriages between unbelieving and believing spouses. In some mysterious way, an unbelieving spouse is sanctified—made holy—by simply being married to a believer (I Cor.7:14). That makes sense in the marital gospel, where our bodies tell God’s story and we recognize marriage is two becoming bodily one. It doesn’t make sense in a disembodied gospel where dichotomies abound: we’re holy, pagans are not.

Third, equilibrium explains some of my church upbringing. It was traditional, meaning clergy weren’t trying to get the entire congregation involved in small groups, ministries, or whatever. Instead, all were invited to take and eat. Only a few congregants took this seriously. Most, like my family, didn’t. Yet these clergy don’t report high rates of burnout.

I’m not prepared to go to the cross for equilibrium, but I’m curious what my Reformed and Evangelical friends make of it. I love and respect them but lament the high rates of burnout. My question is: are we trying to squeeze blood from a turnip?


[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 61.


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  1. Very thought-provoking, Mike. Without doing all the research that you do, here’s an alternative explanation to clergy burnout: clergy are trying to all the work themselves. While I agree that there’s always a sense of the “remnant” – your 10% – there’s also evidence that there were way more people serious about living out their faith in the early years of the church. In the article, your proof for this idea is not unbiblical is not the Bible but history “after the dark ages.” In the Bible, the church at Antioch was founded by ordinary lay people. Acts 8.4, 11.19-21. Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity documents the many ways that ordinary people made a difference so much so that the 120 in Acts 1 became half the Roman Empire by 300. Then what happened? The movement was institutionalized into buildings with clergy. And most clergy from all traditions have completely forgotten the charge to church leaders to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” (Ephesians 4.11 – 13)

  2. Your posts are always thought-provoking, Mike, but this one is exceptionally so. It is worth pausing to consider whether our relentless efforts towards commitment, evangelism, and whole-life discipleship are pointed at the unmotivated 90% or the highly engaged 10% (not entirely sure about those percentages, but I take your point). Maybe it’s time to let pew-sitters be pew-sitters, instead of trying to whip them into the world-changers they are not. I’m not ready to fully sign onto this program yet, but it is certainly worth thinking about some more. Well done.

  3. Bob:

    I largely agree with you… until the second part of your comments. Stark only comments on the Roman (i.e. Latin) church. Philip Jenkins reminds us of Asian, African, and even Celtic traditions. Few, as you say, were “institutionalized into buildings with clergy.” Rather, in many cases, clergy, drawing on the Jewishness of the early church, thought in terms of institutions and thereby impacted various cultures. From this came an appreciation for embedding cultures in distinctive architecture and buildings that displayed God as a sphere (c.f. Iain McCilchrist, “The Master and His Emissary”). I would challenge your conclusion that “most clergy from all traditions have completely forgot the charge to equip…” That seems a bit over the top.

  4. Mike,

    Very interesting but I am left with more questions. Maybe that is your underlying goal with your blogs.

    Both references supporting the 10/90% split between dedicated and “tag-alongs” did not seem to be church related pieces. The other anecdotal piece regarding the mission president’s finding dated back to 1987. Can I assume from your past associations, this was Campus Crusade for Christ? I am not surprised he left within one year. Most missionaries are charged with raising their own support. If they feel a little heat from upper management, they take their support to another agency who will enable them to go with the flow.

    Of course, underlying this analysis of church and parachurch leadership is the notion that leaders want to make a difference. An observation I have made that many of my reformed theologians (of which I am one) place a high degree of attention on God’s sovereignty as the unifying theme of all of Scripture. Yet, I find very few have found “rest” in this attribute of God who is also considered all good all of the time. It makes me wonder if they have a distorted view of how important they are to God’s overall sovereign reign in this world. Although they would never state it like this, there seems to be an underlying sentiment that, “Gee, isn’t God fortunate to have me on His team.” That is a far different sentiment than one who sees themselves as Luther says, “privileged to participate in God’s providential care for His kingdom.
    I am wondering if we let God through his Holy Spirit be concerned about the movers and shakers percentages, and focus more on being faithful servants of God who are on our knees in prayer for a world that is lost and losing interest in spiritual renewal. As Keller says, the most potent evangelical incident is when someone experiences a “brush” with the power of our creator. I think we can get more done in the area of renewal by praying that more people would experience these touchstone moments with their God. We have seen the fallacy of mega churches preoccupied with numbers and leadership development strategies. Quite possibly, the focus needs to be on experiencing and celebrating the ongoing presence of God for the sake of others (Mulholland).

  5. Tim:

    Well, I do admit that one of my underlying goals it to stir our thinking. So don’t give away my game!

    In fact, it was not Cru, but rather, the oldest missions organization in the US. And fund raising wasn’t a factor, as my experience indicates if you can write a good fund-raising letter, you can raise money.

    Since my background is not in the Reformed tradition, I defer to your judgment on Reformed theologians. Taylor’s comments are closer to C. S. Lewis’ concern (and Christopher West’s for that matter), that Reformed and Evangelical traditions generally espouse a disembodied, left-brain, gospel communicated in concepts and principles. Not communicated through our bodies, or in sacramental faith traditions that predate the Western Enlightenment.

    As to your comments regarding prayer, I do indeed agree. Amen.

    Finally, while the scope of the studies I cite extend beyond the church, they include the church, since the church does not get “a pass” from swimming in the same cultural waters that everyone else swims in. So I see it less as “moving with the movers and shakers” and more with the mystery that the writer Walker Percy described in “The Moviegoer.” An active Catholic, Percy’s observation of life indicated the search for meaning is mostly played out this way: “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” Most the research I can get my hands on indicates most people, including Christians, are sunk in the everydayness of their own life. Doesn’t make ’em bad. Doesn’t make ’em inferior. But it does mean they move at slower speeds.

  6. I’m curious since my son is on an overseas trip this summer, what criteria did the missionary board president use to determine effectiveness in his 1987 speech? In his book B.L.E.S.S., Dave Ferguson quotes a study of 2 missionary groups. (Forgive me if my numbers are off; I couldn’t find the book on my shelf.) One group went to a country with the express purpose of evangelizing; the other went to a country to bless the country by loving them as neighbors. After 2 years, you guessed it, the evangelizing missions team had won a single handed number of converts, while the missionaries that sought to bless their new neighbors had a new thriving church of 200 members. Making your point, that the typical cookie cutter evangelical church method of making disciples isn’t as effective as Jesus’ way to love God first and then love neighbors.

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