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.”
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?
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 61.