24 May 2012
What this does to the atmosphere surrounding the clergy is infuse a sense of being overly pragmatic in all areas of life, theology and ministry. In other words, the necessity of having a sermon (and probably some Bible study) ready to go on Sunday makes the week, already filled with a multitude of pastoral responsibilities - a push to prepare for that one day. All of this can often lead the pastor to a feeling of emptiness, and from there down the line to burnout.
I have never experienced a burnt out feeling from pastoring, but there have been many times when I have been empty and had no more to give. It is in these moments when pastors need to be pastored, and it is when they begin to feel the most isolated and alone. If Vin Scully can refer to the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium as "the loneliest spot in the world," then we can refer to the pastor's pulpit as the same. But just as a pitcher takes the game with him (win or lose) as he steps off the field, so does the pastoral vocation follow the preacher.
There is a basic two-sided approach to dealing with this emptiness. Those who are responsible are the pastor and the pastor's church leadership. Both sides then need to take a two-step approach: recognize and identify the potential for emptiness, and take the time to combat it. Rather than going through the more "corporate" or "leadershipy" lingo about this, let me say it in a more pragmatic way. Pastors, we need to find ways of getting out of the normal routine and breathe. However, I don't think that extra vacations are the answer; these times of refreshment should be an intake which inspires and nourishes.
Read books. Yes, you already do this . . . some. The statistics on pastors who engage in serious reading as part of their normal routine are alarmingly low. I remember a few years ago when a pastoral survey of reading and self-education was submitted to our district leadership, one of our pastors listed only "The Sporting News" as what he had engaged in that year. Still, there are many pastors who take the art of sermon preparation seriously, and engage in academic study week after week. What this leaves out, then, is time to allow our minds to ponder on greater issues, our spirits to be challenged by bigger thoughts, and our perspectives to be widened by other voices. Find time when you can read without needing "to get something I can preach out of it" and explore things that are interesting to you, yet connected to your vocation as a pastor.
Listen to sermons. Most of the time pastors don't have an opportunity to hear others preach. Sometimes we get into our own modes and rhythms, that this can be such a benefit even beyond our personal spiritual growth. Grab podcasts, visit other church's websites, or even attend services on your off days. Again, this doesn't need to be an all-the-time routine, but it is something that helps combat the emptiness.
Pray. When pastors get caught up in the week-to-week routine, we sometimes get to the point where prayer becomes difficult. I might suppose that this is because we are so used to pouring out that we think that we need to produce some great thoughts and words for God. We forget that many times our prayer is simply to receive, to be on the intake, and allow his Spirit to renew us. This is vital, and our enemy would rather us not remember it.
Some will undoubtedly say that this sounds simple, but in reality is unrealistic for the average pastor. Not only does this response expose what a poor and unhealthy concept of pastoring we have in our culture, but it also makes me wonder if we are content to allow ourselves to be convinced that we are that important . . . that we cannot leave the work of the church for one week without it collapsing around us. Once more, our enemy would love if we never realized the truth of the matter.
On a personal note, I write this having just gone through a cycle of encroaching emptiness. I took time and pushed (very difficultly) through and worked ahead in my weekly schedule. Therefore, most of this week has been devoted to being alone and reading - books that are interesting (yet fruitful), but which have no direct connection to sermon prep (actually, I did find a few bits that I worked back into the previously prepared talk (!)). I allowed myself the chance to breathe. I took advantage of the time, for I do not know when it will become available again.