Several articles have recently reported on the alarming number of clergy exhausted by their work. Large numbers report that they are always “on.” It seems that in a work-obsessed society, pastors tend to be among the hardest workers. Too often they find themselves and a small cadre of their parishioners working themselves into exhaustion, while a much larger number enjoys the free ride (Michael Walzer). The solution seems obvious: clergy and their communities need to rethink the work they do together. They might begin by agreeing that clergy will work no more than five days per week.
As momentous a change as that would be, rest alone will not solve the problem for many pastors. Workplace burnout typically involves not only overwork but frustrating work, when individuals feel their work is in vain. Ironically, the problem for many clergy is not in trying to reach the larger world, but in dealing with their own congregations. In Congregations Gone Wild Jeffrey MacDonald complains that many clergy feel torn between their callings and their congregations. While MacDonald writes of this as a recent trend, in some sense it is nothing new. The book of Exodus, for example, famously records Moses being worn out by his “stiff-necked” congregation. This long history may only add to a pastor’s sense of futility, but the ancient story may also help explain why it is that so many pastors and parishioners feel alienated from one another.