Burnout is a pressing concern of clergy—perhaps today more than ever before. Exhausted, overwhelmed, and caught up in a vocation that no longer embodies the meaning it once had, a pastor may fear that the clergy life, which once made sense, has disintegrated beyond repair. As increasing numbers of clergy suffer the symptoms, we must wonder why burnout seems so widespread today, after decades in which the malady was much discussed and presumably well understood.
Could it be that some of the “burnt-out” clergy are experiencing something more fundamental than exhaustion? If so, does a common theme unite some of these struggles? Could these experiences of burnout have more to do with personal transition and growth issues than with dysfunction? And if that is so, could an understanding of the process help us persevere through these crises with more compassion for both others and ourselves? If we better understood the concept that feelings of distance and alienation are a necessary part of the transition, would we be less likely to believe that we need to leave a relationship, a congregation, or the ministry to achieve resolution in our lives?
Things Fall Apart
“Constructive-developmental personality theory,” an idea developed by psychologist Robert Kegan, deals with human growth and the ways we understand our relationship to the rest of the world. It also addresses those terrible times of transition when everything falls apart and one is caught totally off balance, feeling that nothing makes sense anymore and uncertain that it ever will again.1 Although in one sense we are always growing and learning, and changing, these times of profound transition are few. If we fail to understand them, they can overwhelm us, for the way we have understood the world and ourselves to function is giving way.
Transition is a time of profound loss, for if we are to view the world from a new perspective, our old way of understanding must die. For people who are autonomous (self-differentiated),2 this time of transition is especially intense, and can cause us to question our closest relationships, our call to a particular congregation, or the vocation of ministry itself. It is this process on which I reflect.
Church leaders who see the world from the vantage point of autonomy (self-differentiation) often experience this transition as a vocational crisis. Autonomous people tend to experience a sense of completion for themselves and their lives through their vocation. For pastors, the tie to vocation is especially strong because our vocations are intertwined with our faith.
Rather than saying “I have this job to do within the church” or “I have been given this task as a child of God,” we are likely to assert that not only is our work what we do but also who we are. This intermingling of self and vocation has more to do with seeing life through the lens of autonomy than it does with faith issues. Autonomous people in other vocations would tend to feel the same: that their vocation somehow completes them and tells them who they are. For church leaders, however, the tie of self and vocation is so strong that we often have difficulty seeing ourselves as people apart from our work. We tend to equate our call as pastors with our call as children of God; we have difficulty seeing where vocation ends and self begins. As a result, ongoing tension in the congregation or a job loss can catapult clergy into a time of painful questioning that plants the seeds of transition.
Life Turned Upside Down
Aging increases the possibility that transition will occur. Many second-career pastors now enter the ministry in their 40s or beyond. Because of their maturity, it is more likely that transition for these pastors may begin at a fairly early stage of ministry (that is, within the first five years). If that happens, these pastors may find themselves wondering why they ever turned their personal and professional lives upside down to answer a call that they now question.
For example, I was ordained at age 44, with a background and interest in behavioral dynamics. I felt prepared to meet whatever life and the parish might throw at me. But I was unprepared for how quickly I would feel my limitations, and how overwhelming that experience would be. I vacillated between despairing that the congregation would never change and feeling inadequate to the call. It became clear to me, because of my experience with Kegan’s theory, that more was at stake than my needing to learn new skills and information. Life has a way of taking us to our limits and, in so doing, issuing an invitation to journey. While we may not know what lies ahead, we sense that to refuse the invitation could mean that something precious, struggling to be born, might not be given voice and life.
Directing Anger Outward
As we step out on the first stages of the journey, we feel that the world no longer works as it should. We can direct these feelings toward our spouses, our congregations, or the church itself; but the common thread is the conviction that if only they would straighten up, I would be OK. What we are struggling to do is to hold onto ourselves—keep ourselves together—in the face of a situation that no longer makes sense. Blame and anger are directed outward.
Sooner or later in this journey, however, we will reach a place where we begin to question ourselves, and to believe that we are the ones who do not “work” anymore. The world is OK and everyone else seems to have a place in it, but we feel disconnected, insubstantial; we have no idea whether life will ever come together again in a meaningful way.
Kegan discusses this process in detail in chapter 9 of The Evolving Self.3 One idea, I believe, may be particularly helpful to us in ministry—the concept of pushing away people and things that represent our old way of understanding the world.
When we begin to move away from our old way of understanding, we naturally reject what has been part of the old perspective. We will eventually recover these things in new and richer ways, but that recovery is still far in the future. For quite some time, we will be in a vulnerable state of mind, feeling that we may need to jettison certain commitments such as marriage, leadership of a congregation, or the ministry as vocation if we are to get our lives together and move on. At this point the pain may be so deep and the struggle so oppressive that we seek relief at any price. What is happening, though, is that we are confusing our partner in marriage or our partners in work with the side of ourselves we now have trouble accepting, the part that no longer works and that we want to abandon as quickly as possible.4
No Solid Ground
An added complication to this time of transition: Autonomous people tend to identify strongly with certain principles—such as integrity, justice, competence—and see these principles or standards as part of who they are.5 Thus, if an autonomous person’s integrity or competence is questioned, one may feel that that his or her very selfhood is being challenged.
As this autonomous way of seeing begins to disintegrate, one will also feel a disintegration of the standards with which one has identified. Suddenly a void opens where universal principles used to be, and the individual is no longer certain of truths on which to rely. A by-product of the awareness that one no longer stands on the solid ground of standards is despair or cynicism. For a child of God, the anguish of this stage may result in a choice to opt out of ventures or relationships to which one had been deeply committed.
Kegan describes this juncture as a sense of leaving the moral world behind, feeling beyond good and evil, or having no way to distinguish wrong and right that is worthy of one’s respect. If the journey ended here, we would be left with despair or cynicism.6 While these feelings are intrinsic to the time of transition, they are not to be permanent stopping places for the people of God. The fact that we cannot see God’s truths accurately and completely does not mean that no truths endure to be known. What we will come to realize in a deeper way, if we allow enough time to the journey, is that we do indeed see through a glass darkly but that God is still with us and anchors us on life’s continuing journey.
The Necessity of Grief
Throughout this process we will grieve because our understanding of the way life works has suddenly, it seems, been wrenched from us. We will mourn specific losses; we will mourn that loss is a fact of life. What we are most mourning, in a myriad of ways, is the loss of ourselves and our place in the world as we knew it. This transition does not happen overnight or in one giant step; it is an ongoing process that includes times of extraordinary intensity.
We will have moments of joy and peace when things seem to come together, but will likely then find ourselves thrown into turmoil once more. Our way of seeing affects every part of our lives, and we will come to see in new ways, piece by piece, before final resolution comes. But grace abounds, always grace. Our glimpses of peace and renewed joy in life are a taste of what lies ahead. We can trust the purpose of the journey because we know that God is present in it.
Understanding the process does not lessen its intensity. The experience is necessary for growth and cannot be avoided. The process is indicative of neither dysfunction nor an inability to handle matters appropriately. From the perspective of human development, this time of transition beyond autonomy will be one of the deepest and most profound of our lives.
Hope is Present
Understanding the process can give us insight into what is happening and perhaps encourage us to persevere through the journey without making major decisions we may regret for the rest of our lives. Hope is present: although the struggle feels like death, we know that in reality new life struggles to be born. Eventually we will realize that nothing has been lost, that what has come before is recovered in new ways, and so we are doubly blessed.
The call of Abram in Genesis 12 is applicable to this experience, for Abram was called from his country, his familiar place, out into the unknown. He was given a promise by God that the journey had purpose. Even such a promise can be hard to hang onto when we arrive at the most difficult places and have no idea where or when the journey will end; but we, like Abram, can believe that journeys always contain possibilities for new life.
God tells Abram that God will bless Abram so that Abram in turn may be a blessing. That is, after all, what makes the journey worthwhile. As we grow and experience new life again and again, we are put in a place where we can be a greater blessing to those who too must make the journey, and who perhaps find parts of the journey difficult to bear. We bring into the process ourselves—not our expertise, but our compassionate and understanding presence made possible because of the compassionate and understanding presence of God—and in doing so, provide for others what every human being in existence needs: a tangible affirmation that we do not make this journey alone.7
We, like Abram, embark on this journey with no guarantee, except that God goes with us. At times that will be all we have, but it will be enough. We learn this truth and live it because—by the graciousness of God—we come to that place in our own journey where we are able to say, with absolute conviction, that the journey was indeed worthwhile.
1. This theory is presented in detail in Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), and applied to contemporary life issues in Kegan, In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).
2. The capacity to understand self as separate from others, holding one’s own opinions and views.
3. Kegan, Evolving Self, 255–273.
4. Ibid., 250.
5. Ibid., 102.
6. Ibid., 232–233.
7. Karen Minnich-Sadler, “A Congregation in Conflict: Applying Robert Kegan’s Constructive-Developmental Personality Theory to the Underlying Issues” (D.Min. project, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, 2000), 36–37.