Renewing Ourselves

  In the August 7 edition of the New York Times, G. Jeffery McDonald, a minister in the United Church of Christ serving a congregation in Swampscott, Massachusetts, wrote a guest editorial on clergy burnout.  Yes, he wrote, clergy work too hard, and therefore are prone to burnout.  But he felt there was a more fundamental problem.  Congregants, he wrote, resist the efforts of the clergy to help them to grow spiritually.  There is congregational pressure on the minister “to forsake his highest calling.” Congregants are more interested in clergy who entertain them than those who edify them.  “As religion becomes a consumer experience,” he writes, “The clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.”  (You can read the full text of the article at The editorial received a number of interesting responses from readers.  One responder wrote that, in his opinion, the problem of clergy burnout was related to the loss of belief, among clergy and their congregants,  “in the fundamental narratives of Christianity and Judaism, the biblical concepts of divinity in relation to humanity.”  He advocated a radically revised theological perspective that would respond to the radically new conditions in which we live.  Another responder put it more bluntly, arguing that instead of blaming congregants for being obtuse, we would more likely find the source of the problem in the irrelevant teachings of the church or synagogue.   The letter that rang true to me was written by Bonnie Anderson, an ordained minister and the President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church.  She wrote that the source of clergy burnout was the provider-consumer paradigm that many Houses of Worship have.  In this model, the clergy are seen as “providers” and the congregants as “consumers” of services:  “Ministry is not solely the work of professionally trained clergy. Rather it is a shared enterprise in which lay people are equal partners. Clergy burnout occurs because both parties lose sight of this fact. The result is clergy who believe that they must meet everyone’s needs while playing the role of a lone superhero, and members of the laity who are either infantilized or embittered because they cannot make meaningful contributions to their church.” As we enter this New Year, it is timely to take stock of ourselves and ask how members can help renew our community and take more ownership for having their needs met.   Congregation Beth Shalom is already pretty much a shared enterprise where members are equal partners.  However, we are always in need of congregants to step forth and read torah, teach a course, visit the sick and homebound, deliver a sermon, run a program, or otherwise share in the wonderful enterprise that is Congregation Beth Shalom.  Doing so will strengthen and renew us all. Shana Tova