G. Jeffrey MacDonald posted a very thoughtful op-ed piece in the New York Times over the weekend, “Congregations Gone Wild.” Responding to recent concerns that clergy are over-working themselves, MacDonald argues that much of the problem comes from the growing pressure for clergy to meet the constantly changing wishes and desires of congregants in a consumerized church.
The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.
MacDonald concludes that the inevitable result is burnout. “As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.”
In contrast, MacDonald reminds us that ministry is not about meeting felt needs, but about calling people to engage real needs.
At their courageous best, clergy lead where people aren’t asking to go, because that’s how the range of issues that concern them expands, and how a holy community gets formed.
Of course, we can’t ignore what people think they need. But at its best, that is merely a step along the way; at the worst it is a distraction and the road to burnout.
MacDonald concludes by calling on church members to realize the importance of being challenged beyond the ordinary and by envisioning what ministry can be:
When such an ethic takes root, as it has in generations past, then pastors will cease to feel like the spiritual equivalents of concierges. They’ll again know joy in ministering among people who share their sense of purpose. They might even be on fire again for their calling, rather than on a path to premature burnout.
Take some time to read the whole article. It is worth reflecting on.