I’ve been working professionally in churches since 1997. In that time, other than a six month period of unemployment (which is hardly restful), I’ve never had more than two weeks away from church business. About half way through 2019, burnout was setting in big time, and my District Superintendent and I began talking about a renewal leave for me in the Summer of 2020. Then 2020 happened. By the time the Summer of 2021 rolled around, a leave was no longer a question. It had to happen and soon. Then we were struck with a family crisis, and my DS really went to bat for me and got me 8 weeks away.
The question became, what will I do while on leave? Well, first and foremost I needed to tend to my family. But after that settled a bit, I found myself so burnt out that all I could do was… nothing. My days were mostly spent reading the New York Times and doing some minor house projects, and by not busying myself, I actually had time to reflect. A favorite song of mine sings, “If you slow down long enough, you’ll come present to your pain” (Joel Hanson, “Peace of God”). What is all this burnout about? What in it is my due to my own habits, control issues, and murky boundaries? What in it is due to external forces? Those questions led to the most crucial question for me in this leave which was whether I even wanted to be a pastor anymore or not. Coming out of my leave, the answer was “Yes”. But also “No”. Here’s what happened:
As soon as Advent rolled around, I found myself yearning to lead a community in lighting the candles and praying the prayers (like Ricky Bobby, I like the baby Jesus the best). This yearning told me that at some level this what I am indeed tuned to do. But it must be done differently. And as I reflected, I discerned that doing it differently is not just for me. Yes, I have my own “stuff” in this (which I don’t feel a need to disclose here, but let’s be clear that I indeed have my own work to do), but I also believe there is something really wrong in 21st Century American Christianity in general. I believe that what’s wrong with it is something that culture has been warning us about since the late 20th Century, is the reason churches are struggling, and is at the core of a mental health crisis among clergy nationwide. What I believe is wrong with the 21st Century American Church is that we’ve been consumed by the Capitalist system to which we belong.
Though they may define it in radically different terms and theologies, every church I’ve been a part of- from the very conservative, to the centrist, and the progressive- believes that it is working to fulfill The Great Commission to “…make disciples of all nations… (Matthew 28:16-20). We all believe that all we do is centered around this and The Greatest Commandment, which is to “love God, self, and neighbor”. And a lot of our work is centered around and motivated by these. But at the end of the day, the very real and present problem is that the benchmarks are still the proverbial “nickels and noses”. That is, are we financially sustainable and are we getting more people into our pews and programs? We can talk about all kinds of other metrics, like “stories of transformation” and such, but when it’s all said and done, the metrics by which we measure our success, vitality, and viability is financial sustainability and attendance. And the problem is that it can’t not be.
The problem isn’t that those are the metrics we use. The problem is that we have to use those metrics. Without them our churches can’t survive. Why? Because our entire system is not actually built on “going” and walking with people in nurturing a Jesus shaped spirituality driven by acts of worship, devotion, compassion, and justice; but it is, quite frankly, built on convincing people to show up at our buildings and give us money. In exchange for that, there is a lot of good and honest spirituality offered out there, but that’s just it: It’s an exchange. It’s a business. We have been consumed by consumerism.
In the Gospel of John, the story of Jesus turning over the tables in the temple is markedly different than it is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (stay with me here). First, it comes very early in the Gospel (chapter 2), which means it is not the trigger for the religious elite to get him arrested and crucified. But 2nd, in John Jesus does not refer to the temple system as a “den of robbers” as he does in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but he refers to it as a “marketplace”. Karoline Lewis points out in her fantastic commentary on John that what this says is, “Instead of a concern for temple malpractices (“den of robbers”), Jesus orders that his Father’s house not be made a marketplace. Yet, for the temple system to survive, the ordered transactions of a marketplace were essential. The temple had to function as a place of exchange for maintaining and supporting the sacrificial structures required for preserving a relationship with God. Jesus is not quibbling about maleficence or mismanagement but calls for a complete dismantling of the entire system” (pp. 41-42, emphasis added).
Friends, I believe that if Jesus walked into our churches today, he would say nearly the exact same thing: “Stop making the temple of God into a marketplace”. And in fact, I believe Jesus has been saying this for decades, evidenced by the steady decline in our churches, and even more clearly by the Barna Group study done about 20 years ago (which I cannot find, so as to verify this data), which said that one of the top 3 critiques of The Church in America by non-church goers was that we are “always asking for money”. They’re right. We are. Because we have to. Because we’ve turned The Church into a marketplace. And we’ve done so because we’ve failed to do what the Prophet Jeremiah called upon the people to do while in exile in Babylon, which is to settle into the culture by making families, building homes, planting gardens, and working and praying for the welfare of your city, while also maintaining a distinct identity as God’s people (Jeremiah 29:4-9) not consumed by the culture around us.
When Jesus called us to “go”, there is a way in which he called us to a permanent exile. He called us to go, to be out there, mobile, and not tied down to a location. But what have we done? We’ve built massive expensive buildings, which once were full of people, but which over the last at least three decades have required massive amounts of branding, marketing, and production to convince people to come to and give money so that we can stay afloat. It’s time dismantle the system.
As I lay on my couch for weeks on end, reading the New York Times and reflecting on my life and vocation, I discerned that what burns me out is not the Church. I love the Church. Which is to say, I love the people. It’s church business that’s driving me out of ministry. The business of the Church is- in all my reflection, therapy, and wise council- the source my burnout, anxiety, and depression, and I am convinced that not only am I not alone, I am the norm. I am thankful for the wellness and resiliency efforts the Church is making for clergy, but while it is helpful, it is not enough. We need to stop running the system that is generating the burnout.
As I came back from leave, I vowed to myself, as a pastor and leader of a spiritual community to find a way to do it differently. I don’t know what it all means just yet. But I know I was left with one of two choices: Do it differently (and by that I mean not just my own leadership but how the church is actually structured and ordered), or find a new career. I know I can’t single handedly go in and dismantle the system. But what I can do is work to the best of my ability to liberate the church to which I am appointed from the bonds of capitalism. I can’t do it entirely. No one can, because we are always at the mercy of the economic system in which we exist. But we can, and should, structure our churches in such a way, that we are not consumed by, and therefore dependent on, the “marketplace”.
The hard part is that what this means is counterintuitive to everything we’ve been trying to do for decades. In order to liberate ourself from the bonds of capitalism, we need to structure everything simply enough that it means smaller, not bigger. It means simpler, smaller buildings, which means more ministry happening away from church property than on and in it. It means no longer being dependent on nickels and noses so that our programs can be actual authentic discipleship where we all hold responsibility for our spiritual growth, rather than farming it out to attractional, produced, staff-led programs and worship experiences. It means that the job of the pastor still includes the ordering of the church, but that this order is done such that we are not CEOs, COOs, and CFOs, who spend time in spread sheets, databases and on fundraising efforts masked in “stewardship” for the purpose of closing financial deficits and increasing spending. It means that the job of the pastor is that we spend our time nurturing spirituality, not running a nonprofit, non-prophet organizations. It means that things are small enough and simple enough that the job of pastor may not even be a full time gig.
This is what I walked away with from my leave. I don’t know exactly what it means for me, my current church, my place in the United Methodist Church, and my future in general. But I do know that even just naming it is liberating. If I’m honest, I’ll just say it: I’m done trying to grow the church. It’s a losing battle and it’s the wrong battle. I just want to lead a spiritual community in a Jesus-shaped spirituality. Nothing sexy. Nothing super attractive beyond authentic, intimate community trying to live Jesus-shaped lives in the world. And if that means the church is small enough that I need to be bi-vocational, so be it. After all, if it’s a call, since when does the call of God come with a full time salary, health insurance, and pension (though the irony is not lost on me that it is that marketplace dependent system that allowed me the benefit of taking the leave!). I need those things, but the hard scary word for all of us professional clergy out there is that if it must come with that, then we’ve necessarily made the temple of God into a marketplace.