This week an article about pastors quitting ministry and even Christianity itself circulated among some of the clergy I know. I see articles like this all the time. Among this one’s ominous passages is this one:
[ExPastors.com] conducted a 2015 survey that found 60 percent of pastors consider themselves overworked and 81 percent feel unable to meet the demands of their jobs, Atkinson said during an Oct. 13 FaithSoaring Churches conference call sponsored by The Columbia Partnership.
The survey said 82 percent feel they are burdened with unrealistic demands or that they and their families are expected to meet unwritten expectations.
“Eighty-five percent consider leaving ministry [and] 77 percent consider themselves having experienced burnout,” Atkinson said.
One of the things I’ve experienced as a pastor is that, no matter how much work I put into trying to reach people, it’s never enough. If I look out at my church on a decently attended Sunday, like most churches these days, I’m doing well to see about 1/3 of my actual population (and I’m pretty careful about keeping the membership rolls accurate). And if I look out at Vespers on Saturday night, well… let’s not go there. And if I think about the number of people who come to confession, who attend classes, who give something approaching a tithe, who go on pilgrimages, who engage in spiritual reading, etc., it is very easy to think that I am really failing.
In my conversations with other Orthodox clergy, their experiences are almost always roughly the same. And similar things are happening in non-Orthodox churches, too.
So we work harder. We call people. We write them emails. We send them text messages. We show up at their homes for house blessings. We talk to their relatives. We send them letters and post cards in the mail. Yet only a handful respond.
Why are the people who aren’t very engaged not very engaged? I could speculate, and that’s what I’d mainly need to do—speculate. Why? Because when I ask, they almost never respond. They just don’t even seem to hear.
I’m talking about pastoral ministry here, but experience tells me that anyone who tries as a Christian to minister to others, even those within his own family, has similar experiences. It’s just impossible to get through sometimes.
This used to bug me a lot. And I will admit that sometimes, it still does. But I learned something about why I can’t seem to get through to some people, no matter how hard I work at it. And what I learned is summed up well in this passage from Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix:
Whether you are a parent, a minister, a healer, or a CEO, your communicant’s capacity to hear you depends primarily on the emotional variables of direction, distance, and anxiety. Others can only hear you when they are moving toward you, no matter how eloquently you phrase the message. In other words, as long as you are in the pursuing, rescuing, or coercive position, your message, no matter how eloquently broadcast, will never catch up. And as for anxiety, it is the static in any communication system and can distort or scramble any message. It cannot be eliminated simply by turning up the volume, since that invariably also turns up the static. Messages in families, in the consultation process, or in organizational directives come through less because of the quality of their content than because of the emotional envelope in which they are delivered.
Unless someone already has a desire to listen to you and to pay attention to you, he just cannot hear you. You can be eloquent, persistent, caring, brilliant and even compelling, but unless the other person is making himself available to listen, there’s nothing you can do to make him listen.
There’s a lot you can do to make the emotional process work better, if possible. You can try building a relationship with that person. You can try finding out how to eliminate obstacles in your communication. But if that person simply will not respond even to attempts to build relationship, then he cannot hear you when you try.
Once I learned this, my stress dropped pretty significantly. It’s not that I decided to ignore those people. But I decided to stop putting my emotional investment in whether and how they responded. I still include them in every way I can along with everyone else. But I’m not packing any emotional worry into them. They choose to connect or not. I cannot make them do that. I can give them opportunity, but I cannot make them take it.
And you know what? Freeing myself from chewing worriedly on whether I’ll ever get certain people to respond makes me available to put a better investment into the people who are ready, those who are available, those who are (to use Friedman’s language) “moving toward” me.
And it seems to me that this approach is compatible with the style of leadership Jesus exhibited, too. He preached to all, healed all, offered Himself to all, and yet He also focused His ministry mainly on twelve men, who, despite their many imperfections and even sins, got up and followed Him when He called.
There is only so much of each of us to go around, emotionally speaking. Without cutting anyone out in terms of ministry availability, wouldn’t it best to spend that emotional investment on where it’s going to have an impact? Wouldn’t it be better to speak when you know that you are being heard?
And what about speaking more to the One Whom we know always hears us?