Tails Tails Tails: A Young Clergy’s Reflection on Clergy Burnout

“You know what I think you should do?” he asked, “Just flip a coin. Heads you leave. Tails you stay.”

“ok.” I said, “I’ll get a coin.” I flipped. “Tails.”

“Flip it again. Best two out of three.”

“Alright, here goes…. Tails.”

“Flip it one more time.”

“Why?” I asked, “that was two out of three!”

He answered “I’m your older brother, I said flip the coin.”

“Ok ok… Tails… what do you think that means?”

“I guess it means you should stay,” He said in wonder.

“I guess it means God is still calling me,” I said in awe.

Clergy burnout is real and it knows no bounds.  It is not reserved for those boasting 10, 15, 35 years in pastoral ministry, it can happen to any person of the cloth at any time. I experienced clergy burnout for the first time before I stepped foot in my senior pastor’s study, before my name could be placed onto the marquee, I experienced clergy burnout before I was even a pastor.

I, like many young clergy, came of age in church leadership. We are the ones who typically had responsibilities in church leadership at a young age, heading children’s ministries, supervising at youth lock-ins, running and jumping and singing as Christian camp counselors. Young clergy, even before they have the title clergy, were doing it all, especially the stuff that senior pastors were too busy to be bothered with (What senior pastors are too busy to be bothered with and shirk off to the young, untrained, and inexperienced is a conversation for another time.) From the time that I was 15, I had been doing it all.

When I went to college, I was fully immersed into the life of the church and could clearly articulate my vocational call to ministry. I fully participated in campus ministries, in the college chapel ministries, and in a local church where I was being trained as a professional minister. Young minister, yes, but I was also a young girl hell-bent on having the college experience. I would party with my friends on Saturday night, walk into my apartment early Sunday morning just in time to wash the running eye-liner off, change clothes and head to church. I was also a student who attended a college where excellence was the requirement. And it was hard. Juggling church, activities, a sorority, a wayward boyfriend, and a 3.9 gpa at a prestigious institution was more than a notion. I graduated with many accolades for my commitment to academic excellence and my commitment to the community of faith. But it was hard. And When I graduated college, I was tired.

College ended in May, Grad school began in August. The graduate institution I attended had a very rigorous curriculum and was competitive. The temptation was to spend in the library every day, every night, and every morning- even Sunday morning. I remember having to make the decision, with tears in my eyes, whether to go to church on Sunday or join my peers in the library to study for our massive finals. I chose church. I chose church time and again, stubbornly maintaining active involvement in a local church saying to myself, “I don’t care how hard this is. I can’t take three years off of working in a church to get prepared to work in a church.” By my final year in Seminary, I was an assistant pastor in a Baptist church, slowly making the transition into the Methodist movement by volunteering regularly at a Methodist Church, and a ministerial leader for a campus ministry at NC State University. By the time I had reached graduation, I had been preaching nearly every week since spring semester my first year of Seminary. It was hard. And when I graduated divinity school, I was tired.

While my story may sound a bit more active than the typical young clergy, my story is indeed typical in that many young clergy start their professional ministry tired. The biggest misconception about young clergy is that they begin their professions in the church scrubbed red and ready with an apple and new shoes like a kindergartener on the first day of school. Rarely do we start off bursting with energy, idealism and superman cape in tow, ready to save the Church. Rather, more typically:

We start off in a massive amount of debt, wondering how we are ever going to crawl out of this financial hole.

We start off malnourished from student-poverty, living on a diet of black coffee and potato chips.

We start off sleep deprived from years of greeting the sunrise from behind our laptops or buried in a used copy of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

We start off in a Vitamin D deficiency induced depression from all of the imitation light in the library.

By the time we start our professional lives as clergy, we are tired.

But we are loyal.

After four years of running the race of professional ministry, my family began to get concerned. I had a long conversation with my eldest brother Adrian Thomas who recommended that I take a break from the Church.

“I talked to mom” Adrian began, “she is worried about you. She thinks you should come home, we all do.”

“Come home and do what?” I asked.

“Come home and just relax for a couple of years. You have done great things as a pastor. Great job. You did it. But if your heart isn’t in it, if you don’t want to do it anymore, if it doesn’t make you happy then maybe you should quit and do something that will make you happy.”

I explained to my brother that these questions

Is your heart in it?

Do you want to do it?

Does it make you happy?

Are born in the “do whatever makes you happy” pop culture wisdom that accounts for the lack of commitment among our generation. I informed my brother that it is very common to only do things as long as it makes us happy.

“But what is happiness anyway, brother?” I asked. “It is such a here today, gone tomorrow emotion. Why would I spend my life and my profession chasing something so fleeting?”

I informed him that I made a lifetime commitment to God and to the service of God’s church, whatever that may look like. I told him that this pop culture wisdom that he was reciting to me makes our generation incapable of even conceiving of a lifetime commitment. That’s why so many marriages end in divorce, I told him, because we don’t know how to commit to something through the ups and downs of life,  I said.

“Adrian, when you are committed to something for a lifetime, you are committed to it. Committed to it even when it isn’t easy. Committed even when your wandering heart isn’t in it. Committed even when you don’t want to do it. Committed even when it doesn’t make you happy. Yes, even then. My commitment to my calling is beyond even my own satisfaction. That’s a lifetime commitment.”

Clergy burnout happens. To all of us. It’s best if we stop pretending that it is something that can be avoided. The role of the pastor is so great- great as in a lofty image that is hard to carry and great as in a pastor is called to do so many things- that there will undeniably come a time when a minister will look at the difficulty, the obstacles, the pain and ask “am I really up for this anymore?”

And it is then that you have to reflect upon everything that you have ever said, everything that you have ever believed about God’s calling on your life. You have to know that you didn’t just decide to become a pastor but that you were called into it.

Adrian responded to me by saying,

“You know what I think you should do?” he asked, “Just flip a coin. Heads you leave. Tails you stay.”

“ok.” I said, “I’ll get a coin.” I flipped. “Tails.”

“Flip it again. Best two out of three.”

“Alright, here goes…. Tails”

“Flip it one more time.”

“Why?” I asked, “that was two out of three!”

He answered, “I’m the older brother, I said flip the coin.”

“ok ok… Tails… what do you think that means?”

“I guess it means you should stay,” He said in wonder

“I guess it means God is still calling me,” I said in awe.

Ministry is difficult. No matter how old you are, no matter how young. It isn’t easy. As a minister, I have experienced some unfathomable pain. I have lost some things that I will miss forever. But God is so faithful. And that is why I am so faithful. Perhaps not always energized, perhaps not always excited, perhaps not always happy, but always faithful. I believe that God has called me and I stand on that belief when the fires rage and even when the fire burns out. I believe that God has called me. That God is still calling me. God is alluring me, guiding me, and leading me down a path that God has specifically and purposefully made just for me. And my “yes” to God has to keep getting bigger to accommodate God’s call.  Even in the darkness. Even in the bad times. Even in the burnout God still calls. So when I have the temptation to run away and try to bargain with coin in my sweaty and weary hand,

“Ok God. Heads I leave. Tails I stay.”

It’s always

Tails.

Tails.

Tails.

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Shouting From the Front: Reflections of a Disorderly Woman Pastor

I began preaching at the age of 15. For much of my life, I was affectionately called “girl preacher,” girl to signify how odd it was for a preacher to be female and to be young. Thanks to the painful and arduous labor of the first generation female ministers who paved the way for me, my call to ministry was affirmed and celebrated from the moment I stood behind a microphone and shouted “he rose!” I was formed and shaped by one such female ministry pioneer, my mentor Rev. Portia Lee, senior Pastor of Trinity Tabernacle Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. I’m pretty sure she is the one who gave me the name “girl preacher.” And she taught me how to lead, to serve , to preach, all while allowing me to retain my “girlish” (read young and female) ways. Sometimes I sat in the pulpit in a skirt that was entirely too short. Pastor Portia would smile and say, “well, she’s got nice legs.” Sometimes, I would show up to preach with a hickey on my neck and she would shake her head and say, “I see ministry hasn’t robbed your life of fun.”  She allowed me to explore and cultivate all of the things that makes a pastor a pastor and all of the things that makes a person a person- my professional identity, my femininity,  my sexuality, my voice, my vision, my ministry. I am blessed to have her in my life. I was trained to be a female pastor by a female pastor. I was formed and shaped in a community where female Christian leadership was normative.

Lately, I’ve matured from “girl preacher” to “woman pastor” and I have a girl preacher of my own, Racquel Gill, to form and shape and teach about the intersection of pastor-hood and person-hood. I am blessed to have Rockie in my life. This little upstart can preach circles around me. I have to constantly tell her “look here, youngin’, this church is not looking for a new pastor. Quit preaching like this pulpit is vacant!” She’s got it all, all the gifts that a person needs to lead a church.  She once texted me from a young ministers conference where she was the keynote speaker. She texted me to tell me that she walked out of a session for women in ministry because of a conversation that centered around the belief that women are not called to pastor. She said,

” I walked out because you told me to stop arguing with people.” I was so thrilled that she actually listens to me that I didn’t force her to go back and take part in the conversation. It seems astonishing for women who regularly preach to say that women are not called to pastor but there are so many scriptures to contend with:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak… it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.  – I Corinthians 14:34

Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man, she must be quiet – I Timothy 2:11

Wives submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church. -Ephesians 5:22-23

And on and on it goes in the Pauline Epistles about women, submission, and silence. Any person who takes the Bible seriously must also take these texts seriously, girl preachers included.  I was a minister for 12 years and a senior pastor for two years before I ever really seriously considered these texts.

It’s not as though I didn’t know that these texts were in the Bible. I had an excellent theological education, studying religion in very prestigious undergraduate and graduate institutions. I was taught to know the Bible like the Back of my hand.  But I went to an all girls liberal arts college, emphasis on liberal. We were encouraged, required even, to look upon with suspicion any Biblical text that was demeaning, unjust, or offensive to women. We were taught to declare with boldness, “it may be in the Bible but that is not of God!” We all but cut these texts out of the Bible with scissors.  In my graduate school, in an effort to get along with each other, we almost entirely avoided issues of racism and sexism in the church and in the Bible. The theological pathos was that of proper southerners at a white-glove tea party, “shhh. That’s impolite. Stick to your health and the weather.” And that’s exactly what we did.

It is not as though no one had ever told me I should’t be a pastor because I am female. I had a boyfriend once who told me that in order to be with him I had to promise never to be a pastor. He was going to be the pastor and I was to be his first lady because “women are not called to pastor that is out of God’s divine order.” But I didn’t respond by giving him a great apology for women in ministry. I said something really unprofound and unpoetic, something like “kiss my ass. We’re done.”

I even had an incident recently at the church in which a woman told me how out of line I was for being a female pastor. She had been stalking one of my members, claiming to all who would listen that he had married her in secret but would not claim her publicly. It had become quite a spectacle and threatened on becoming violent so I intervened and asked her to leave. She responded by getting in my face and screaming at the top of her lungs, “YOU AREN’T EVEN SUPPOSED TO BE A PASTOR! YOU ARE SINFUL! WOMEN ARE SUPPOSED TO SUBMIT TO MEN!” Again missing my moment to be the champion for women in ministry, I said, ” women are supposed to submit to men, huh? How’s that working out for you? Get off my property before I call the police.”

No, it was not my education or anything that anyone ever said to me that made me question being female and being a pastor, it was in pastoring itself that the question finally rose to my consciousness, “Am I out of God’s order?”

The question arose within me when I found myself preaching and teaching patriarchy. Patriarchy is a bad word in the ivory towers of the academy, but in broken black communities it has a different meaning entirely. I was the pastor in a community where men were almost altogether absent. I mean they were there but they weren’t there. Out of my window from the pastor’s study, I could see the neighborhood hangout spot where most of the men in my community sat from morning until evening drinking, joking and smoking cigarettes. They were there but they weren’t there. I was pastor to a community where the concept of family was acutely underdeveloped. Nearly every household was a single-parent household (By single parent, I mean single mother). There were men, there were women, and there were children but there were very few families. The concept of marriage was as fantastical as Santa Clause. I found myself teaching the dire need for strong black male leadership in black communities. I began to proclaim that they had to show up and be there! I began teaching about what family should look like, how men should provide and protect their mates and offspring. I began encouraging and teaching about marriage and devotion and family planning. I preached flat-footed that God calls men to step up for their households, for their communities, that they have the responsibility to be the head- not to oppress women and children but to care for women and children. And I was using as my Biblical authority, the very same scriptures that were supposed to keep me silent in the back. Imagine my personal and pastoral dissonance. “If this is true,” I said to myself, “then maybe I shouldn’t be a pastor. Maybe I am out of order.”

There are all sorts of arguments for the justification of women in pastoral ministry:

Mary Magdalene was the first person to shout “I have seen the Lord!” making her the first Christian preacher (John 20: 18).

If God can use an ass to declare God’s word, surely God can use a woman (Numbers 22:28)

We live in a world where it is conceivable for women to be CEOs, doctors, lawyers, and presidents, why not pastors too?

There are many books written that expound on the topic at length, some great some not so great. But you know what I think?

I think it is out of order for a woman to be a pastor.

There. I said it. It is entirely out of order for a woman to head the institution of the church. It goes against everything that we believe and affirm about the ideal distribution of power. As a female pastor, I am out of order.

But you know what? I worship a God who is out of order. We worship a God who constantly disrupts our boundaries of what is normal, correct, ideal.

A God who constantly confused all by favoring the younger son over the elder son. That’s out of order God, that’s  disrupts everything that we understand about power.

A God who calls out that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. That’s out of order God, That disrupts everything that we understand about place.

A God who used a woman to birth a child though she was a virgin. That’s out of order God, that disrupts everything that we understand about life.

A God who rose from the grave. That’s out of order God, that disrupts everything that we understand about death.

We worship and celebrate a God of disorder.

so yea, I’m a girl preacher turned woman pastor. Truthfully, I’ve still retained a few of my girlish (read young and female) ways. Sometimes you will still find me in the pulpit with a skirt that is entirely too short. I’m really working on that… but, hey… I still have nice legs (I work at that too). And on occasion, if you look close enough you will see that I am wearing a lot of foundation on my neck (note to my boyfriend… STOP DOING THAT!). Come to the corner of South Tryon and Remount road and you will find a girl, I mean a woman, standing in her feminine identity,

you will find a woman standing in her sexual identity.

you will find a woman standing in her ministerial identity.

You will find a woman, a woman pastor. Not sitting silently in the back but shouting about Jesus in the front. And being completely, 100 percent, out of order.

And my God, my disorderly God, couldn’t be more pleased.