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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