Monthly Archives: August 2010
I’m grateful to my friend Pam Garrud to pointing on her Facebook profile to this piece in the New York Times about clergy burnout. As someone who needs medication to control hypertension and whose girth has increased, some of it hit home.
I’m not one of those ministers who fails to take their annual leave in the way the first page of the article describes. I do try to take some exercise. Usually after the school run, I get out the iPod and go for a brisk walk. However, that doesn’t stop me wondering what some less charitable members of a congregation might think if they saw me out walking. I was told at college that ministers should be at their desks at 9 am. I, however, might well be walking. Of course, most church members are fine about it. It just takes the vociferous minority. Not that they ever say it to your face. You hear on the grapevine.
The importance of stillness and sabbath is critical. I have seen ministers wreck themselves with workaholism. In the middle of the day, I was able to smell the alcohol on the breath of one (now deceased) Superintendent. To say nothing of how he spoke publicly about his wife.
But the NY Times piece rightly goes further than just ministers not taking care of themselves. On the second of the two pages, it talks about the pressures of declining and aging congregations. It talks about how clergy push themselves further, due to these factors. What it doesn’t say is that those same factors lead some churches to place extra strains of expectation upon their ordained staff. ‘Miracle worker’ might just as well be put in the job description.
To that end, when I was formally welcomed here, I quoted Monty Python:
He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.
The trouble is, many of us in the ministry don’t believe in the grace we preach. And nor do our congregations. We are paying a price.
Some people make ministers out to be plaster saints. Or expect them to be. Occasionally, we are stupid enough to entertain these pathetic fantasies.
But there is one group of people who know we are not. Rather than plaster, they know we are fashioned out of clay. Especially our feet. That group is our family.
With that in mind, let me commend Debbie Bryan’s blog Married To Ministers to you. Debbie is in Texas, and her blog is aimed mainly at wives of male ministers rather than husbands of female ministers. But whatever the cultural differences from this side of the pond, what shines through for me is the grace she displays in the face of the ridiculous antics ministry families encounter. Her most recent story involves the theft of church doughnuts and parishioners invading the parsonage for coffee before the family is dressed.
Sounds familiar? I hope you enjoy her writing.
This week I have mostly been reading two books. One of them awaits a future blog post, but the other is Tim Keller‘s Counterfeit Gods, subtitled, ‘When the empty promises of love, money and power let you down’. It manages to be both pastoral and evangelistic, in that Keller diagnoses the affliction of idolatry as infecting both Christian and non-Christian alike.
An idol is for Keller anything – and usually a good thing – that we inflate to absolute good in place of the true God. While covering the usual contemporary suspects such as money, sex, relationships, power and success, he briefly analyses some less common ones. He is well read in contemporary culture and in the analysis of idolatry.
He also distinguishes between ‘surface idols’ and ‘deep idols’. The former are easy to identify, but the latter, the driving forces behind our idolatry, are harder to detect. However, in what may be the strongest section of the book (with the possible exception of the biblical exegesis) he provides a series of ways in which we can diagnose whether something has become an idol. What obsesses our imagination and daydreaming? Are there things on which we spend too much money? For the Christian, do we react with undue anger or despair to unanswered prayer for a particular request? Do our uncontrollable emotions, such as fear, anger or guilt, tell us we are raising something to the level of a necessity in life when it is not? This section falls in the book’s Epilogue, and is priceless.
My one disappointment was with what followed that section. Keller says that it isn’t enough to renounce idols, they need to be replaced by a devotion to Christ and all he has done for us, because in that we will find true satisfaction in life. He tells us this is best developed by the use of spiritual disciplines, but unfortunately then bails out by saying that describing them is beyond the remit of the book. That seemed to be a shame to me, since to describe that would be to outline a major element of the cure. Instead, he simply footnotes books by Kenneth Boa and Edmund Clowney. I am sure Keller is capable of writing lucidly on this subject. It is as if he had run aground against a publisher’s word limit. Perhaps he will offer his own thoughts on this important subject one day.
Despite that one hesitation, this is a book I heartily recommend. It is significant on so many levels. If you are a prophet, its diagnosis of sin in western culture is important: as Keller says, you cannot understand a culture without discerning its idols. If you are an evangelist, it will give deep insight into what holds people captive. The pastor will also appreciate the understanding of the human condition and the tools for discerning idolatry. It is well worth your time and money.
Unless books are your idol, I suppose.