Thursday, April 5, 2012

Hi. I'm Bob, a Recovering Parish Priest

I was a full time active parish priest for 36.5 years.  Since retirement I continued to work both full and part-time.  Over the years I have experienced all the joy, pleasure, pain and stress of parish ministry. For the most part I liked it, felt like it was a calling from God, and experienced the  emotional reward that comes from preaching a good sermon, celebrating a beautiful Eucharist, anointing the sick and dying, baptising and officiating at countless weddings.  But in retirement, now withdrawn from the institution, I have taken the time to reflect on my addiction to the job.

As many of my readers know, the first step of addiction recovery goes like this.  "We admitted that we were powerless over (name your addiction)-that our lives had become unmanageable."  When thinking back over my years in parish ministry, I can admit now that I was powerless over the the hook of power, adulation, adoration and prestige that came with the territory.  On the converse side, whenever enemies surfaced to undermine me, I was addicted to the terror and the thrill of doing battle with an imagined "Satan" in my midst.  Because I identified with the mythological warrior (George Patton is my favorite general), I saw myself, particularly in the early days, as a cause for righteous justice and peace against the bigotry and hatred of racism, sexism and war.  "Onward Christian Soldiers," as it were.

Clergy are not the only folks addicted to their jobs and in this sense, we are not all that special. Throughout the world there are men and women of all stripes who are pathologically wired to that which feeds their egos and rewards their hubris.  But it takes a huge toll on not only the individual, but also spouses, children, family and even friends.  When all we can do is compulsively hitch ourselves to the wet wagon of workacoholism, even with all the adulation and praise, we are one day bound to crash and burn.  This was made so very clear to me when recently I read an article about alumni of the Harvard MBA program who said that "their one regret was that they didn't spend more time with their spouses and children." 

In my situation, I was a called as Rector of a corporate size suburban parish in one of our large metropolitan areas when I was 34.  By the time I was forty I became seriously stressed and completely overwhelmed.  In the throes of complete denial, I of course crashed and burned.  I made bad decisions, alienated people, and was caught in a downward spiral the end of which resulted in my resignation and removing myself from full time parish ministry for six years.  In that space of time I quieted down, began to deal with my issues and planned for a time when I could honor my calling from God and a new and different way.  The key for me was the spiritual exercise of detachment.  This is a spiritual detachment of the mystics, where we rescue our brains from our brains, pausing to allow the presence of the Divine into our lives.  Several key phrases helped me do this: the Jesus Prayer, the Christ verses from St. Patrick's Breastplate, repeating the Kyrie in Greek over and over again, the practice of Zen and Transcendental Meditation, with some Meister Eckhart thrown in.  By clearing the brain of the clutter and clang of ego driven stupid stuff, the hook of addictive cravenness began to modify itself.  It also helped to confront the demons within.  That's another article.

In time I returned to parish ministry by starting over in a small parish.  It wasn't easy at first  and the temptation to ministry addiction lay always before me and sometimes overpowered me again.  That's easy to do when the system the ordained live in is a fertile field for addictive wiring.  But with God's help I persevered.  Oh and by the way, retirement from retirement helped. I would like to say that now I am perfect.  But, far from it.  Whenever I preach or celebrate the Eucharist, I still get that wired feeling that if I am not careful, could feed into my addiction.  But I'd like to think that God still speaks through my pulpit and celebratory voice.  Because, even in addicted ministry, God speaks through our words and deeds, whether or not they are totally consistent with his will.  God transforms our broken humanness and re-creates us into his servants who proclaim the good news of his Son.  This is the glory of God's work in us, fragile creatures that we are.  This is what the Incarnation is all about.

Fortunately not all clergy are addicted to their jobs.  But I urge all of my colleagues who are still in parish ministry to think about whether or not you are one of us.  I say this because I care about the mental, physical and spiritual well being of the clergy.  I don't want any of you to "burn out," but I know that some of you will.  So my advice, such as it is, is to back off the intensity with which you work at your jobs.  Make sure that your relationships with spouses and children are healthy, alive and persistent.  Say no. It's OK to do that.  Take time off, not only just your mandatory day.  Make friends outside of the parish and find some priest friends you can trust to hang out with.  Get a soul friend or spiritual director. Reflect on life and meditate using both Christian and non-Christian techniques. Remember that the Divine Presence in you is what really counts if we are to love others as He loves us. And above all, back off and laugh at yourself and the foibles of clergy life, and don't take yourselves to seriously.   


  1. Hi,Bob, yes, the power of burn out is shared in my experience. I think for me it was "brown out" as I in two different settings found myself still functioning but depressed and scared that I might "not make it" in some way. In both cases,I found my closest relationships altered and damaged. It was only when I could repeat to myself that what I really needed to lose was my illusions of one or another form that I began to find ways and persons to help me out of the hole.