Thursday 30 September 2010

Stress and the funambulist clergyperson

Clergypersons in mainline denominations suffer a high rate of stress according to this report at WalesOnline. Anxiety, depression and burnout are occupational hazards.

It rings true. My theory is that there are two basic types of clergy; the fundamentalists and the funambulists.

Fundamentalists are, perhaps with the exception of those who publicly screw up big time - Eddie Long and his ilk - basically unfazed by stress. They know what they believe, no matter how completely daft, and have a misplaced sense of their own correctness in the face of any disconfirmation. Faced with reality they stick their chins out and bluff it. Many evangelicals, I suspect, fall on this side of the great divide too.

Then there are the funambulists, a word that means tightrope walkers. They're aware of the tensions that go with the job, and are honest enough to feel the strain. These folk are often earnest to a fault, underpaid and overworked. Unlike their fundamentalist and megachurch counterparts, they don't have the total lack of conscience required to perform as third rate motivational speakers using proof texts each Sunday. How do you find the point of balance, for example, when you're trying to meet the expectations of a diverse congregation that includes literalists, progressives, idealists and "just folks"? How do you define yourself against the multiple roles that people expect you to perform to an ideal standard: counselling, preaching, organizing, peacekeeping... How do you stay tuned in when a large part of your clientele only turn up regularly because they haven't enough imagination not to?

Far simpler to flush away the hard stuff and "do a Hillsong;" grip your leather-bound bible and gush confident nonsense interspersed with praise music. No brain, no pain.

Let's be glad so many persevere on the tightrope anyway. No question about it, give me the teetering funambulist any day. Some of them are clearly saints.


  1. Well said Gavin and I believe YOU know the depth of what I mean by well done......


  2. I began attending an Episcopal church about a year ago. After deciding that this place might be "safe" for me, (e.g. nobody pushing, poking or prodding at me), I decided to meet with the priest. During our conversation, I was interested to find that this wasn't someone who put a pleasant face on everything. He had gone through the ringer and he really wanted a year off.

    He had had to keep the two sides in his church from tearing each other apart during the latest round of controversies. He seems to have managed overall. But he didn't sit back feeling full of himself, he just sounded dog tired.

    While I felt pretty bad for him, it was amazing to me to see someone be that open about the nature of a congregation (without naming names, of course) and cost of dealing with it. He isn't super human and isn't interested in pretending. Oddly refreshing.