Why I go to church

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Ellen Painter Dollar

Recently, I’ve read a handful of articles about clergy burnout. In The New York Times, G. Jeffrey McDonald traced high burnout rates to congregations demanding that their pastors entertain and soothe them (with short, amusing sermons, for example), rather than counsel and challenge them. On Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog, Eugene Cho cites depressing statistics about the stress and low pay that come with being constantly “on call” and beholden to congregations that may feel they own you because they pay your salary. And in a humorous take, retired UCC minister Richard Floyd named Ten Highly Effective Strategies for Crushing Your Pastor’s Morale, including telling your pastor to choose between a salary raise and the mission budget, and referring to your pastor’s attendance at conferences or retreats as “vacation.”

Although I’m the daughter of an Episcopal clergyman, I primarily read these articles from the perspective of a layperson. Here are a few of my reactions.

We’re not all looking for feel-good affirmation. Going to church is a pain in the neck much of the time (as I wrote about this summer for Christianity Today in an essay that has garnered many responses and taken on a life of its own). I’ve got three kids who aren’t that enthusiastic. I’m often tempted to make Sunday morning the one day that I don’t have to don my drill sergeant hat to get everyone fed, dressed, and out the door on time. Hearing the “thump” as the Sunday New York Times hits my front walk makes my heart rate quicken; I’d honestly rather spend a few hours with the paper and multiple cups of coffee than go to church.

But most weeks, I forego my preferences and head to church because I need what it offers. And what it offers—what I’m seeking—is not cute stories or pats on the back. I do enjoy a good joke in a sermon. My dad is an expert sermon joke-teller; he puts the congregation at ease and makes us more receptive to the substantive message, which is always simple but vital.

That simple, vital message is what I go to church for. As someone who lives daily with pain and disability, I want to hear about the One who heals. As someone struggling to be a good mother in a culture that stands ready to judge my every parenting decision harshly, I want to hear about the One who accepts me (and my less-than-perfect kids) unconditionally. As someone haunted by all that is wrong with the world (the floods, the jihads, the limbless soldiers, the rootless children), I want to hear about the One who will bring about a new heaven and a new earth—and about what part we play in that re-creation.

Not everyone goes to church for the reasons I do. I’ve worshipped alongside a number of “cultural Episcopalians,” who admit they don’t believe much in the resurrection and all that hoo-ha, but love the music, the ritual, the outreach projects. I’ll gladly worship with anyone who wants to worship, for whatever reason. But when the church’s mission and ministry are dictated more by programmatic needs than core Gospel values, then both clergy and parishioners will get burned out running all those programs without sufficient spiritual sustenance.

Our former church had a highly regarded music program. When I was on the vestry, I always commented on the size of the music budget compared with other areas (the Outreach Committee I chaired got something like $600 a year), and asked why we hired professional singers. People responded that paid singers provide a strong core for the choir, allowing them to sing more difficult works and do things they couldn’t with a volunteer-only choir. I argued that other ministries would likewise be able to do things they otherwise couldn’t if people were paid to be there on Sunday mornings (our chronically understaffed church school came to mind). Then people looked at me blankly and said, “But we don’t have the budget to pay people to teach Sunday school.” I would sigh heavily and resist the urge to lay my head down on the nice, cool tabletop and go to my Happy Place. The point was not that we should start paying church school teachers, but that our budget and programming reflect our values, and what does it say about our values when our budget caters more to those who come to church for the music than for those who come to church to teach their kids to follow Jesus?

A church needs programs; of course it does. If faith is to be something that undergirds our lives, rather than something that takes up a few hours on Sunday morning, then we need Christian education for all ages, and opportunities for mission and ministry. But it seems that congregational life is often focused more on sustaining programs than feeding spirits.

One result is that during the summer, when most programs are on hiatus, going to Sunday morning services feel like going to school when there is a substitute teacher. We’re all just biding our time and doing the bare minimum until we get back to business. The pews are nearly empty, the sermons from substitute preachers are of mixed quality, and we gulp down cups of lemonade before making an escape. Apparently, most of the congregation feels that, without church school, adult education, and rummage sale planning meetings, there’s no reason to come to church. There’s something wrong when the presence or absence of programs, and not the Gospel message, dictate church attendance.

Church programs, of course, are precisely the things that contribute to clergy (and parishioner) burnout—the planning, budgeting, staffing. How might pastors’ and parishioners’ experience of church change if we examined programs honestly to see how they support worship and the nurturing of a vibrant common life, and cut or altered them to better support those core values? I, for one, could live without adult discussion topics only tangentially related to faith (church architecture anyone?) and dreadful “coffee hours” that are really just holding pens for parents waiting for their kids to get out of church school. My kids get more out of children’s worship than they get from inconsistently staffed and attended church school classes. What if we focused more of our volunteer and programming energy on providing the most authentic, life-changing children’s worship experience possible, and less on begging people to teach church school?

One of the most vibrant, volunteer-driven ministries in my current church is a healing ministry. Every Sunday, all year long, two parishioners are available in the back of the church to offer hands-on healing prayers to anyone who asks. I plan to join this ministry once I’m beyond the young-child stage of motherhood, when we really need both parents on deck to handle emergency potty trips and ward off meltdowns in the pews. The healing ministry is directly related to the church’s core mission of sharing the Good News, and it shows. Although the healing team is always interested in new members, there are no pleas from the pulpit to please consider stepping up and helping out.

Most of the clergy reading this have probably thought much longer and harder than I have about the relationships among burnout, church programs, and vibrant spiritual lives. Maybe this essay will elicit only a “tell us something we don’t know” weariness. But I hope it also offers worn-out pastors some encouragement. I want clergy who are tired and discouraged to know that many of us sitting in your pews on Sunday mornings want to be both challenged and comforted by the Good News, much more than we want to listen to high-quality music, drink good coffee, or find cutting-edge entertainment for our kids. Some of us are as frustrated as you are with the feel-good, pick-and-choose, personal fulfillment focus of modern spirituality. Speak to us, because we’re listening.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

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