The Human Costs of a Managed Faith

When Alex, part of an evangelical clergy couple, shared the story of his church youth choir singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah at a shelter for abused women and children, I could sense the conflict he encountered between his personal experience and his public role as a pastor. He recounted the scene this way: 

“The last verse of that song is, ‘I did my best it wasn’t much, I couldn’t feel so I learned to touch I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you. And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.’ So that’s the verse that we sang from Leonard Cohen’s thing and they loved singing it. Well then, we went to [a neighboring town] and sang it at a woman and children’s crisis thing, like the one day thing where at 7 o’clock the gate is locked, no one is allowed in, no one is allowed out. People are fleeing the abuse situations. You see some of them coming in sometimes, some of them are bloody. One kid had this terrarium with a tortoise in it that his father had thrown a baseball through that was shattered. So these were the people that we were singing in front of, not this congregation, and they get up in front of them and they suddenly have to sing, ‘I did my best it wasn’t much, and even though it all went wrong…’ Many of them were like, ‘Wait a minute, how can we sing this here?’” 

In his role as pastor to these young people, Alex’s first priority in this intense moment was to walk with the youth choir through the tensions that often arise between our faith and those moments when we find ourselves saying, “This is not the way things are supposed to be.” Every pastor has these experiences where laypeople seek guidance through uncertainty, pain, grief, and doubts. But what does this mean for the pastor? Hearing this story from Alex, it is clear he, too, wrestled with the mismatch of the song’s lyrics and the living representations of abuse in the shelter. And yet, he sets his own reactions aside–perhaps even questions on how God can be present amid such suffering–to meet the spiritual needs of his community.
My previous post, Private Faith in a Public Role, introduced the concept of spiritual labor, borrowing imagery from sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s concept of emotional labor, where workers engage emotion and feeling in their work, creating an experience for customers. Clergy do spiritual labor when they publicly express their faith in their ministry. And in much the same way the flight attendants at the heart of Hochschild’s study face the human cost of emotional labor–suppressing their real feelings and performing to the extent that they no longer recognize what is true and what is acting–the pastors I interviewed faced a human cost as well as they recognized the impact of ministry on their own beliefs. Annette, also part of a clergy couple, lamented some of the ways her faith practices have evolved in ministry: 

“I haven’t journaled in six years, or four years. And I kind of miss and think I’ll get back to it, but I don’t know when. And I don’t participate in a small group. I don’t meet with anyone to pray with me. And [we] had a co-pastor interview earlier this spring and it didn’t go anywhere, but it was a good experience. And they asked me ‘How do you keep your spiritual life alive?’ And it was really…It convicted me. Basically at the time I said some stupid, ‘Oh, well I journal and I do this and that.’ But it wasn’t really what I do. It was what I used to do. And I’m kind of sad about that. I kind of feel like I’m missing out and I don’t know if it’s just because…I think it’s because I’ve become much more critical of how my faith has looked in the past and how it is expressed in church and in worship and the language we use.” 

Annette found herself performing rather than authentically answering the question, assuming the search team expected a certain level of spiritual practice and devotion among their pastors. Is there a way around this? To some extent, no. Clergy are called to serve God and the Church and that means prioritizing others’ needs over their own at times. But this does not mean clergy should sacrifice their own beliefs for the sake of ministry.
Sasha, a mainline pastor, found that she could simultaneously lament the human costs of spiritual labor and see how her faith has grown through her ministry, drawing from people and experiences that remind her of the privilege in the call:  

“I would say that my personal faith is stronger in spite of my work as a pastor and probably to some extent because of my work as a pastor. So what do I mean by that? What I mean by that is the bulk of the people that I get to interact with are deeply caring and committed people and I am grateful for my time with them, the opportunity to walk with them on this journey. Perhaps it’s more true in a congregational setting, but I’m not sure. But certainly it is true in a congregational setting, there are those who for whatever reason seem to think that the place they can take all of their frustration with life out is on the church and therefore probably on the clergy. My faith is stronger in spite of them.” 

Sasha acknowledges how some laypeople approach the clergy with a consumeristic approach, assuming pastors are like spiritual robots who don’t feel or wrestle with deep questions of faith and exist to take on people’s anger and bitterness. But within these moments are also the relationships that remind Sasha how our shared sense of humanity, with all its doubts unknowns, can draw us together in life-giving ways and be the foundation for thriving, healthy communities of whole people.
There are a range of ways clergy can seek out these opportunities for spiritual growth–days of solitude, spiritual direction, retreats, a seasoned mentor, and time to read. These were some of the common trends among the pastors I interviewed in my research. Perhaps most difficult–but maybe most important–is that clergy openly acknowledge that they, too, face doubt and uncertainty. There is not one right way to do this, but it is needed especially when one steps back and sees the nebulous line between the personal and the public. The most honest advice I can give you, and in my experience as a clergy spouse sometimes the most challenging, is to strive after authenticity in your ministry. Be true to your experience. Be true to your story. Be true to you.

Lenore Knight Johnson 

Private Faith in a Public Role  

Have you ever responded to a congregant’s question with the answer you thought you should give, rather than just saying exactly what you were thinking? Have you ever hesitated sharing your doubts about God with your congregation?
In a field (sociology) that prides itself on developing claims about the social world through empirical evidence–what we can actually see and observe–studying religious belief has always been a bit complicated. In fact, there was a time when sociologists suggested it was best to leave studies of belief to the theologians. We have since recognized that setting aside belief and faith as a point of sociological inquiry ignores one of the most significant forces shaping human action and interaction. Yet beliefs are still complicated.
Indeed, while beliefs are central to ministry, I’ve found that much of the sociological research on clergy takes belief for granted. By this, I mean that there is little exploration into the nuanced ways that clergy translate their personal faith into public ministry and also how public ministry impacts personal faith.
Where I have found an interesting connection is through the work of a sociologist, Arlie Russell Hochschild, who wrote a groundbreaking book in 1983 called The Managed Heart. In this book, Hochschild explores how people (in this case, flight attendants) incorporate emotions and human feeling into their jobs. She describes the “feeling rules” as unwritten but assumed guidelines people follow in doing this emotional labor, controlling or managing their emotions to fit the expectations of others. For instance, a flight attendant might smile, not because he is happy but because he is expected to create a particular, emotional experience for passengers.
Hochschild’s work offers a fitting metaphor for the ways clergy incorporate their personal beliefs into their ministry. I encountered numerous instances where clergy felt pressure to perform, the need to offer something constructive on a text even when they were wrestling with its meaning and significance, and suppression of their own feelings or reactions to a difficult scenario in favor of providing pastoral care. One of the pastors I interviewed who I’ll call Calvin described the navigation between personal and public quite well:

You know the biggest challenge is my faith is not personal anymore. Faith is out there. It’s public, you know? And that’s great and it’s also tough. My faith is also deeply enmeshed with my role as a pastor, which is great because I get to read the bible more than any other person would get to or study it. If I was a professional person, I’d never get to study fifteen hours a week. Wouldn’t have the time for it, know what I mean? So that grows me personally because I preach to myself first and then I bring that on Sunday. But at the same time, well I’ve found it difficult to have the kind of quiet times I had before becoming a pastor, you know, where it’s just sit down with the bible, just pray and meditate. And I read a text now and it’s like, “I’ve got a perfect idea for an illustration for that!”  

While Calvin appreciates the spiritual component of his work, now that his faith plays into the “spiritual labor” of ministry, it all feels different–and not always in a good way. Prayer, bible study, reflection on an issue or problem are no longer his own. These practices are, to some extent, done for the benefit of others. How then do clergy navigate the intersections between a private faith and a public role–one that is rooted in an expectation of belief?
Audrey, another pastor I interviewed, candidly admitted:

I wonder and I think about whenever that time comes that I quit here, will I get my relationship with God back, so to speak, you know? I don’t know how that’s going to change, but I feel like more of a fake than I ever did before.”  

Do clergy have to set aside their own spiritual life in order to effectively care for and minister to a congregation? I think most would argue that a healthy faith life supports a healthy ministry. So how can we move in this direction? As a significant element of an integrated life, beliefs really do inform so much of what pastors do. And yet how can we move beyond assumed and static beliefs and acknowledge that clergy are also humans on a spiritual journey? Like I said, beliefs are complicated, but they deserve some closer attention. My next post will continue with this theme of spiritual labor and the implications for clergy.

Lenore Knight Johnson 

That’s the Pastor’s Wife!

Living in a big city, we don’t experience the fishbowl existence like some clergy families in small, more insular and tight-knit communities. And context aside, I’ve never really felt like people in our church community are peering into our lives, watching our every move. It certainly happens for clergy families–it just doesn’t seem like an issue or concern in our community. But I do remember quite clearly the moment I realized my husband Aaron’s new role as co-pastor of a church also meant something for me. To clarify, I actually realized the impact Aaron’s path into ministry would have on my life fairly early on–before he even accepted the position–but this specific experience solidified what I had been sensing for some time:  that my identity now included an element rooted in my spouse’s vocation.
I was shopping at Target–a rather ordinary occurrence in my day to day life–pushing my cart filled with the three or four items that were on my list and twenty-seven or so other items that, in the course of my journey through the store, I discovered I absolutely couldn’t live without. As I approached the checkout, I saw a young woman from our church walking toward me with an older man I assumed from the resemblance was her dad. I said hello, made some brief small talk, and moved on like one does. As I walked away, I heard her say to her father in one of those loud whispers, “That’s the pastor’s wife!” There I was, pushing my Target cart–an ordinary person on an ordinary day running an ordinary errand–but somehow now with a giant “pastor’s wife” stamp on my life, it was all a bit different.
This sense of wearing a stamp or label emerged among clergy spouses in my research. And even among those who enthusiastically embraced their role as a pastor’s wife or husband, describing it as another sort of calling, there was a very real and significant sense of identity in these stories. Hope, a clergy spouse who saw her role as a ministry partner with her husband, Marcus, described this realization:
Before becoming a pastor’s wife, I had a good sense of my calling and was very active and did lots of things you know, street ministry, youth ministry, kids’ ministry, and things like that. And then once I became a pastor’s wife, and I don’t know if it was for other people as much as myself, I felt labeled. Automatically, there was a label on me and I felt like I had to be a certain way. And so I didn’t feel like those same things that I used to do maybe went hand in hand with how I felt I should be. And so I had gone through this whole, “Okay what am I supposed to do?” kind of thing.
Some spouses experienced the label as an imposition on their identity, others expressed deep pride and responsibility, and most fell somewhere in between these polar ends of the spectrum. Whether the stereotype is positive or negative, no one enjoys when others make assumptions. We are complex people who therefore resist labels that oversimplify who we are and what we think, do, and believe. And yet, the label on our identity is still there, whether we like it or not.
Indeed, it is difficult to really know what to do with a label or image that is always and everywhere present but still something we can shape and define for ourselves. Nancy, for instance, recognizes how the clergy spouse label is just part of who she is, but maintains control over its impact by carefully choosing when and where she discloses this element of her life and identity:
I’ve been getting my hair cut from the same person here for 7 years. I haven’t told her I’m a pastor’s wife. I don’t know why. I guess maybe I don’t want to be stereotyped. I guess I want to be myself first.
Jessie, whose outgoing and vibrant personality is the type that lights up any room she enters, was far more willing to wear the clergy spouse label on her sleeve. She maintains control in a different way, by acknowledging she only has so much power over what other people think:
What’s very important to me is that this is my one chance to establish that I need to remain authentically myself. And I’m a girl who needs to have an authentic faith but an authentic personality, too. And I’ve never been someone who’s been a very…like typical pastor’s wife. It kind of terrified me at the very beginning. Like I’m not going to be able to do this because every once in a while I like to tell an off color joke or I like to…You know, if I drop something on my foot, I’m going to cuss. You know, it’s going to happen. And different people respond to that differently. Some people love it and some people don’t. It just is what it is.
These are two distinct approaches but neither is right or wrong, better or worse, because in the end they land at the same point of acknowledging how being authentic to yourself is an act of self-care.
I’ve often said there is not one right way to be a clergy spouse, but I’ve since changed my mind. There is a right way–it’s the way that best aligns with an individual’s complex and unique gifts, interests, flaws, and uncertainties. Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one.” When we try to be someone we are not, we not only chip away at our internal sense of self-worth but we also chip away at our capacity to be someone in the world that no one else can be.

Lenore Knight Johnson 

Self-Awareness as Self-Care

I recently commented to a friend that I wish I’d recognized and embraced my introversion much earlier in life, as doing so would have helped me better navigate relationships, social situations, and transitions both significant and minor. More recently, I’ve discovered the Enneagram as an incredibly useful tool for understanding how we respond to situations and engage with people who also have their own, unique standpoints and styles. I have grown far more aware of myself moving through the intersecting realms of work, family, and personal life.
A simple reaction to all of this would be to avoid uncomfortable social situations, vulnerability, or conflict so we never find ourselves at the crossroads between our self and the world. But instead, self-awareness should not be an avoidance mechanism but rather a means of making a rocky path a little smoother. Embracing our internal self-identity, as an act of self-care, can help us embrace other elements of our identity rooted in work, family, relationships, and belief systems. In turn, instead of relentlessly trying to fit into a dominant cultural image or stereotype, we begin to reshape these images around who we are and the gifts we bring to a position, informed by our unique style of action and interaction.
My research interviews always included a discussion on the stereotypical image of a pastor or clergy spouse, and it was interesting to hear how people described themselves in relation to the images embedded in our culture. Micah, who has twenty-plus years of ministry experience, described the role of a pastor as “impossible:”
It can’t be fulfilled. The expectations are that you are…You lead like a CEO, you shepherd like a Franciscan monk, you have a prayer life like a Franciscan monk, you’re available like a chaplain in a hospital, you’re like the dad of all dads or mother of all mothers, you are a cultural exegete, you’re a missionary, you’re an evangelist, you’re a communicator, you are a financially solvent person, you’re an administrator, you’re a coach, you’re a mentor. You know, of course you have to have mentors because it’s expected that you’re healthy. It’s not possible. It’s not possible. And then when you put on top of that the growth edges of yourself and the church, it’s just like being in the bottom of the NFL pile on, you know?  
While few people I met felt they fit the mold, everyone still felt the weight of these cultural pressures. Micah, along with other pastors who named similarly unattainable characteristics, were pretty open about the reality of these images and the pressures that clergy, in turn, face on a daily basis. It is what it is, to use the clichéd phrase.
While one might expect either avoidance or resignation to the pressures, the conversation almost always took a different turn following these reflections, evolving into self-reflection and self-awareness. Instead of letting the cultural images shape who they are as a pastor or clergy spouse, these women and men led with their style and personality in shaping how they live out their role as a pastor or clergy spouse. Indeed, our task is not to change who we are to fit a particular image but instead to recognize who we are in the midst of it all. As one pastor stated,
Part of what was hard for me being a pastor is I’ve never seen myself as the most put together person or the most righteous person or things like that. All these things I think people expect of their pastors, I’ve never seen myself like that. And so I try to do it in a different way and try to be more authentic and be myself and relate to people as I would.
My next two posts will draw from these conversations on self-awareness, addressing how pastors and clergy spouses navigate their roles, not by conforming to cultural images but by reshaping that image through practices of self-awareness and, in turn, self-care. In the meantime, consider who you are as an individual and ask how that fits or doesn’t fit with the pressures you may encounter in ministry life. How can you build practices of self-care out of this awareness, opening up opportunities rather than finding yourself stifled or stuck? I look forward to this exploration and reflection in the coming weeks.
Lenore Knight Johnson

New Year, New Focus

I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions and I don’t think I am alone in that sentiment, but I do appreciate new seasons, which offer opportunities to stop, reflect, and revisit our patterns and consider how and where we might benefit from refocusing our attention. Sounds like a resolution, I know, but it’s a process that can occur at any time of year when we have a sudden feeling of sluggishness–physical, emotional, or spiritual.

My time for this falls at the start of each semester, when I pause to look over my schedule for the coming months–new courses, writing deadlines, faculty committee projects–thinking about my professional priorities alongside the regular practices I hope to either maintain or incorporate into my rhythms of life, such as exercise, exploring new recipes, checking out into the world of a great book or television series, and of course plenty of time with my family. We all have our responsibilities with work, family, and friends but also need to step back and recognize what keeps us as individuals healthy and flourishing. Beyond unrealistic resolutions (I vow to hit the gym every day this year!!), it’s important to intentionally carve out space in our lives to reset, refocus, rewrite, reorient, reimagine–all the ways we absolutely must take care of ourselves so that we can best take care of others.

People who exist amid high demand from others–educators, therapists, full-time parents, and clergy–are especially prone to the gradual process of skimming off layers of their own self-care in order to make enough space for the needs of people they serve. I certainly noticed this among the clergy families I met through my research who, like Jeff (part of a clergy couple), feel the very real demands of a caring profession:

“[T]he way I always describe it is there’s sort of this movement in life from dependence to independence. And I always thought independence was the end of it, but then there’s this stage called responsibility. And in a sense the responsibility is always there, but being a pastor and having people depend on you, being a parent, having a child completely dependent on you, things like that, it’s sort of this stage I call responsibility where burden is maybe not the right word but I feel the weight of…I feel that on a daily basis.”

Regular periods of resetting and refocusing can help halt the skimming off process before it gets too out of control or becomes irreparable.

My blog posts this past fall and early winter introduced the notion of work-life integration, focusing on seasons of life, embracing the messiness of an integrated life, and carving out opportunities for family–immediate and extended–in a vocation that can, at times, come into conflict with our conventional notions of family time. Many of these posts, though, focused greater attention on the outward lives of clergy families, exploring how to parent well or balance family holiday plans alongside work demands. All of this is important, but a healthy integrated life requires effective and ongoing self-reflection and self-care.

The themes for the next few months will be on ways clergy and clergy spouses, in caring for their inner selves, can better care for others. I’ll be exploring issues of self-care, identity, and personal faith generally, and specifically how these important elements of an individual’s life extend into the care and connection we bring to others. Because we are all unique, our resetting and refocusing processes must conform to our particular circumstances. But I hope my reflections in the coming months–which, as always, will draw from my research data and my own family’s experiences–will provide opportunities for your own reflection on what you need for a healthy inner life.

Lenore Knight Johnson

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Holidays as Work

 “What are your holiday plans this year?” It’s a common question and conversation starter, since just about everyone regardless of faith tradition finds something to celebrate this time of year. It’s impossible to count how many times I’ve been asked this question, but I recall a very specific instance years ago while chatting with a member of our church during our post-worship coffee time. He asked what my family was doing for Christmas and I responded, “Well, Aaron is working through Christmas Eve and then we’ll head out some time on Christmas day to visit my extended family.”
There really is nothing out of the ordinary in this exchange, except when I said Aaron (who is the lead pastor of our church) would be working, it took a moment to register with my friend. After a brief, seemingly confused moment, he finally said, “Oh yeah, I guess Christmas Eve worship is work for him.”
By no means are clergy unique in having to work on major holidays–doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals are well aware that illness and injury don’t pause for Christmas. But there is a unique dynamic among clergy families when it comes to working on a major holiday, especially one where it’s common for families to attend worship together as part of their celebrations. Yes, nurses need to staff hospitals at Christmas, but it’s not a typical practice for people to gather at a hospital to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the way they head to the candlelight service on Christmas Eve. Unless you are the one actually doing the work (or planning your family’s holiday around your spouse’s schedule), pastoral work at Christmas or Easter doesn’t necessarily look or feel like work. Attending worship on Christmas Eve is what families do. So what does this mean for clergy families?
Courtney and her husband, Austin, both work at the same church and her reflection on holiday commitments illuminates this deeper issue:
“…[H]olidays and Sunday mornings, it’s not necessarily like being in a normal family where we can come to church together and sit together in the pew and worship together because, you know, he’s up front or running the sound board and I’m off with the kids. So that part is certainly different. Holidays are obviously affected because we either have to be here or find someone to fill in for us which is hard.”
A normal family–a relative term, of course, but one that clearly resonates with Courtney and other clergy families who truly feel what it’s like being the ones responsible for creating a space for others to experience God in these significant seasons. And yet, amid the tasks and coordination that comes with pulling together a great worship service, how might laypeople also be creating a space for clergy to experience God? Is this all about work, or is there something more? Jen, who co-pastors a church, expressed a sentiment not uncommon to the people I interviewed:
“And I think the other thing that’s just overwhelming about being a pastor is that people simply by virtue of the role that you are living into, people invite you into their lives in just overwhelmingly extraordinary ways…”
Indeed, worship is not a performance or a service the pastors provide to laypeople/customers. Worship is a communal, shared experience. When clergy (and by extension their families) give of their energy, gifts, and time to create an opportunity for families to celebrate Christ’s birth through worship, those families who participate are also inviting clergy into a key part of their journey through Advent and into Christmas.
As clergy families navigate numerous competing, overlapping commitments this season, I hope the demands are at least somewhat softened by this perspective. Would it be easier to be able to take the holidays off year after year? Perhaps…but consider what you might miss in this communal sharing of family time.
Blessings to you all this Christmas.
Lenore Knight Johnson

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