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 

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