The New York Times Aug. 1 ran a long front page story about burn out among the clergy (“Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,” by Paul Vitello). It reported on the health problems suffered by clergy who are under great pressure and rarely take time off or recharge their batteries.
“These people tend to be driven by a sense of a duty to God to answer every call for help from anybody, and they are virtually called upon all the time, 24/7,” one expert was quoted as saying.
On Aug. 8 G. Jeffrey MacDonald responded in The Times with a thoughtful essay titled “Congregations Gone Wild.” MacDonald said more than the lack of vacations or breaks, one of the greatest sources of pressure on clergy was the impact of religious consumerism: congregations that, in his words, press the clergy “to forsake one’s highest calling.”
Increasingly, congregations want to be affirmed, to be soothed and entertained, in MacDonald’s words. Americans are three times more likely to switch churches and even denominations in search of the charismatic preacher or more attractive programs and facilities.
For MacDonald, this also means that the kind of preaching that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable is no longer tolerated. Instead of Gospel witness, people seek funny stories and want to leave church “feeling great about themselves.”
This kind of pressure is probably most acutely felt in those Protestant churches where the congregations can hire and fire, but the Catholic Church is not immune. Priests know that parishioners switch parishes and even go to the mega-church down the street in search of a more comfortable experience, or because they object to a particular homily or a particular pastoral approach.
Most parishioners have no idea what pastors find in their mail box, or inbox, day after day. Anything from forgetting to acknowledge a CYO team’s accomplishments to a public reference to immigration or abortion is likely to attract often vitriolic responses.
At the same time, some of this restlessness may be the opposite of what MacDonald suggests: Some people are looking for true spiritual zeal, but instead they are served rather thin gruel — sermons pitched too high or too low, and a lack of spiritual dynamism that fuels the soul. The American Church’s network of some 18,000 parishes is under great stress — from shrinking numbers of priests and pinched budgets to hamstrung religious education programs and a lack of true adult faith formation opportunities. The people hunger for bread, but sometimes receive only stones. The result is that they keep searching for a new experience rather than focusing on the Faith of their fathers.
Both priests and laity may be suffering a vocations crisis of sorts.