The Perfect Storm for Stress

968484_t607It’s been well-reported that clergy suffer from stress rates higher than most. Now comes the news, released last week from the American Psychological Association, that Millenials (young adults age 18-33) also report being diagnosed with stress levels above the national norm. It makes me wonder about the amalgamation of the two: is there a perfect storm of stress brewing for the young adults training to become clergy and congregational leaders?

The short answer? It’s highly likely. The long answer? It doesn’t have to be so.

After a handful of conversations with divinity school graduates from top-notch institutions, I started to get the funny feeling that some of us are trying to “un-learn” the habits our education formed in us. It seemed our theological education had the nasty effect of actually deforming our mental health and spiritual vitality. And from where I’m standing, I can identify three culprits to blame: 1.The culture of expertise, 2. The divide between values and practice, and 3. The dearth of stress-relieving resources.

Let’s pause for a moment  while I climb up on my soap box.

The culture of expertise is not a new phenomenon in most professions. But it can be a particularly dangerous one when conveying information about God. Even the notion that someone could “Master Divinity” was laughable among classmates. Sill, it was a strange temptation.

In one of my required courses, the professor would stride in each day to his podium, take to reading his notes, and dismiss the class without honoring a single question. (I heard he was more amiable in smaller classrooms.) I wondered if the potential for critique made him nervous or if he just didn’t think the open forum was productive for a class of our size. What it did convey to me and my peers was that certainty was more important than inquiry – an impossible and stress-inducing standard for any young pastor to meet and model.

Of course, there were plenty of well-intentioned professors who tried to convey the humility with which we were to undertake our work. On the first day of orientation, the Dean suggested we each tape an index card to our mirror with the quote, “It’s about God, stupid.” But there was a disconnection between the motto professors preached to us and the coursework we were given to practice. It wasn’t just about God, it seemed, but about coping with the onslaught of reading and writing assignments that gave little room for us to practice the “ministry of availability.” Marriages were put on hold. Friendships were limited to one-hour time slots. Church attendance was inconsistent. We were learning how to live what authors like Parker J. Palmer and Brené Brown have termed “divided” lives between the faith to which we aspired and the workaholism, perfectionism, and productivity we practiced.

There was precious little time for praying and Sabbath-taking and discerning our vocation. More than a few of my classmates who had once thought they might become professors or pastors soon changed their minds when immersed in the day to day work of academic or congregational life. Our school required us to attend a spiritual formation group and retreat our first year of study, but, for the most part, it seemed up to each of us to “hustle” for the support we needed from professors, pastors, or a (declining) denominational structure that many of us no longer fit.

Our work continues to be, according to the new report, the highest cause of Millenials’ stress. (Our unemployment rate is almost twice the national average.) We need safe spaces like divinity schools and congregations and retreats where we can admit our limits and claim our gifts. This will mean resisting an overreliance on our own expertise (do we use theological jargon at the expense of translatable encouragement?), regularly checking our values against our practices (do we believe in the life of the church but not attend one regularly?), and spending time in community with others who are modeling for us how to live wholeheartedly.

Because what if being a young, faith leader wasn’t the perfect storm for stress but revival?

Okay, I’m getting down now.

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2 responses to “The Perfect Storm for Stress

  1. “Culture of expertise” Yesyesyes. Growing up as the daughter of two pastor’s in a large-town church parish, I saw my parents doing lots of different tasks throughout the week. They *couldn’t* fixate on one thing–as in trying to perfect their sermon/bedside manner/programmatic offering/worship service, etc–because they had a kid to pick up from the bus stop, a session meeting to run, or *rats* another person in the hospital.

    Recently when a friend was utterly debilitated and stressed about writing sermons, I wondered if the solution was for her to write MORE sermons. We focus so much on crafting the perfect 15 minute interlude, that we forget sermons are only ever part of a larger conversation…

    Is it because, as a culture, we so highly value the “specialist” (ie: the surgeon, the associate pastor of latest-sexy-Christian-discipline, the published professor) that we have lost all sense of appreciation for the “generalist” (ie: the parish pastor, the family doctor, the public school teacher)? And if so, then WHY??

    Thanks, Erin, for names realities and stirring thoughts.

  2. Erin,

    This is a wonderful message to those trying to rethink theological education. Thank you for sharing your clear perspective on this! I will be passing this on to many.

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