I have a clergy friend. I'm going to call him "Johnny." Johnny and I have known each other for over three years; we served on the same district, were in the same local pastors group, we were commissioned the same year, etc, etc. We've spent a decent amount of time together, and I consider him to be a friend and a gifted pastor. He gave me a lot of support when I was going through all that stuff at SJ, and we've seen each other several times since. And of course, there's always Facebook.
About two weeks ago, I found out via Johnny's Facebook status message that he was in Large Northeastern City checking out apartments. He's taking a leave of absence from vocational ministry and will be working in a secular job for a while. I'd gotten the feeling that Johnny was a little frustrated/struggling/flirting with burnout from earlier conversations, so this didn't totally shock me, although I had thought he might go the route I did, and do a CPE residency next year. Anyway, I sent him a message (assuring him of my support, prayers, offering a listening ear, etc) and he replied with a few more details on his situation and feelings.
I can't help but feel disappointed, angry, and sad at this news. The anger and disappointment aren't directed at Johnny, but more towards "the system" and especially the way things work in our Annual Conference. The ordination process is so freaking long, so demanding, and filled with so many potential roadblocks. The itinerant system (go where the bishop sends you) seems to largely serve the needs of the Conference and ignore the needs of the pastors and churches. Being a local church pastor is hard enough anyway, and often there is just not the support needed for pastors and their families.
In seminary we were warned about burnout and how to prevent it; vital relationship with God, strong support network of family/friends/clergy colleagues, accountability, taking vacation time, etc, etc. I did those, or attempted them, anyway (although I will admit a continuing struggle in my relationship with God, but that's another post entirely). As far as I know, Johnny made appropriate measures to prevent burnout, too. However, we both wound up in situations (albeit different ones) where we needed to "get the heck out of Dodge" for our own mental, physical, and emotional health.
In other words, it's a lot more complicated than it looks. Our Annual Conference is (to my knowledge) the largest in the denomination. We have 1200 clergy members. There are 100 provisional elders and deacons going through the ordination process. It seems like in this environment, the ordination process is more like "survival of the fittest" than three years of discernment, mentoring, and growth. Part of me feels like Johnny and I (and others like us, because I know there are others) have been labeled as "problem pastors" or "not being able to cut it". Neither of us have dropped out of the race for good; we're just taking a break.
I find myself wondering how many others are experiencing something similar? And what can I do to help change things for the better? I'm one of those people who speaks out to promote change, and I believe I need to be part of the change. I'm just figuring out how to do that effectively.