Can Storytelling Help Pastors Avoid Burnout?
Johnny, a teenager at the local high school and a member of your congregation, is sitting in your office. He’s upset. He’s not doing very well in school and he’s afraid he’ll get kicked off the football team if his grades don’t improve.
Even worse, he thinks his girlfriend might be on the outs.
He says these things slowly and hesitantly, as if he’s never said them out loud before. Then, slouched in his chair, he looks to you for a response.
Yesterday, Mrs. Smith came to visit you and wanted to talk about her husband and to complain about her children never calling.
Tomorrow you know there will be more of the same and it’s starting to wear you out.
All of these people are coming to you because they don’t feel they have anywhere to turn. When you don’t come up with all the right answers they grow frustrated, angry, and sometimes even hostile.
It’s overwhelming you and you’re afraid that you’re starting to burn out.
So what do you do?
You help people learn to find safe places to develop their unique self-understanding in the presence of a caring audience.
Everyone Needs to Tell Their Story
One of the foundational principles for self-development and personal and family formation is the need for a responsive community where you can tell your story—a community where caring others will listen and provide helpful feedback for strengthening your own self-understanding and identity.
As a pastor, you will need to come to grips with the anger and hostility that is sometimes projected onto you as a professional caregiver when people can’t find such avenues for love and caring relationships in their personal lives.
But the way to deal with this pressure is not to hope it will simply roll off your back. The better tactic is to help your congregants begin to build healthy audiences for themselves.
In order to do that, first you need to reflect on the social and cultural issues that impact your congregation and your ministry so negatively. You need to understand why you’re the only person listening to these people in need.
Understanding the Problem
These are the three contemporary social and cultural factors influence storytelling in congregations today:
- Status Anxiety
Alain de Botton describes status anxiety in his book Status Anxiety in this way:
The predominant impulse behind our desire to rise in the social hierarchy may be rooted not so much in the material goods we can accrue or the power we can wield as in the amount of love we stand to receive as a consequence of high status. Money, fame and influence may be valued more as tokens of–and means to–love rather than ends in themselves.
- The Narcissism Epidemic
Closely related to status anxiety is the narcissism epidemic, described by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell as a form of self-admiration characterized by superficial self-esteem. This self-admiration is characterized by a false sense of identity. Examples include: phony wealth characterized by unessential debt and interest only loans; by phony beauty resulting from plastic surgery; phony athleticism based on the consumption of performance enhancing drugs; phony academic genius rooted in grade inflation.
Cornell West calls nihilism the loss of meaning, hope, and love as a result of the breakup of the village. He means that people have become relational refugees not grounded in nurturing relationships. They need a village, or supportive communities with relational ties, where they can nurture their self-identities.
What It All Means
Congregations are full of people that feel unloved and unlovable because the relationships and communities that provide love are disappearing. Despite this loss, people who feel unloved and unlovable expect perfect love, empathy and attunement from the clergy and their families.
As Carrie Doehring writes:
in a culture in which attunement (empathy) may be greatly lacking in many relational contexts (in the community, in work relationships, and in the corporate world) there may be a demand for perfect attunement in dyadic healing and nurturing relationships. The parent, the pastor, the counselor, or the teacher is expected to be an expert at attunement and empathy (80)
For this reason, active pastors and those preparing for ministry are not immune to status anxiety, the narcissistic epidemic, or nihilism. Attempting to be all things to all people, combined with a pastor’s isolated position, can quickly make a pastor vulnerable to all of these cultural forces–particularly status anxiety.
This vulnerability highlights your own need, even as a pastor and caregiver, for an audience of listeners and a supportive community.
So what’s the solution to this wide cultural problem, if not superhuman pastors?
Lead By Example
It all begins with you.
Establishing audiences of mutually supportive listeners within your congregation will certainly relieve some of the pressure on you as an empathic leader, but your role will always be central.
To illustrate just how necessary a caring audience is for support and care you must be willing to tell your own story.
Despite the general loss of the village mentality among contemporary congregations, people will often respond to genuine invitations to participate in storytelling and the retelling of stories.
Even when they will not tell their own stories, they willingly become part of storytelling audiences where they listen for the purposes of contributing to the growth of others.
Eventually, they will take risks to tell their own stories. They will follow your example and seek out supportive audiences on their own. You may be part of many of these smaller audiences. Sometimes you may not be.
What matters is that you foster an environment within your congregation that encourages this mutually supportive behavior. By encouraging the creation of audiences within the life of the church you can help to restore the village functions which are being lost all over the world.
What’s Your Story?
Everyone has a unique story and every congregation has a personality. You can start this whole process by considering your own story and the ways in which your congregation functions already as a village.
- What audiences may already exist?
- Who else is telling stories?
- Who’s listening?
- Who seems most in need of an audience?
- How, as a pastor, can you help your congregation begin to weave all these threads together?
Go ahead and get started here in the comments. Tell us your story.
Edward P. Wimberly, Ph.D. is the Jarena Lee Professor of Pastoral Care at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, GA. He is a member of the New England Annual Conference. He served Emmanuel Church in Winchendon, MA and St. Andrews United Methodist Church in Worcester. He is married to the Anne Streaty Wimberly, whom he met at Boston University in 1965.
Dr. Wimberly will be taking part in the BUSTH Distinguished Alumni Panel. The panel and is free and open to all. Click here for information.