Magazine article The Christian Century

Lifelong Learning

Magazine article The Christian Century

Lifelong Learning

Article excerpt

Burnout" is one of those words that catch the clerical imagination. Many in the ministry (and in all professions that serve human need) live with the reality of burnout.

How do they deal with it? One false way is to assume a burden of guilt: If only I were a better counselor, teacher, caregiver . . . If only I had done more in seminary to become immersed in the scriptures, or in the tradition of the church . . . If only I were a better manager of my time and energy . . . If only I were in a community or parish better suited to my skills. If only . . .!

Another false response is to project the blame onto the people or the parish. If only they would listen better to what I proclaim. Something must be wrong with them.

How do we deal with burnout? One method that appeals to me is to take refuge in the liturgy. Liturgy tempts me because it is a way of staying in contact with the long tradition of the church. And public piety is a way of achieving recognition, as Matthew 23:5 suggests with its reference to phylacteries and fringes.

But the method of escape that most tempts me is the escape to an authoritarian structure. As a seminary professor I am tempted to think that, position gives me authoritarian status. Matthew's Jesus has much to say about that. His words culminate in 23:1-12, where he contrasts status with service. Ministry almost invites status seeking, since it is easy to confuse one's own self with the authority of God's message. The message has authority, but there is a gap between message and messenger that we sometimes try to close with personal authority.

Jesus sees a better way: recognize where power and status really lie (Matt. 23:8-10). One does not achieve them. Don't seek respect for your teaching authority, "for you have one teacher and you are all students." The NRSV translates the ward "brothers" as "students." That loses the motif of equality and makes v. 8 sound similar to v. 10. The minister as "lifelong learner" is a theme that seminary professors like to stress for students. Here it finds biblical warrant. "Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven." Father was a title for leaders in many religious associations in the first century. Jesus warns against claiming such a role in the disciple community.

The NRSV translation of 23:10 reads "Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah." There is another possible translation. The term translated "instructors" also means "leader" or "guide." That translation correlates well with what follows. There are to be no superior disciples among Jesus' followers. …

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