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Facing burnout, many faith leaders are leaving their ministries

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Millions of Americans turn to faith leaders - ministers, priests, imams, rabbis and other clergy - for messages of hope in trying times. But after two years of pandemic stress and deep divisions in society, many clergy are simply burned out. A survey this year from Barna, a Christian research organization, asked pastors if they'd given serious consideration to quitting, and 42% said yes. Eric Atcheson is an ordained pastor who resigned from his ministry at the Valley Christian Church in Birmingham, Ala., this spring. He's tweeted about the stress that many clergy are under and joins us now. Pastor, thanks so much for being with us.

ERIC ATCHESON: Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: I have read you were standing in line for breakfast biscuits when something just crystallized in your mind and heart.

ATCHESON: Crystallization is a very elegant term for it. The probably more medically accurate term was I had a panic attack. This was my body telling my soul, you need to be released from this call. You need to find some other way of being in the world.

SIMON: Help us understand what built up in you and got that powerful.

ATCHESON: So even before the pandemic, attrition burnout has been a major hot-button issue in the church. Trying to prevent it was something that was beaten into my head when I was in God School. It was taught sort of as something that we as clergy need to prevent and are responsible for preventing. But that self-work - they call it self-care - can only get you so far in environments that are dysfunctional. And when that dysfunctionality turns into toxicity, it can be just too much to ask.

SIMON: Well, what were the forces and the stresses?

ATCHESON: Yeah, it's extremely tough, even under normal circumstances, to be a new pastor in a congregation, especially if you are following a very beloved predecessor who had been there for quite some time. And it often takes two years or more to stop being perceived as a newcomer and to start being perceived as an insider. And one aspect of difficulty, sort of on top of the layer of COVID, is clergy trying to lead churches through the reckonings around institutional racism in the United States and institutional homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia. In a couple of instances, there was backlash towards me for my ethnicity as an Armenian American, which, A, I could not change even if I wanted to. But, B, my ethnicity is so interwoven into my faith as an Armenian and a descendant of genocide survivors that I can't separate the two. So for me, having that not fit in, in ways that I had hoped would be accepted, was another one of those turning points.

SIMON: Somebody or more than just one person would defame you for being an Armenian American?

ATCHESON: That's correct.

SIMON: Oh, my word.

ATCHESON: And I want to be clear that this isn't just inside a congregation. It's how I would be perceived just by random passersby. And not just for being Armenian, but simply for not being white enough or being brown enough to appear as though I don't belong. Like, if - even as a pastor who has dedicated my life to serving the church, if I am seen as having less of a claim of belonging in that church, something is still deeply wrong in sort of how we perceive who owns the church. What I kept coming up against was what I had believed was a sense of belonging that had been cultivated in me since I was a kid and was why - a big reason why I went into ministry in the first place - that had been taken away from me or damaged to a very significant degree.

SIMON: I mean, I'm sure this has flashed through your mind, but I wonder, when you were confronted by anti-Armenian bigotry, did it occur to you the role I have now in their life, whether they like it or not, is to show them a better way?

ATCHESON: I see my role when something like that happens in showing a different way insofar as I am a mirror to hold up to them and help them understand their own autonomy and choices, to embrace prejudice because I don't always get to choose if I am white. You get to choose that based on how you perceive me. And I don't always choose to be seen as brown or Middle Eastern or Islamic. Someone else chooses that for me. And I can say that I have colleagues who have similar stories to tell of sort of having that sense of belonging taken from them, whether on the basis of their ethnic identity or their gender identity or their sexual orientation. As clergy get more diverse, just as younger generations reflect diversity in a number of ways, I think you're going to see more of those stories and more clergy feeling burned out because, again, it isn't a result of overwork but a result of the failure of relationship.

SIMON: I'm obviously not a member of the clergy, but isn't a clergy - member of the clergy permitted to sometimes tell their parishioners, I'm sorry, you're wrong, God loves everyone?

ATCHESON: One has to be very judicious in how one goes about it. It's one thing to say on a general sense, oh, well, we're all sinners, and we all need to do better. And that's sort of where you get that patronizing, hate the sin, love the sinner mentality that has done a lot of harm. It's one thing to sort of say that. It's another to say the specific sin of, like, we have been homophobic or queerphobic or transphobic or we have been Islamophobic or antisemitic or we have been racist because - and I can say this for a fact in the historically white church, which has been the space in which I've primarily served - there is still a sentiment that it is worse to be told that you are prejudiced than to say something prejudiced or to do something that is prejudiced to someone else.

SIMON: Do you like your congregation, what used to be your congregation?

ATCHESON: Yes, very much. There are people there who I loved and who loved me back, and choosing to resign, to gather up that courage and then to sort of be truthful with them in love about why I needed to leave in a way that - you know, I didn't want to come across as trying to crush their spirit, but I believe that in those circumstances, being honest is a kindness, and to try to be honest that, like, I could not live up to expectations that I didn't know I was walking into.

SIMON: Do you still feel a call?

ATCHESON: To faith, absolutely. Before all of this, one of my least favorite Bible stories was the gospel teaching of Jesus, that one sometimes has to cut off your right hand in order to avoid the entire body falling into hell. I don't like to use the word hate in response to the Bible, so I will say that I mega-detested that teaching. It has gone from being one of my least favorite passages to one of my most favorite, because I understood that I had to sever my sense of ministerial call in order to preserve my faith in God as revealed through Jesus of Nazareth. And that remains very much intact.

SIMON: May I ask what you're doing to keep body and soul together and the family afloat now?

ATCHESON: I've done a lot of work for myself in therapy and spiritual direction. We have, you know, been really dedicated in trying to create new life and excitement within our family. We just fostered one dog and adopted another this year. And that's something that my wife Carrie has been so skilled at nudging me to do in the midst of my burnout, because I would just want to sit in that status and say, but just let nothing happen to me. I'm so exhausted from things happening to me. She would come along and say, well, what if the thing that happens to you is sunshine and a happy dog? OK.

SIMON: Do you allow yourself to contemplate the possibility of becoming a pastor again?

ATCHESON: I'll never say never. But if I do return to active ministry, I think it's going to be a significant amount of time in the future. And I'm having to come to terms with the possibility it might not ever. And so the short version is, I don't know.

SIMON: Eric Atcheson, thank you so much for being with us. Good luck to you.

ATCHESON: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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