Over the years, I’ve written or spoken many times on the issue of stress and burnout in the pastorate. In one recent lecture, I addressed a group of pastors who had gathered for a denominational meeting, and for whom stress was, shall we say, not the usual topic of conversation. At the end, I asked them to respond back to me.
The room was silent.
Then one pastor slowly and courageously stood up and spoke poignantly of the ordeal of having to be hospitalized for symptoms of burnout and depression.
Could we imagine something similar for the apostle Paul, who, under the pressure of persecution in Ephesus, wrote “We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor 1:8b, NRSV)? Add to this the burden of a miserable visit to Corinth, and you have everything you need for a nervous breakdown.
It’s no surprise that Paul would write about grief at the beginning of Second Corinthians. But joy? Is Paul simply in denial? Is he under the grip of some kind of apostolic Paulyanna Principle? (Sorry. Just couldn’t resist that.)
Paul had planned to visit the Corinthians twice, but after the first disastrous visit, he changed his plans. “I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit,” he explains. “For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained?” (2 Cor 2:1-2, NRSV). He decided instead to write a disciplinary letter, so that the next time he came, he “might not suffer pain from those who should have made [him] rejoice” (vs. 2a).
And all of this, Paul says, because he had confidence in them, that his joy would also be theirs (vs. 2b). But what joy, exactly, would that be? On what could he possibly base such “confidence”?
Answer: the joy of the gospel, even in the face of suffering, and a confidence grounded in the comfort and consolation of God.
Paul doesn’t deny the “distress,” “anguish of heart,” and “many tears” (vs. 4) that accompanied his writing of such a severe letter. But he needs them to know that his decision to write rather than visit was intentional. The joy of which he speaks is not merely the momentary happiness of being among friends. It’s his joy as an apostle and pastor of seeing the truth of the gospel and the character of Jesus played out in the life of the congregation. He anticipates being able to “boast” in them on the day of Jesus’ return (1:14), and despite their bothersome behavior, he is able to see them through the lenses of that hope (e.g., 1:7).
Those who have studied burnout among helping professionals say that the first symptom is usually emotional exhaustion, a feeling of being wrung out and used up. But the second is when the helper stops seeing the people he/she serves as people; they become, collectively, an amorphous and troublesome “them.”
If Paul is any example, there is a corollary and theological danger for pastors: in the face of the demands of ministry in general, and poor treatment on the part of a congregation in particular, what would it take to maintain the ability to see flawed people as nonetheless being partners in gospel hope and joy? What discipline would be needed, even during times of unity and calm, to nurture that vision?
Paul’s anguish was real. But he had learned a hard lesson about placing his confidence in the God of resurrection (1:9), a confidence that allowed him to see even as recalcitrant a congregation as Corinth through the eyes of hope and to work with them for their joy (1:24).
And his own. May the same be true of all who serve the cause of Christ as pastors.