Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Priests and Pastors

GetReligion has a piece on burnout or protestant pastors. I remember reading a study that showed Catholic priests report high satisfaction and low levels of stress-related problems. Sadly, I don't remember where I read this. But it occurs to me that there is an important truth here. Catholics are often criticized for being too hard on their priests. Only considering them for the priesthood if they first choose the celibate life. Having them make a vow of obedience to their bishop. Paying them next to nothing for the many hours that they work.But when you look at the results it is the protestant pastors that show greater signs of stress. Why is that?

One reason is that Catholic priests have a much stronger sense of being sent (Rom 10:15). My dad has said that when he was ordained as a reformed pastor in 1963 he had a stronger sense of being sent than my siblings who were ordained more recently. Pastors have more freedom, less structure, and therefore more pressure. Pastors are now expected to figure out what church is supposed to be like in modern times. My father was simply expected to run his church the same way reformed churches had always been run. That is no longer considered good enough.

Priest have some of that but not nearly as much. Bishops provide a lot of guidance. Theology is defined by Rome. Liturgy is much more structured. But it is more than that. You are not your own. You are representing the Church. You don't compete in the spiritual marketplace. You don't try and win people from the church down the street by being more compelling. You bring Jesus to people through His word and His sacraments.

Then there is the matter of protestant pastors having to be pope. When somebody asks a question about evolution or homosexuality they have much more freedom about how they talk about such issues. But with freedom comes pressure. You better get it right. Remember what Jesus says about people who lead children astray (Mk 9:42). Priests can let the pope be pope. He can define doctrine and they just have to teach it.

There is also the grace of a valid sacrament. Priests are really ordained. They are ontologically changed. Protestants use the word but are confused about what it means. They don't call it a sacrament. There is still a real question about what is the basis for their position of leadership. They have families. Sometimes their families have problems. They are not set apart from the congregation the way a priest is.

A pastor's job is so huge. Just him and his bible. He has to do it all. Liturgy, doctrine, administration. It all has to be pleasing to God. He also has to raise enough money and fill the seats on Sunday morning. Yes, they are supposed to let God be in control and just co-operate with His grace. But a Catholic priest has much more of a sense that that is what is expected on him. As protestant traditions break down their churches become even more pastor-centered. The power in a Catholic church is shared between the priest, the bishop, and the pope. The average non-denominational pastor has more power than all three. Not only is he not bound by obedience to a higher churchman but he is not even bound to a tradition in the same way.


  1. Wow. I've never thought of the pressure that must be on protestant pastors, but what you say makes perfect sense.

  2. I know it is true because I have many pastors in my family. They do talk about the pressure. It makes it hard to contemplate Catholicism. It means contemplating the idea that they have been teaching many errors from the pulpit. Not something that is easy to face.

  3. Great article Randy. Nice to meet a fellow Christian blogger! -Jeannie

  4. Glad you stopped by. Feel free to interact. I shall try and write a response to your Mary post.