16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
To Sustain and to Be Sustained
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 05/15/2011
The scene opens with a cage in the foreground containing a colorful green parrot. Behind the parrot, the room is a little out of focus, but you can see a living area and a front door.
The parrot is hanging upside down, moving around the cage, sort of absent -mindedly talking to himself/herself. What he is saying, over and over, grabs your attention. The parrot is saying, “I can’t take this. Not another day. Not another day.” This goes on long enough for you to wonder what on earth this bird is talking about.
And then a man in a shirt and tie, bundled with a briefcase and jacket, bursts through the door in the background. His hand is rubbing his forehead as he passes through the room, and he moans: I can’t take this. Not another day. Not another day.
It’s an ad for a job placement website.
I think it’s safe to say that the man in this ad is not burning bright with the divine light of his realized potential.
In fact, he is burnt out.
The man in the commercial mirrors the experience that many of us have had when we’ve outgrown a job but haven’t yet had the opportunity to move onto something new. Paid employment is like that, more often than most of us would like.
But this sermon isn’t about being burnt out at work. This sermon is about being burnt out at church. This sermon is about the tragedy, if I may be somewhat melodramatic, of being burnt out with your church, the place that was designed through centuries of human experience and at least occasional bursts of the holy with the express purpose of feeding you, reorienting you, sustaining you so that you can then go out and live the rest of your life with some degree of peace and support.
Being burnt out at church is a tragedy. But it happens even to the best of us, as we’ll hear in this poem from my aforementioned new-favorite-book, God Went to Beauty School.
[“God Got Cable”]
So we all, even God, need a break sometimes, and frankly, almost all of you in this room know that Sugarloaf does not always, has not always, provided you with that break. I’ve mentioned before the large list of what you have accomplished in the past few years, and I’ll list it for you again.
You decided to buy a large piece of property.
You found funding that enabled you to do so.
You renovated one building and built another over the course of several years, at unexpected cost and with many setbacks.
Your minister left and you achieved two separate ministerial searches, ending up calling me in 2009.
You endured a church-wide scandal, and subsequent congregational division, with a great deal of aplomb.
You elegantly handled a huge budget crisis at the same time.
You’ve had to get used to having me around.
My expectation upon coming here to this congregation two years ago was that you folks would be tired. My experience was that at first you were sort of shell shocked, and then you were, indeed, bone tired from this place. And no wonder. No wonder at all.
The problem with burnout at church, aside from the fundamental tragedy of it that I’ll talk about more in a minute, is that church burnout is dangerous. That’s because those who love the church often don’t want to admit that they are burnt out on what they are doing for their church, and so they don’t take the steps they need to in order to fix the problem.
At least with a paying job, you can tell yourself it’s just time to move on.
Church is like life, though, and as in the reading we heard earlier, folks tend to trudge cheerfully along for a long time before noticing that their energy is flagging, and they just can’t believe that all of a sudden they are having this problem. They might even experience shame – what’s wrong with me? or question their commitment to the community which they still believe is really valuable to them and to the world. Burnt out people at church don’t want to leave it to move onto something else. So they aren’t quite sure what to do.
Here at Sugarloaf, burned out people are reluctant to let go of what they do because they know how much this small, aspirational congregation needs someone to do its work. Our Sugarloaf burnout victims fear that if they don’t do what they do, the church will suffer and possibly collapse. And so they cling on by the fingernails, until they can’t cling on one more minute – and then suddenly they are not responding to emails, and aren’t coming to worship services anymore, and then one day they and we wake up and realize that they have pretty much just left us. And everyone has lost. So I’ll say for the record now that there is nothing worth your leaving us. We need you and we want you, and if you feel like you’re the one saying “I can’t take this, not another day” please do whatever you need to do in order to stay. It is your presence we want here, not your labor.
But burnout at church is a tragedy not only because it makes people leave their spiritual home. It’s a tragedy because congregational life is supposed to be the place where you are fed, not where you are depleted. You’re supposed to be fed, at least a little bit, even when you’re working for the church. Church is supposed to be the place where you try out new tasks that you never knew you could do, or get to perform in a way that you NEVER get to in your everyday life. Church is supposed to be the place where you explore your potential, not grind it away.
At church we create the space to bring new possibilities for good to the light. At church we create the space for you to develop your very best self, the self you would be without financial or societal pressure – the You the world needs most. The You you were created to be. The You at your very core.
African American theologian Howard Thurman once wrote about finding a path through the world, one’s true calling. He wrote, “Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." What the world needs most, is people who have come alive.
I’d like to introduce a new way of working at and for SCUU that is based on Howard Thurman’s model of calling. I’d like for all of us, when considering what work we do for SCUU, to ask ourselves, “What makes me come alive?”
And when we’ve done that thing that makes us alive for a while, long enough to have a new answer to that question, then I’d like for us all to get in the habit of gracefully exiting our old tired tasks and moving on to the next enlivening one – without shame, or guilt, or fear.
If we all do this, not only will the majority of the things we need to get done here get done, but the quality with which we do them will expand and spread. We will feel energized, not drained. The things we do will seem easy and fulfilling. We’ll all notice a change in the air, and wonder where it came from. The way in which we go about doing congregational business will be infused with the holy, because when people come alive, that is a sacred thing.
Yes, we need everyone to work here at SCUU. But we don’t need you to work your energy or spirit away. We need you to bring your spirit here, the particular way that you are in the world. We need you to grow here, so we can see what you’ve learned and how you’ve changed. We need you to be alive with us, so that we can all come alive together.
I’m sure you all know that despite a bit of burnout we also have several SCUU members who pop up here, there and everywhere around the congregation, with cheer and energy. Burnout doesn’t seem to be a problem for them. I asked a few of them to share some thoughts with you for this service, and they each agreed. I offer them to you anonymously (well, as anonymously as possible in a small church), because the ideas can be any of ours – if only we allow our perspectives to change.
One of us says:
What I want, and do get, from SCUU is human connection. The single most significant Sugarloaf program for me is Chalice Groups. It's not coincidental that the only work I do at Sugarloaf outside of the fun stuff (storytelling, music, ritual leadership) is managing Chalice Group registration a few times a year. For reasons that are at least as much self -caring as other- caring I want the program to continue, so I contribute to it. The fate of Sugarloaf doesn't rest on my shoulders, but it's a fate I have a stake in and I share that with the rest of the community.
Another of us says:
One’s relationship with a church is a give and take. You wouldn’t come if you got nothing. And spiritual food for thought is the unique thing you get at church and hardly anywhere else. ... However, if you stop there [with just getting spiritual food for thought], you miss out on a lot of other things you could “get,” and in the process could give to the church. You can try out a new skill, like public speaking or [managing a budget or teaching children or singing]. And a church is supportive, encouraging, appreciative, and forgiving, unlike so many other environments, so if you mess up, it’s OK. The trick is to find the thing that helps both you and the church.
And one more:
Years ago, I was telling [one of our long term members] about something I was doing for RE and he extended his hopes to me that I found my activities spiritually rewarding.That wish took me aback. You see, I’m one of those folks who is often ‘doing’ without really knowing my reasons for ‘doing’. Until then, I thought my motivation was selfless and just for the good of the children and RE program. [That member] helped me realize my ‘doing’ was for me and my personal spiritual growth.
There are a number of important concepts among these wise words for you to consider as you contemplate how you might help your church. I encourage you to ask the questions posed by these comments.
What is the thing you want to get the most from your time here?
What new skills or new talents could you “get” from your work here?
What can you offer to do for us here that will lead to your own personal spiritual growth?
These aren’t frufru questions that take us nowhere. These are the questions that make our church come alive and make us come alive when we come to church, not fade away like yesterday’s flowers. This is the way of being that draws new people to us and makes our message known more widely. Focusing on ways in which we can be more alive will save us – save our congregation, save our religious message, and save each of us individually. It is our destiny and our reason for being. Seeing a way to be alive in a world that needs people who are alive is a great way to do church.
I’ll close with some words from Ric Masten, Unitarian Universalist poet, folk singer and minister.
His poem is called Burnout — a Misnomer
you've seen the results
in the shop on the shelf
row after row of grey empty faces
with nothing happening in the glassy eyes
a little surface reflection
you know the symptoms
a history of dependable service
then suddenly for no reason things go dark
and you're a dead piece of furniture
to be removed from the living room
the psychological repairman said
and shrugged and shook his head
having checked everything
except the cord
which of course
in a word "unplugged"
and to think
i nearly went to the dump myself
because someone less than a poet
trying to describe a condition
came up with a misleading term
a case of burnout demands a second opinion
and this is mine
find an outlet
and if the cord doesn't reach
move the set