Michael Bünker - The joy of being a pastor in Europe

Michael Bünker:

The joy of being a pastor in Europe

Lecture to the KEP Conference in Admont, 17 June 2019


Good morning to you all, dear sisters and brothers.

I would like to start by thanking you sincerely for inviting me to your conference here in Admont. I am delighted that you chose to hold the event in Austria on this occasion. Thank you also for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you this morning about the professional life of pastors, which will also touch upon the subjects of salutogenesis and resilience. I have to say that in doing so, I have drawn upon my own personal experience more than scientifically scrutinising ministry as a vocation and the related disciplines. I had been working as a parish minister for about twelve years when I was elected to the church leadership. So it’s from the perspective of my own direct contact with the issues relating to pastors’ work, rather than having any direct HR responsibility for church officers, that I experienced and also took decisions on such matters, whenever they cropped up. For the past twelve years, I have served as Bishop – which according to the job description contained in our church constitution includes the role of “Prime Minister of the Church” in the office of pastorate, providing all officers with pastoral care, advice and caution (Church Constitution, Article 90, para 1, point 2). During my years as the Bishop, I was also the honorary General Secretary of the “Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE)”, which repeatedly gave me insights into the situation of the Protestant churches in other European countries as well. Despite the plurality that exists amongst the Protestant churches, unsurprisingly there is a broad degree of agreement and similarity with regard to the professional challenges that pastors face to date. My tenure in these roles is now drawing to a close, and I am on the brink of the next transition in a pastor’s life – that of entering retirement. For sure, that does not mean I cease being a pastor. Ordination is an enduring mutual commitment between the church and those women and men who enter the service of public proclamation. But the sense of “You must” now gives way to “You can” – in other words, the entirely voluntary choice of which tasks one wishes to perform as a retired pastor.

However, I wish to start somewhere else than with church leadership or European mission – by telling you a little about my personal background. Like many pastors, I grew up in a Protestant parsonage. In fact, I was even born in a parsonage. So I was literally born to be a pastor’s child. My great grandfather was the son of a Swiss master dyer named Jakob Bünker (1812-1888), who for economic reasons migrated to Carinthia in the mid-19th century. His son Karl (1853-1919) studied Protestant theology and became a pastor in Carinthia – for a tolerance congregation in Trebesing. (Tolerance congregations were formed directly in the wake of the Patent of Toleration, issued by Joseph II in 1781, under the conditions stipulated therein. They remain something like the foundation of the Protestant Church in Austria to this day.) Karl served this congregation for more than forty years. He had married into a local Carinthian pastoral dynasty that had moved from Franconia to Austria immediately after the Patent of Toleration. Both of this first Pastor Bünker’s sons followed in their father’s footsteps to also became Protestant pastors, both also remaining in Carinthia. The younger brother took over from his father in the parish of Trebesing and also remained there for forty years. This wasn’t all that unusual at the time – we’re talking between 1880 and 1950, overall. The elder brother started off as a military chaplain shortly before and then during the First World War, in the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Army. After the war, this Pastor Bünker (1888-1966), my grandfather, took on the parish of Fresach in the Drava Valley in Carinthia, also one of the old tolerance congregations. At that time, Fresach had around 2,100 parishioners dotted around the farms on the slopes of the mountain and in several, very far-spread settlements. The parish only got electricity in the late 1930s and was left waiting until after the Second World War for a telephone line. The pastor was responsible for regular preaching in services on all Sundays and holidays, for ceremonies (of which funerals must have proved particularly onerous), religious education, and above all the home visits that parishioners expected on a regular basis. He had to go everywhere on foot. Wages were paid only partly in the form of a regular salary. It was primarily the state duties, such as religious education at public schools and officially keeping the matriculation records, that earned him actual money. A large part of his income was supposed to come from the “natural offerings” that the farmers in the parish had committed to, but which they were frequently very slack about delivering. Apart from that, the pastor was provided with a cow and several pigs together with a field and a large garden, which made him and his wife part-time farmers themselves. Despite these extensive and wide-ranging activities, Pastor Bünker still found the time to go on various excursions and host guests in the parsonage for several days at a time – all in all, a lifestyle that befitted his middle-class status. Many parsonages in that era were renowned for hosting groups who kept up the traditional Austrian card game of “Tarock”. In fact, this game was so incredibly popular amongst the officers of the former Imperial and Royal Army – and was therefore played from Chernivtsi in Ukraine to Trieste in Italy and from Cieszyn in Poland to Brașov in Romania – that the Austrian author Fritz von Herzmanovsky-Orlando (1877-1954) simply named the old Danube Monarchy the “Tarockians”. As four players are generally required, groups tended to consist of the village teacher, the Protestant pastor and his wife, and the Catholic priest – forming their own ecumenical Tarock congregation! The farmers had no concept of “Tarock”.

Having said that, my grandfather’s greatest passion was cultivating and growing rosebushes, of which he nurtured up to one hundred in the parsonage garden. While he was visiting the farms in his care or tending to his roses, his son already embarked upon studying Protestant theology. That was my father (1916-2001), who commenced service in 1940 in the major parish of Leoben in Styria. Leoben only became a parish in 1902, but by the end of the 1930s it already numbered more than 6,000 parishioners. This was too much for just one pastor, and so normally two shared the work – together with a deaconess as the parish sister and a religious education teacher in the schools. Curates often came to stay for short spells and, amongst the mass of refugees immediately after 1945, one or the other refugee pastor. Services of worship needed conducting regularly in the Gustav-Adolf Church in Leoben, as well as in six other preaching locations. Some of the routes had been damaged so badly during the war that these trips might also call for an overnight stay. Weekly Bible study groups, looking after the local student community, and supporting the flourishing network of associations all came on top of his core pastoral duties. Nonetheless, my father found the time for several hobbies. There are stories of numerous excursions, his writing ambitions, various visits and a subscription to the local cinema. These journeys often involved public transport, cycling and walking on foot, whenever he couldn’t catch a lift. My father only learned how to drive and use a telephone in the 1960s, and never really felt entirely in command of either. In 1954, shortly after I was born in Leoben parsonage, the entire family – five of us by now – moved to Carinthia. My father was responsible for two parishes there, until he retired at the age of 68 in 1984. Our pastoral service overlapped for four years, as I started out as a curate in the Döbling district of Vienna upon completing my studies in 1980, before being appointed pastor in its Floridsdorf district in 1982. The parish of Floridsdorf had around 3,500 parishioners at that time. Three pastors were assigned to it, together with a parish teacher and numerous religious education teachers in the public schools. Things basically haven’t changed to this day, with the number of parishioners dropping just slightly to 3,280 by now. Worship was, and still is, celebrated every week in Floridsdorf Church – and once a month at the four preaching locations. Besides the pastors, a number of lectors were also available to conduct these. The parish had a whole series of interest-based and community groups. Amongst the ceremonies that needing conducting, the numerous funerals caused the heaviest workload. It took a lot of energy to support the volunteers who saw to the church welfare efforts in the parish, conducted pastoral visits to hospitals and old people’s homes, performed youth work, nurtured confirmation candidates and ran the numerous parish events – which they still do to this day. I wondered how, in my grandfather’s day, just one pastor and a sister were able to care for an entire parish spread over a much larger geographical area and totalling more than 5,000 parishioners? The changes that have taken place since the 1960s and restructured many aspects of parish life for the churches presumably make all the difference. The numerous groups and circles in vibrant parish churches organising a range of different activities have placed new demands on pastors. An obvious outward sign of this development is the numerous halls and other premises that have sprung up in many parishes in addition to the church and the parsonage. Not only that, but an increasing degree of professionalism has become expected in all these spheres. Further education and continuing development became necessary not only for pastors and other full-time officers, but also for volunteers. I would also have to cite the institutional demands placed on pastors by the church itself – in some cases requiring a great deal more administrative and organisation work – as a further, internal motor of change. Then there’s the increasing effort required for planning and conducting ceremonies caused by the growing expectations for personal customisation in society, which manifests itself most vividly in church weddings. Of course, these trends have not only emerged in the church. Another new factor has been the fundamental questioning of the traditional division of roles between men and women, and the re-evaluation of what we term “reproductive work” in families and homes. These are just a couple of randomly pinpointed factors of change – with no claim to systematic, let alone exhaustive, coverage – which have simply also affected the church and thus pastoral duties. However: The church offering parochial care and support that my grandfather and even my father still worked for, and which always left them time for their own interests, did not disappear as a result. On the contrary! It has continued to exist unwaveringly – as it does now – with the result that all the changes that I have only briefly touched upon here raise additional demands alongside the parochial work of the people’s church.

This dual challenge – on the one hand, to continue and secure our traditions as far as possible, while, on the other, to assume responsibility for all kinds of (and undoubtedly numerous) new facets of parish life – has typified the professional lives of pastors for a good fifty years now. In churches with adequate resources, this is mitigated by collaborative work and, to a certain extent, by creating dedicated pastoral positions. But even this approach seems to be increasingly unsustainable under the growing threat of dwindling resources. In other churches, this separation of roles has not occurred anywhere near as overtly, meaning that the old parochial, pastoral church can be continued for the time being despite scant resources. The two extremes are exemplified by, let’s say, a parish in eastern Slovakia, at one end of the scale, and a parish in Frankfurt am Main, at the other – with a parish like Dresden Neustadt somewhere in between. What is the model for the future? Some might feel very tempted to view the remnants from the past also as the way forward. I consider this alluring, but mistaken. Conventional parochialism is sustained by conditions that are increasingly on the wane. For decades, people have been moving away from the custom of living and working in the same place, people’s mobility is increasing, and above all the younger generation in society is less and less willing to sign up to an institution for life simply because their parents and grandparents did so before them. This phenomenon applies right across society, also affecting not only political parties, but numerous volunteer organisations (such as voluntary firefighters and local football clubs) as well. Of course, this also affects churches and religious communities as a whole. To coin a phrase from religious sociology: In this society characterised by options, church membership has switched from being a matter of fate to people’s own choice. But please let me emphasise that I regard local parishes as immensely, irreplaceably valuable! In fact, I am convinced that they are destined to become even more important in the future than they perhaps are today. Where else does such a diverse range of people gather together? Where else does a university professor sit next to a care worker from Slovakia, and a grammar school teacher next to an asylum seeker from Afghanistan? This is the case in Protestant congregations at worship. And because worship not only calls for a dedicated time but also a dedicated place, by its very nature the worshipping congregation also forms the local community. It creates a kind of neighbourhood in which people who don’t know one another and have not sought each other out end up meeting together and, in the process, discovering each other’s life stories and what they have in common. And of course, Christian congregations as places of organised neighbourhood don’t exist in a vacuum. They need connections and form networks with other such places in their surroundings, and in this way they contribute to social cohesion. There are therefore good arguments for both aspects. Local or functional; the church as an institution or as an organisation – the one side cannot be played off against the other. Eberhardt Hauschildt even advocates a “hybrid understanding of the church” that uses both aspects and bounces their positive attributes off one another. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria has attempted to fruitfully marry these two lines of development – continuing the parochial principle, on the one hand, and perceiving the differentiation of the life and work of the church, on the other – without playing one off against the other, in a process called “Profile and Concentration”.

The workload is not necessarily one of the most prominent differences between my grandfather and my father, on the one hand, and me and – even more so by far – today’s up and coming generation of pastors, on the other. The workload was high back then as it remains now, for sure even too high in some cases. Another consistent factor is how deeply pastors feel about the meaningfulness of their actions. The social status of the church, and thus pastors, has changed in general. I see the most significant change in our recognition that working as a pastor is not only demanding and onerous, fulfilling and exhilarating, but unfortunately can also make people ill. Symptoms such as stress and exhaustion, reaching as far as “burn-out”, had been visible for a long time when Andreas von Heyl conducted the first empirical study of this phenomenon in the German-speaking world in 2003. (In comparison, anglophone studies have been conducted in this sphere since the early 1960s.) Von Heyl studied the pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria – with alarming findings. Almost half (49.5%) could be considered at risk of burn-out. Several years later, in 2009, a similar study was conducted in the Church of Baden, which indicated that 20% of pastors showed symptoms of stress-related health problems. Even that is an alarmingly high number. Further investigations in churches in other regions followed suit, which the German Pastors’ News has always reported on.

Von Heyl didn’t stop with the original survey. In his inaugural speech in Neuendettelsau (in Middle Franconia) in 2004, he spoke about “salutogenesis”. He considers this the “key term” in the current discourse about church professions, as conducted between medical science and practical theology. The handbook entitled “Salutogenesis within the Church” published by Andreas von Heyl, Konstanze Kemnitzer and Klaus Raschzok in 2015, marked a milestone in this field. “How can pastors handle the various potential stresses in a way that doesn’t adversely affect their well-being and enables them to continue to serve ‘well, happily and in good health’?” von Heyl asked. The three criteria “well, happily and in good health” are the key factors that the Bavarian Church highlighted in a consultation involving its pastors between 2013 and 2016. One outcome of this consultation process was the handout on creating conditions of service (basically, a “job description”) and setting up a dedicated project for salutogenesis in the church. Measures of this kind are known as the “enabling conditions” that organisations as a whole, including the church, use to define the parameters that enable individual staff members to work in a way that is beneficial rather than damaging to their health.

Salutogenesis is a synthetic term invented by the Israeli-American medical sociologist Aaron Antonovsky in 1970. He researched the biographies of women who, against all expectations, enjoyed good health after surviving the Nazi concentration camps. This prompted him to investigate the health-promoting resources that enable people to maintain their physical and emotional integrity despite the most hostile life circumstances imaginable. He found that this is not only down to individual factors, but rather the “salus” – health and life as a whole. Antonovsky talks about a “sense of coherence” in this respect. People with a distinct sense of coherence are more resistant to stress factors, and therefore fall ill both less frequently and less severely. There are other concepts related to salutogenesis that indicate the possibilities open to people for weathering crises or withstanding the relentless pressure exerted by our current-day working and living conditions – namely “resilience” (Emmy Werner, 1977), coping strategies (Richard Lazarus, 1974), “hardiness” (Suzanne C. Kobasa, 1982) and “self-efficacy” (Albert Bandura, 1997).

I believe this large number of closely related yet distinct concepts – the forces that enable people to survive in extreme situations, such as internment in a concentration camp – can be leveraged under entirely different conditions in today’s everyday working environment. It’s no surprise that this is also a highly relevant topic for pastors and other church office holders. To a certain extent, pastors really are no “different” from others, as Manfred Josuttis was still able to claim in 1982.

Of course, the concepts of salutogenesis and resilience are also subject to critique. The most important challenge asserts that all the concepts cited for weathering stress and crisis are extremely individual in nature. This places the focus firmly on individuals and their personal mechanisms and strategies for coping with stress and overload. Ultimately, this places the onus on each individual person for somehow getting through their working years without damage to their health – the logical consequence being that it’s their own fault if they don’t succeed. The “tyranny of successful life” is thus raised to a pinnacle in how pastors perceive themselves in their professional lives. Whether this really serves a justified cause is then certainly doubtful. This closes a circle: The stress experienced by pastors, in part caused by the increasing individualisation in society, is also supposed to be combated with individual strategies.

To start with, the responsible church leaders at all levels certainly have to ensure the appropriate professional parameters are in place for pastors together with measures and instruments that provide them with the space and time for recuperation, reflection and spirituality – without them being considered “unwell”. Undoubtedly, more can be done in this regard than the conditions of service as yet prescribe. Having said that, I would say we have to be careful not to potentially over-regulate the framework for pastors’ work. The freedom inspired by the Gospel can only be communicated in the free church credibly and professionally by Christians who themselves also act freely and responsibly. But opening up leeway and freedom is also a challenging, but undoubtedly pleasant, task for church leaders. Smaller churches and those with modest financial means will increasingly have to invest in staff development, counselling, coaching and spiritual direction and to expand the free space offered to pastors.

I believe it is much more difficult to work on two other factors in this field, as they are either off limits or not open to professional staff development methods.

The first relates to general social changes that also affect the church in particular and that it cannot itself change or extinguish. Ulrike Wagner-Rau was the first to talk about the ongoing truncation and simultaneous acceleration of time. Longer-term planning and actions based on tradition are starting to be viewed with suspicion and put under pressure. Perpetual flexibility and constant adjustment to new and unexpected developments create uncertainty and fear. The enormous pressure exerted on pastors to be creative equates to the pressure for innovation exerted in other professions. And yet precisely the church is based on longevity and continuance! Convention does not automatically mean dead tradition, but rather – if applied vigorously and true-to-life – it meets people’s present-day expectations. Many pastors exert enormous pressure on themselves. Pastors thus live anachronistically. They can’t really be squeezed into timetables, as their time lies in God’s hands. Asking someone like this to instate professional time management will inevitably cause tension. As the profession of pastor is affected by the same social changes as the church, both the church and its pastors are in the process of transformation. Wagner-Rau refers in this context to the “brink”. No-one knows what tomorrow will bring. We can only agree in principle that “change by design” is better than “change by disaster”. Whatever the case, all steps towards the future will be subject to error and more closely resemble “carefully inching and feeling our way forward” than “fervently striding ahead”. Loss of meaning and increased expectations!


To round off my thoughts:
The current zeitgeist very much calls for people rather than organisations to provide plausible orientation and values. Martin Luther’s clever and helpful distinction between the office and the person has become obsolete. But it also remains true today and in the future that it’s the mission of the church that’s essential, not the personal mission of faith espoused by an individual working for the church. What’s urgently required is consensus upon the mission that’s founded in the Gospel amongst those involved in publicly and professionally communicating it. The courses in faith conducted in congregations certainly make sense, but the aspect of pastors themselves seeking consensus upon faith generally remains disregarded, in fact even something of a taboo. Whereas it could provide relief for them to know they are borne by this faith and can also let things be once in a while. “Satis est”, “It is sufficient” – this phrase contained in the Augsburg Confession (Article 7) is also applicable to pastors’ professional lives. How can consensus be established on what does and doesn’t form part of pastors’ core tasks? Such a basis would also make it possible to decide which tasks should be organised differently – and which perhaps even relinquished? It’s not only the expectations of congregations and church leaders that prevent pastors from occasionally drawing the line. Not seldom, it’s their own expectations founded in the ambivalence caused by fantasies of omnipotence and impotence. “My grace is sufficient for you,” Paul the Apostle is told (2 Corinthians 12:9). It would make the church more evangelical and the profession of pastor more humane to settle upon this sufficiency and decide when enough is enough.

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