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“ I pray to you to help me, and every day I get worse. Are you deaf, too?“ Thoughts of a Washed up Priest and Chaplain at the End of a Military Career


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A few nights ago I watched the final episode of the television series M*A*S*H “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” As I mentioned in my last blog both the series and the film have been important and long lasting parts of my life. It is interesting because when I was first commissioned as an Army Second Lieutenant on 19 June 1983 in the Medical Service Corps, and September 1992 became a Chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard, subsequently serving in the Virginia Army National Guard and Army Reserve as a Chaplain. I also served as a Armor Officer in Texas during seminary. On 9 February 1999 I turned in my Gold Oak Leaf as a Major in the Army for the two Silver Bars of a Navy Chaplain Corps Lieutenant.

Now, 21 years after that move I am a washed up Chaplain and Navy Commander mostly abandoned by fellow Chaplains for openly and honesty dealing with the ravages of PTSD, abandonment which created moral injury that I have never recovered from, no matter how hard I prayed the Daily Office, or studied scripture and theology. Without going into such detail that it would harm me even more in much current fragile emotional state, I can only say that I was abandoned, ghosted, and off revamped by the senior Chaplains who sent me to war, of course I was a very willing volunteer, and then ensured that every subsequent assignment would be harmful to my career, while certain senior chaplains treated me in the most malicious and evil manner knowing I needed a continuity of psychiatric, psychological, and spiritual care, ripped me away from it sending me on a three year geographic bachelor tour, away from home and those supports.

I also continue to suffer physical and neurological disorders related to combat. One is a combination of serene Tinnitus, and abnormal degraded speech comprehension without corresponding hearing loss. The neurologist thought it was due damage to my auditory nerves and auditory processing center related to PTSD. My speech comprehension was rated in the third percentile, meaning that 97% of people process speech better than me. In order to understand speech in individual conversations or in large groups I have to be completely focused and not have any cross talk or background noise. This makes it difficult to function. Basically, I am functionally deaf unless I am completely focused on whoever is talking and they are speaking clearly enough for me to understand. Judy is really deaf, and she understands speech better than me much of the time.

During Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen the 4077th’s Chaplain, Father Francis Mulcahy is exposed to a mortar blast and suffers Tinnitus and hearing loss, which continue to get worse despite his prayers.

In one of his prayers to God, one which resonates much with me, he cries out:

“Dear Lord, I know there must be a reason for this, but what is it? I answered the call to do your work. I’ve devoted my life to it, and now, how am I supposed to do it? What good am I now? What good is a deaf priest? I pray to you to help me, and every day I get worse. Are you deaf, too?“ 

My situation doesn’t simply involve my inability to understand speech but the residual effects of PTSD: hyper vigilance, anxiety, severe depression, sleep disorders, nightmare and night terror disorders that have resulted in injuries including a broken nose when battling the phantom like images of assailants in my dreams.And most recently under the stress I feel, horrible angry outbursts that are so unlike me. They make me feel horrible, but a decade of death threats, internet stalking, being called an “enemy of America”, and for supporting the rights of Blacks a “nigger lover” and “wigger,” and condemnation by Christians for caring about the rights, safety, and decent treatment of LGBTQ as enabling sin against God, but I never saw Jesus turn anyone away. The greatest hurt I experience is when Christian friends attack, condemn, and abandon me, especially over the past five years as so many became members of the Trump Dictatorship Cult. It took a while but I don’t take it anymore and after slicing and dicing their arguments leave things in their hands as where to they want to go with our relationship. Some cut me off and others make sure I know how rotten I am before they cut things off. Back in the early days after returning from Iraq while melting down and being thrown out of my former Church I culled a lot of them preemptively from my social contacts. A few have since renewed and reconciled but not all.

No amount of praying ever changed anything. I still believe in God, but I struggle every day. Sometimes I don’t feel that I am of any use, but too many people tell me that I do. Even so the fourth verse of the M*A*S*H them song, Suicide is Painless rings true for me now. I don’t have the answers. That verse says: A brave man once requested me to answer questions questions that are key, “Is it to be or not to be” and I replied “oh, why ask me?” 

Something that Colonel Potter said to Father Mulcahy and Mulcahy’s reply seems a pretty good place to end this before I sign off from this post:

Col. Potter: Well, Francis, you’ve been a godsend.
Father Mulcahy: Look on the bright side: When they tell us to serve our time in Purgatory, we can say, “No thanks, I’ve done mine.”

So here I am, an old, broken, washed-up Chaplain and priest who is a better historian than many looking to the next phase of my life, with Judy and the puppies, but even so, without a Parish, without an institutional Chaplain position, or any formal place of ministry, I will still be a Priest, and serve whoever comes into my life, even when I struggle and doubt.

Since I am going to have to get a bit of work done  house and do my damnedest to finish the illustration section of my book so I can send it to my agent and publisher tomorrow, which means whenever I wake up, I wish you all peace and safety.

Blessings and Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part IV: The Minefields of the Flesh, Sex, Alcohol and Money

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This is fourth part of a response to a question I had from a new Navy Chaplain. I have decided to post it here without any identification of the chaplain because I know that many men and women who are new to the military chaplaincy or who are exploring the possibilities of becoming a chaplain have the same questions. I was fortunate to have had a number of chaplains who at various points in my decision process and formation as a minister, Priest and Chaplain in both the Army and the Navy help me with many of these questions. Likewise I learned far too much the hard way and blew myself up on some of the “land mines” that almost all who serve as chaplains experience in their careers. This is the third of several parts to the letter and is my attempt to systematically explain my understanding of what it is to be a Chaplain serving in the military and in particularly the Navy. The first three parts are linked here:

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part One

Letter to a New Military Chaplain: Part Two The Minefields of the Heart 

Letter to a New Military Chaplain Part Three: The Minefields of the Soul: Power and Arrogance

Dear Chaplain

It has been about a week since my last letter concerning the minefields that so easily ensnare those in the various Military Chaplain ministries. This section of my letter to you will be of the more practical type of advice and less philosophical and theological than the first several installments even though at the heart these observations are both theological and philosophical.

I chose the title of this section carefully because I do think that the way a number of New Testament writers deal with the subject of sin, calling it “the flesh” as opposed to “the spirit” is appropriate to the topic.

I think that people of my generation and earlier had a very high view of clergy. We didn’t think that they could do much wrong. Of course we all knew that they did but we didn’t like to talk about it, even productions such as Elmer Gantry did little to dissuade us from our beliefs that Ministers, Priests and Rabbis were somehow morally and certainly spiritually better than us. Even Hollywood maintained the myth, movies like The Bells of St Mary’s showed the essential goodness of the parish priest, while The Fighting 69th in which Pat O’Brien played the legendary Father Duffy, a man both streetwise and holy became the quintessential Chaplain of his generation.

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In fact the prayer that he prays in the movie is one that I have echoed in my career as a Chaplain and I am sure that many others have as well.

“Almighty God, in Thine infinite mercy grant me, thy servant, the wisdom to guide my young flock through the trials of war. Oh, Father, they’re so young. So young and they know so little of life and nothing at all of that terrible and bloody altar towards which they move, carrying so eagerly the bright sacrifice of their youth. Their need will be great, O Lord, and I am weak. Therefore, I beseech thee through Thy Son, Christ, our Lord, grant me the strength to keep them steadfast in the faith, in decency and courage to the glory of God, their country, and their regiment in the bad times to come. And if in battle you see fit to gather them to your protecting arms, thy will be done, but let them die like men, valiant and unafraid.”

Of course there is Father Mulcahy of the movie and television series M*A*S*H. I actually liked the portrayal of him by William Christopher in the series better than the movie, perhaps because he became more than a bit player, but like many real life chaplains of every denomination an integral part of the life of his unit. His struggles are the same that many of us who serve as chaplains. In one episode he says to Hawkeye “For some time now, I’ve been comparing the disparity of our callings – Doctor versus priest. You fellows are always able to see the end result of your work. I mean, you know immediately if you’ve been successful. For me, the results are far less tangible. Sometimes… most of the time… I honestly don’t know whether I’m doing any good or not.” 

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The film and television portrayals of chaplains such as Father Duffy and Father Mulcahy are inspiring, as are the examples of so many good men and women who have served as military chaplains. Some of these even gave their lives in combat so others might live, or placed themselves in harms way to be the the visible representation of God’s presence in places that God himself seems to have abandoned.

That being said there are minefields that exist which even the most noble, caring  and committed Chaplains can fall victim. They primarily lie in the real of Sex, Alcohol and Money, what we referred to as “SAM” when I was an Army Chaplain. Those are general categories to which unfortunately we need to discuss, illicit drugs, disobeying lawful orders and simple rudeness. I will save the issues of disobeying lawful orders and simple rudeness for part five, or Part V as they say in Roman numerals.

At any given time there are between a half a dozen and dozen military chaplains serving time at either Leavenworth or one of the regional Brigs. Others end up in trouble, are disciplined and then discharged from the the service often after devastating the lives of those that they served with. Those numbers are not included in the numbers incarcerated.

You wouldn’t think that sex would be a big issue being that we are supposed to be better at keeping our zippers up than others, but this is not always the case. I can cite from personal knowledge case after case where chaplains that I have known from across the denominational spectrum conservatives and liberals alike. Those actions have included heterosexual and homosexual relationships, inside and outside their units and sometimes involved the spouses of their unit members or parishioners.

For some this is due to the isolation that many Chaplains experience, be they married or single. Some are sexual predators, loathsome and evil animals masquerading as good, while others in moments of weakness succumb to temptation. I have had to go into a number of billets where the chaplain just before me had been relieved of their duties for sexual misconduct. Regardless of the reason the real fact of the matter is that when a chaplain is relieved and disciplined for their sexual misconduct their actions radiate out and damage the ministry and reputations of Chaplains who are completely innocent of wrong doing. This is much like how the actions of disgraced televangelists, pastors of large churches and Bishops or Priests implicated in pedophile or other sexual crimes cause problems for others in similar positions who again are without reproach. In every case where I have had to go into such a situation the onus has been on me to help heal the wounds and rebuild the credibility of the Chaplain Corps. This is true for every Chaplain who has to take a job where his or her predecessor was a criminal.

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A Navy Chaplain being taken to the Brig after being convicted at Court Martial for sexual crimes (Marine Corps Times Photo)

Sexuality can be one of the greatest minefields that a military chaplain has to navigate, but there are others less visible that also trip men and women up.

The second major area is alcohol. I know a number of chaplains who have become alcoholics. I like to drink good craft beer, but I do know my limits now and am very careful about my consumption of alcohol. When I first came back from Iraq that was not the case. I did drink too much, mainly because I was in the process of coming apart with severe and chronic PTSD. I almost ended up in a bar fight one night and I am thankful that I never ended up in an accident or involved in any other alcohol related incident. There were times at various conferences that I would sit around and drink late into the night at the hotel with other chaplains going through similar problems as I was going through. For us it was safer than going to our superiors either in our churches or the chaplain corps.

That being said I have seen other Chaplains succumb to alcoholism and know one who in dealing with his own demons from service in Vietnam committed suicide while on active duty. Alcohol is also related to many of the incidents regarding sex, so even if it was not the primary issue it was a factor. I also know a number of chaplains who are involved with Alcoholics Anonymous and fight the battle of sobriety on a daily basis.

Related to alcohol are drugs. This is a relatively new phenomena and in most cases is related to prescription medicines, especially pain killers and anti-psychotics prescribed to treat the wounds of war, injuries and things like PTSD and TBI. Once again these are easy to become addicted to and chaplains are much like others when dealing with chronic pain, PTSD or TBI. Recently I saw something that I never thought I would see and that was a chaplain who tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in Marijuana. I figure that if there is one there probably are more that are using, many who battled addictions before their faith conversions and call to the ministry but when placed under the stress of this ministry go back to old friends.

The last component of SAM is money. I think this is a more difficult area in the Army than the Navy because in the Navy chaplains are not allowed to deal with the Religious Offering Fund, where in the Army a Chaplain at every installation is the Religious Offering Fund Manager. It is said by some that “money is the root of all evil” but I am not sure if that is exactly true in this case. I think that money and the power it brings sometimes reveals the inner character of a man more than anything. The great televangelist scandals of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the continuing saga of corruption at the Vatican Bank and the all too frequent revelations of ministers of all faiths misusing church finances are legend. When I had to manage a relative small installation chapel fund I lived in terror of making an innocent mistake, and thankfully I had an outstanding Chaplain Assistant and Parish Council to work with and maintained close contact with the fund manager at our higher headquarters.

Another issue dealing with money is what we are paid when in a travel status. I know that there are Chaplains who play fast and loose with this and I know people in the travel and disbursing offices who tell me about the actions of chaplains that they have to deal with who are not playing straight with the system. In my case I don’t make claims that I cannot substantiate even if it costs me money. I would rather be absolutely honest on a travel claim and lose money that claim something that I may or may not be entitled to that might cause scandal and bring disrepute to God, my church or the Chaplain Corps.

Money is a great temptation and more than one military Chaplain has fallen to it.

The sad thing about all of this is that most of our religious traditions deal explicitly with all of these matters as do our various Service Regulations and Defense Department Instructions. They are not rocket surgery but they are the downfall of far too many chaplains, many of whom actually came into the ministry and chaplaincy with good motives. Once again I lay a lot of this at the feet of our churches and theological schools which for decades have stressed how to run a church program over any real pastoral or theological formation process.

I am lucky. I have made mistakes but I have had numerous chaplains in both the Army and the Navy help me to see the blind spots and teach me about these things. They span the denominational, theological and even political spectrum. Conservatives, liberals, men and women, Protestants, Catholics, Later Day Saints, Jews and even a Moslem.

I could easily have gone into detail about the specific incidents where I knew the people involved or had to deal with them or follow in their footsteps. Some have made the national media, but somehow to do so would be unseemly, after all I do not work for the National Enquirer or for that matter the Navy or Army Times. That being said the Chaplain Corps of the various services all have by percentage among the highest incidences of misconduct of any officer branch or community and this has been a constant since I began my military career in 1981.

That should be a warning. If you know something is wrong don’t do it. If you are unsure about something ask someone. If you need help get it before your actions destroy the lives of those you serve and bring disrepute to your office, your religious body, the Chaplain Corps of your military service and yes even God. After all God does tend to get the blame for all of the actions of those in his service so be careful, guard your heart and mind and for God sakes keep your zipper up and all appearances thereof.

Until the next installment,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Pause on a Monday Night to Reflect and Give Thanks

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Well it has been a busy few days travel, doing a wedding for a dear couple that I have worked with for almost 5 years and a busy time at work. On top of everything I have the duty pager tonight, so far an uneventful night despite a couple of somewhat sporty events during the day.  I am also adjusting to the fact that I will be transferring to my new assignment in two months. I have enjoyed my current assignment but the geographic separation from my wife Judy with only sporadic visits home for the past three years has been wearying. It will be good to be back with her. Our time together gets better every time I go home. That is a good thing because for a time after Iraq and my assignments in Naval Medical Centers that she wondered if our marriage would survive. Life for her with the man dealing with the PTSD “Mad Cow” was a bitch at times.

I have a lot to be thankful for in the non-cyberspace world, friends, family, dogs, as well as vocation, calling and career that I love doing. All of that makes a big difference.

So tonight instead of writing anything too serious I want to pause for a moment and thank all of those that subscribe to Padre Steve’s World as well as others that follow me and the site through Facebook or Twitter. There are thousands or millions of other sites to browse around on in cyber space, not to mention  books and film and other forms of learning, information and entertainment. I am just happy that a decent number of people read what I write and quite a few send me notes or leave comments that mean a lot to me, especially when I see how something that I wrote or that I have shared from my experience has touched their lives in some way. That is actually humbling and I am most grateful.

Now I know that some of what I write appeals to a wide variety of people and that some people may be interested or not interested in a given topic. I figure that some variety is the spice of life. Likewise I know that thinking and rational people will not always agree with me, heck there are some times that I don’t even agree with me, it’s that whole PTSD “mad Cow” deal.

When I was going through my darkest times after Iraq dealing with PTSD, depression, anxiety, insomnia, night terrors and nightmares it was a rather desperate time in my life. There were times that I wondered if I was able to be of help to anyone when it seemed that I couldn’t even help myself. I was unprepared for this, before I went to Iraq I was arrogant enough to think that I was untouchable and would never be affected by any form of combat stress, much less full blown PTSD.

Tonight I was watching an episode of season seven of Star Trek Deep Space Nine, called Afterimage. It is about the successor to Jadzia Dax who was killed at the end of season six. The new character “Ezri Dax” is a young counselor who ended up with the Dax symbiont by accident and out of necessity, without the years of training and selection process normal to her planet and race. Unprepared for this she struggles to find herself. After a confrontation with a a man that she is counseling she goes to Captain Sisko and confesses her inadequacy and offering her resignation. Sisko asked her “why” and she replied “Because I can’t do my job. Garak was right. How can I help other people when I can’t even help myself?”

One of my favorite fictional Priests is Father Mulcahy of M*A*S*H. In one episode where he has hit the wall he remarks: “It doesn’t matter whether you feel useful or not when you’re moving from one disaster to another. The trick, I guess, is to just keep moving.”

I felt that way so many times after Iraq and the years that followed. Over the years things have gotten better with therapy, medication, some spiritual care and the support of colleagues where I have worked. This blog has been a big part of that journey as I rediscovered who I am and what I am becoming as a human being in relationship with God and the people of God, regardless of their spiritual beliefs or non-spiritual beliefs, their political beliefs, their lifestyle or even really important things like if the a Dodgers’ or Yankee’s fan. Since I am a fan of the Giants and Orioles this is more important than you can imagine.

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So to my long time readers thank you for persevering. To my new readers, subscribers and those that follow me on Facebook or Twitter, welcome to my little world.

Peace and blessings,

Padre Steve+

PS Tomorrow I will be looking at the serious situation developing in all seriousness in Syria.

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A Memorial Service as Tragedy Strikes Camp Lejeune on the 10th Anniversary of the Beginning of the Iraq War

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“God didn’t put us here for that pat on the back. He created us so he could be here himself. So he could exist in the lives of those he created, in his image.” Chaplain (Captain) Fr Francis Mulcahy M*A*S*H 

The past week has been difficult at Camp LeJeune. We lost a sailor, a hospital corpsman who died by his own hand last Monday. He was a veteran of Afghanistan and his death came as a surprise to his friends, family and shipmates. Today we conducted his memorial service. It was a full house. His family travelled to be here and his friends, those that served with him while he was assigned to the Marines as well as his current shipmates were there in abundance.

It was a time to grieve. The young man was beloved by his friends, respected and cared for. However something that none of us will ever know or understand overwhelmed him. It may have been the trauma of war, maybe something else, but he maintained a facade that kept his friends, family and shipmates away from whatever despair drove him to take his life.

It was a time for all of us to grieve. It was as William Shakespeare wrote in McBeth a time to “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.”

But even as we grieved the news filtered to the base that 7 Marines assigned to the Second Marine Division were killed, and a number of others injured when a mishap occurred where they were training in Nevada. Evidently either a mortar round either exploded in the tube or as it was being handled during a live fire exercise. They join the thousands of men and women who have died or been wounded in preparation for, the conduct of or the aftermath of their service in Iraq or Afghanistan. The death of each one leaves a void in the heart of a loved one, friend or shipmate.

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Staff Sergeant Ergin Osman KIA Afghanistan

I have lost friends and shipmates in all phases of both wars and their aftermath. Some have died in combat, others while supporting combat operations of natural causes or accidents, some have committed suicide, including a Priest and Chaplain who served in both Vietnam and Iraq. Still countless others endure injuries or illnesses that will eventually kill them.

Likewise there are far too many more who have sustained terrible injuries to their minds, bodies and spirits that time will never heal. The young men and women that I see every day, those with the physical wounds of war and those with the unseen but sometimes even more disabling injuries such as PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury or Moral Injury remain in the fight, sometimes with the sole mission of recover or remaining alive.

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Ten years after the war in Iraq began and twelve and a half years after 9-11 and the invasion of Afghanistan the costs continue to build in lives and treasure. In Iraq almost 4500 American and over 300 other coalition casualties, more than 500 contractors and nearly 10,000 Iraqi Soldiers and Police and countless thousands of Iraqi civilians have died. US wounded alone number almost 35,000 in Iraq. In Afghanistan there are over 2100 US dead and about 1100 NATO and Coalition dead, hundreds of contractors, and thousands of Afghans with over 17,000 more American military wounded. Every day nearly 20 veterans take their lives while thousands of others struggle with physical, psychological and spiritual wounds of war, wounds that don’t heal even as they find that they no longer fit in the country that went shopping when they went to war. The costs of both wars now are building into trillions of dollars, costs that will continue to grow even after the wars wind down.

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Two time Congressional Medal of Honor Winner Major General Smedley Butler, US Marine Corps wrote:

“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? Major General Smedley Butler wrote: “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….” (See War is a Racket: Remembering Major General Smedley Butler USMC and Why He Matters

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Likewise Lieutenant General (US Army Retired) Hal Moore, who is immortalized in the film We Were Soldiers and book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young told West Point Cadets in 2005:

The war in Iraq, I said, is not worth the life of even one American soldier. As for Secretary Rumsfeld, I told them, I never thought I would live long enough to see someone chosen to preside over the Pentagon who made Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara look good by comparison. The cadets sat in stunned silence; their professors were astonished. Some of these cadets would be leading young soldiers in combat in a matter of a few months. They deserved a straight answer.

The expensive lessons learned in Vietnam have been forgotten and a new generation of young American soldiers and Marines are paying the price today, following the orders of civilian political leaders as they are sworn to do. The soldiers and those who lead them will never fail to do their duty. They never have in our history. This is their burden. But there is another duty, another burden, that rests squarely on the shoulders of the American people. They should, by their vote, always choose a commander in chief who is wise, well read in history, thoughtful, and slow-exceedingly slow-to draw the sword and send young men and women out to fight and die for their country. We should not choose for so powerful an office someone who merely looks good on a television screen, speaks and thinks in sixty-second sound bites, and is adept at raising money for a campaign.

If we can’t get that part right then there will never be an end to the insanity that is war and the unending suffering that follows in war’s wake-and we must get it right if we are to survive and prosper as free Americans in this land a million Americans gave their lives to protect and defend.”

Needless to say, Moore, a West Point graduate has not been asked back.

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Thousands of young Americans, as well as NATO or other Allied nation soldiers, including Iraqi soldiers that I knew and Afghans that I have not worked with have died or been mangled by these wars. Yet too many Americans, Europeans and others that have sent young men and women to these wars have no stake in the game.  Most people continue with the mundane aspects of peacetime life while their political, religious and business leaders plot even more war. Syria, Mali, North Korea, Iran…where will it end?

Today we mourned a shipmate and friend at Camp LeJeune even as we wait to see who else that we know have been killed or injured in this latest training accident. I was honored to be a part of the memorial and happy to be of help to the families and friends of my sailor. At the same time I too grieve and wonder just how many more will have to die before the madness ends.

I left the base after the ceremony, and saw the massed trucks of the local and national news networks parked outside the gate like vultures. When I got home I hugged my dog Molly, I love that little dog, she has helped save my life after my time in Iraq. I then went for a four mile run on the beach and then had a couple of beers with my dinner while at the bar with my friends at my local watering hole.

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The old regulars there have nicknamed me “Father Mulcahy” a name that some people at the hospital have also given me. Maybe it is that I ear round steel rimmed glasses. Maybe it is because I will join in the occasional poker game , football, basketball or NASCAR pool, which by the way I won the NASCAR pool this week. Or maybe it is just because they didn’t know I was a Chaplain or Priest until a mutual friend and co-worker told one of them. Until then I was just Steve, the guy that wore the Orioles and Giants baseball gear. Now I have become their Priest and Chaplain, funny how that works. Regardless, it is a nickname that I cherish, because when I was growing up Fr Mulcahy symbolized so much of what I thought was good in a Priest and Chaplain. The writers of M*A*S*H made him very human. But I digress…

As we mourned today I was reminded of something that Helen Keller said, something that I think no matter what any of us grieve is true. “We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in all the world–the company of those who have known suffering.”

Pray for me a sinner.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Flickering Flames: Clergy Burnout in America in 2010

Father Mulcahy: What an ordeal. 72 hours straight. I’m prayed out – absolutely prayed out.
Hawkeye: Don’t forget, Father, God was on six days straight.
Father Mulcahy: He was a lot younger then
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It doesn’t matter whether you feel useful or not when you’re moving from one disaster to another. The trick, I guess, is to just keep moving. Father Mulcahy, William Christopher M*A*S*H

A few days ago I read an article in the New York Times ( the link is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html?_r=1&hp&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1280746899-Fj4AG+SysGvlJ/xdTT+ZZg ) about the large number of civilian clergy experiencing burnout, discouragement, disillusionment to the point that they end up developing chronic physical illnesses, psychological or psychiatric conditions, experience marriage or family difficulties or are so beaten down that they leave the ministry entirely.   Many clergy now suffer from high rates of obesity, hypertension and depression more so than most Americans. In the last decade, the use of antidepressants by clergy has risen and their life expectancy has fallen. Job satisfaction is down and many clergy would leave the ministry if they felt that they could. The issue cuts across denominational and even religious lines and is not bound by the depth of faith or the fervency of the minister in his or her pursuit of “doing good ministry” in whatever venue they are in.  It also impacts those of all sides of the theological spectrum from fundamentalists to progressives or in old time parlance “liberals” and everything in between.

Actually I am not surprised by the studies or the conclusions of the article. When I was in seminary back in the late 1980s and early 1990s the school that I attended was filled with pastors either those in ministry or those recovering from nasty church splits, or being fired for often trivial reasons. These were by and large good men, I say men because the Southern Baptist Convention then and now has few women in parish ministry.  Many of the men that I knew were broken; they had come back to school as a way to see if there was some way to find a safe place of ministry.  In the last years of seminary and the year prior to entering my clinical pastoral education residency I worked for a nationwide ministry and was assigned the task of assisting clergy that came to us for help or counsel.  One of the interesting things to note was that during this time the average longevity of a Southern Baptist pastor in his church was a dismal 18 months. Later I had a friend in another Baptist denomination accept a call to a church that had been through 33 pastors in 30 years.  He thought that he would be the exception, less than 8 months later a time that he and his new wife were harassed, abused and hounded by the congregation he quit. He ended up in my denomination as he was moving in a more liturgical and sacramental way of life and is now in the process of becoming a married Roman Catholic priest.

When I left the active duty Army to go to seminary I was under the impression that most clergy were relatively satisfied with life but the men that I met in seminary and those that I dealt with later showed me that all was not well for many good men and women doing their best to serve Christ and the people of God committed to their charge.  I never will forget men saying to me that they struggled with depression, alcoholism, sexual addiction, were being divorced by their wives or considering either leaving the ministry or changing the type of ministry that they served or even their denominational home.  Nearly all reported the stress that they experienced in their ministry, the unmanageable tasks of trying to compete for numbers, and in many churches it is all about numbers, see Chuck Colson’s book “The Body” cater to the nearly insatiable “needs” of parishioners who demanded more time, and investment in programs to keep them in the church, pressures resulting from the financial costs of trying to manage building programs, special ministries and programs and an every growing desire for more excitement and “thrills” in the church program.  Add to this the unrealistic expectation of parishioners, local and denominational leaders and the constant upbraiding to be more like Reverend so and so on television or the guy that wrote the latest book on church growth, spiritual warfare or whatever as the list goes on ad infinitum. Add to this the intrusiveness brought about by cell phones, texting, the internet which place clergy in a place where they have no place to go when they need a rest because there is always one more need to satisfy many of  which cannot be satisfied. One minister of a wel-known Mega-Church when confronted by Colson about not preaching on more controversial moral topics told Colson that “they pay me to get them in the door and keep them coming.”

The pastor of our age must become a teacher, preacher, counselor, evangelist, financer, program director, personnel manager, marketing executive and most of all be able to reinvent himself at a whim in order to remain relevant and in tune with the current “move of God.”  Those that don’t keep pace with whatever the latest “move of God” (read marketing ploy) is finds that they are out of a job faster than a Mob hit-man with ad aim. It is a recipe for disaster, not only for clergy and their families but for congregations which when their pastors burn out, divorce or become compromised do to sex, alcohol or money suffer the consequences of their own making  often losing members and sometimes even collapsing.

The pressures are immense and not just for married or single Protestant pastors but for Catholic Priests, Jewish Rabbis and even Moslem Imam’s all under some kind of unreasonable pressure.  It does not matter of it is trying to balance the competing theological factions present in their faith tradition from fundamentalists to progressives and everything in between, trying to meet unattainable goals set by congregational or denominational leaders or just to attempt to be all things to all people just to survive it is amazing that that any survive at all.  This is not the life of clergy even a generation ago, a generation that reported high job satisfaction, good health and congregations that would if possible strive to serve their pastor as much as he served them.

The world has changed and clergy are not doing well.  When a big name pastor, evangelist or leader of a church or denomination screws up perfectly the good men and women serving in ministry that don’t do those things are lumped in with those that commit various crimes or ethically challenged behavior.

In my chosen vocation within the vocation of being a priest and minister, that of a military Chaplain the pressures of service often exceed those that our civilian counterparts face. In a time where we have been at war almost 10 years with many chaplains making multiple deployments to the various combat zones the pressures are immense. The pressures on chaplains, their families as well as the men and women that they serve are unparalleled in civilian ministry, which as I describe above is no picnic, unless perchance you serve the fabulously well to do.

While I do not know statistics on Chaplains and burnout I can assure you that it is a concern of mine based on some that I have met.

In my service, the Navy we have battled shortages of Chaplains and the increasing demands necessitated by the war.  Likewise Chaplains in the Navy and Air Force face personnel cuts or elimination of billets due to cuts in their services personnel and more cuts are coming, at least to the billets that at one time offered chaplains the chance to recover from deployments and still serve God’s people. Most of the billet cuts are in shore commands, the places that at one time were the places that one could serve and recuperate after having done multiple operational tours.  As the force gets smaller and mission requirements increase these chaplains are deployed more often to combat zones and stress and family separation take their toll of chaplains.  Chaplains serving at bases and hospitals now serve large numbers of men and women traumatized by war and their families but have seen their own numbers shrink.  I work in a major medical center like all of the chaplains that serve in similar billets are caring for our wounded (in body, mind or spirit) warriors, their families those deploying or returning from deployment, are subject to deployment during our shore tours as Individual Augments to the operating forces all while dealing with life and death on a daily basis. In fact yesterday I came home from work at 5:30 PM after going to work at 6 AM Tuesday nearly 36 hours on duty in which time I was involved in multiple crisis situations, baptized a baby that was to removed from life support and care of patients their families and our staff.  This is not uncommon. What I described for me is typical of many Chaplains of all our military services serving in health care institutions.  It requires a tremendous sense of discipline to manage all of these competing demands and maintain ones physical, emotional and spiritual balance.

In fact when I came to my assignment I was suffering from PTSD and in an emotional and spiritual nosedive and in trying to meet the demands of the job did not take care of me and I fell apart physically, spiritually and emotionally.  It took a year and a half to start the recovery and I am now moving forward on all counts but some others don’t recover. I was fortunate, my boss knew well enough to shield me and let me recover and get the help that I needed to do so. Nonetheless it was not and is not easy to recover.

Add to this the pressure to perform and get promoted to stay in the military chaplain ministry.  Chaplains like all officers have to get promoted to stay in the military.  The promotion rate from the Captain/Navy Lieutenant rank to Major / Lieutenant Commander has been consistently in the 50-60% range for those being looked at the first time.  This basically means that 40-50% will not be retained on active duty long enough to qualify for retirement unless they had prior active service before becoming a Chaplain. Even if they have this the stigma of not being selected is something that is incredibly hard on chaplains just as it is for other officers.  Non-selection is considered failure even for those that have great ministries and are awesome ministers. Sometimes failure to select has nothing to do with how well you care for God’s people but simply comes down to numbers. When a military service contracts as all of our Armed Services did following Vietnam, the Cold War and today as personnel numbers are cut the respective Chaplain Corps or Services take their share of the cuts and this often means that men and women worthy of promotion are not selected and are eventually let go.  I have been fortunate during the cutbacks following the Cold War I was selected for Major in the Army Reserve and though I reduced in rank in 1999 to enter the Navy was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and recently selected for Commander and I am very grateful for the opportunity of both increased responsibility as well as the chance to care for God’s people in the Navy and Marine Corps.  Not everyone gets that chance.

Being a minister is no easy way of life if you are seeking to love and serve God and God’s people. Burnout, discouragement and depression are not uncommon.  Health problems for many are increasing and at younger ages. Many no longer have safe places that they can go for counsel and care because doing so might hurt their ministry.  I have seen much of this, good men and women doing their best to serve God and God’s people broken, depressed and sometimes addicted to behaviors that ultimately are destructive to their lives, families, congregations and ministries.

It is my opinion that while those that take on military ministry sort of ask for this because we know going in that we may be deployed to combat zones or separated from family for extended periods of time when we sign up. However many on the civilian side have no idea of the pressures that they will face and the tasks that will become theirs when they begin to work at a parish.  It is a tough life and I am not surprised to see so many broken, discouraged and disillusioned ministers just trying to survive instead of thriving in the field that God called them to serve.  I am blessed. Despite the hard work, separations from my wife and family and even the PTSD that I came back from Iraq with I am doing well. I get to serve people in a community that I love and in which I was born into.  I get to do what I believed that I am called to do in a venue that I am very comfortable in serving.  No everyone is so lucky or blessed. As Lou Gehrig said “I am the luckiest man alive.”

Please pray for your ministers and support them. Give them grace to serve knowing that they will not always make the right decisions, preach the best sermons or compete with the minister with the “hot hand” and latest “word from God” down the street or on television.  Ministers are certainly not perfect, some of us are pretty earthy. Don’t impose the culture of corporate America into the local church.  The vast majority of clergy really do care about the people that they serve even when they make mistakes and screw up. Give them the grace that you wish that your boss would give to you.  Of course there are exceptions, men and women with few people skills, with their own agendas and even with their own dark-side which shows up in how they abuse God’s people. However these people are the exception.  Don’t let the foibles or crimes of such people lead you to turn you back on good men and women that make mistakes common with the rest of humanity.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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