Tag Archives: the body

Clergy Burnout and Suicide: A Growing Problem

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

Note: This is a modification and update to an article that I wrote last summer based on the death of the Reverend David Wilkerson and his writings of the past few months.

A while back 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 and Pentecostals to progressives or in old time parlance “liberals” and everything in between. The pressure is incredible. I should know I have been in ministry over 20 years mostly as a Priest and Chaplain serving in the military and in hospital critical care environments.

Likewise there have been articles about ministers and pastors that commit suicide one of the more prominent about a North Carolina pastor who committed suicide in 2009 published in the USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-10-28-pastor_suicides_N.htm

Actually I am not surprised by the studies or the conclusions of the article or the situation described in the USA Today article.  This came to mind this week with the death of David Wilkerson which I suggest could have been suicide based on the struggle with faith and perceived failure shown in his recent blog posts, his and his family’s ordeal of cancer and the circumstances of the wreck in which he died. I suggested this as a possibility as well the other possibilities of inattentive driving or sudden medical impairment. https://padresteve.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/the-unexplained-and-tragic-death-of-david-wilkerson/ Of course I have been blasted by a number of people for even daring to suggest such a thing and I really hope that it was not suicide but if it was his death serves as a reminder of loneliness and even frailty of great pastors who go through long periods of darkness.  If his death was other than suicide we still have to look realistically at the incredible spiritual and emotional pain that he was in over the past few months. Of course I meant no offense to those that condemned me for suggesting this but the reactions drew me back to the unrealistic expectations that many people place on those that serve in ministry and I would hate to be their pastor.  The expectation is that we are somehow closer to God and don’t experience doubts, temptations or even depression and despair. The more popular and beloved the minster the taller the pedestal that people place them on in fashioning them as their idol.  Most don’t ask for this and resist it even though some embrace it and become spiritual train wrecks because of their narcissistic behavior.

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 well-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 bad aim. It is a recipe for disaster, not only for clergy and their families but for congregation when their pastors experience burn out, marital problems or divorce or those become compromised sex, alcohol or money problems and then suffer the consequences.  The congregations suffer because many parishioners lose faith in God, the church or ministers because the person that they had made their idol failed.

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 of the men and women that I have met who have suffered spiritual crisis, depression, failed marriages, become embroiled in extramarital affairs or engaged in behaviors that were detrimental to their physical, spiritual and psychological health.  I have even known some that committed suicide.

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 my last posting at a major Naval Medical Center it was not uncommon for me to come home from work at 5:30 PM after going to work at 6 AM the previous day, nearly 36 hours on duty in which time I was often involved in multiple crisis situations, baptizing dying babies, to people being removed from life support and care of patients their families and our staff in every imaginable setting. In my current assignment it is not uncommon to be called in as I was in the middle of the night on Wednesday to ministry to a dying patient and his family.  This is not uncommon for those of us that serve in health care ministry. 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 first Naval Medical Center assignment assignment I was suffering from PTSD from my tour in Iraq. I was in an emotional and spiritual nosedive and in trying to meet the demands of the job I did not take care of me and I fell apart physically, spiritually and emotionally.  It took a year and a half to begin to recover and I am now moving forward on all counts but I know 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. I did not come out of the experienced unscathed as my old denomination asked me to leave because I had become “too liberal.” Nonetheless it was not and is not easy to recover and I still have work that I need to do sleep is problematic and I am still in therapy and on medication and my longsuffering wife has to deal with this.  I was recently interviewed by our local paper in Jacksonville North Carolina about my struggles. http://www.jdnews.com/articles/cmdr-89433-stephen-military.html

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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