Monday, May 07, 2001

Some pastors calling timeout

Burnout a danger for clergy of all faiths; some find sabbaticals their saving grace

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Looking back, the Rev. Terry Fields recognizes he was headed toward burnout. Twelve years into full-time ministry, he was weary, worn out, unfocused. Then he took a five-week sabbatical from his church, Liberty Heights Baptist in Butler County. The Rev. Fields returned in February reinvigorated, with new vision for the church and himself.

        “I think the church has a better pastor now,” says the Rev. Mr. Fields.

        Clergy burnout is an increasingly common problem for leaders of all faiths. Experts estimate a third of clergy nationwide will face burnout. Many will leave their churches or synagogues — disillusioned and demoralized.

        National and local programs are working to stem the problem. The Lilly Endowment Inc. in Indianapolis awarded $2.7 million last year in clergy renewal grants to 118 congregations nationwide. Rabbis come from around the country for career review retreats with Rabbi Jack H Bloom in Fairfield, Conn., to deal with burnout issues.

        A Tristate church is breaking new ground with its commitment to help clergy recover, one family at a time. Kenwood Baptist Church raised $160,000 to buy a two-bedroom house and provide for its maintenance. The church dedicated the home in January as “Sabbath House,” a place for ministers and missionaries to regroup and consider their calling.

        Families can come and stay for up to 18 months. Rent and utilities are free the first six months and then assessed on a sliding scale. The family receives professional counseling and support from church members.

        “Our feeling is that if pastors can be given a year in a loving environment to recoup their spirit and their sense of calling, they can feel that call again and go out and do a wonderful job,” says the Rev. David Hansen, who thinks Sabbath House is the first of its kind in the Tristate. “A lot of times, these are excellent pastors that frankly we can't afford to lose.”

Great expectations

               While everyone faces challenges in their jobs, clergy struggle withunique expectations.

        Forget the old joke that ministers work only one day a week.

        Today's pastors and rabbis pour hours into their work, counseling members, visiting the sick, celebrating weddings, managing the budget and writing sermons.

        They are always on-call.

        And clergy are expected to be super-human. Kinder, gentler than the rest of us. They shouldn't have grouchy moments or bad days. They should be the type of good person that we don't have time — or aren't willing — to be.

        All this and, generally, a small paycheck too. Granted, clergy don't enter the field for the money. And they know going in that it's a taxing job.

        But living in a fishbowl can be wearisome, local clergy say.

        “If you can do anything else and be happy, God's not calling you,” says the Rev. Mr. Fields.

        Congregations aren't the only ones with unrealistic expectations. Pastors sometimes develop a “Messiah complex,” thinking they're indispensable. They believe they need to hold every hand, run to every hospital, convert every soul.

        Pastors can't do it all themselves, says the Rev. Mr. Fields. “The pastor is to equip the saints to do ministry,” he says. “I think that's the difference between churches that get bigger — and those that don't.”

        Rabbi Bloom says a major contributor to burnout is that clergy are seen as the “symbolic exemplar.” He has written a book about the subject, By the Power Vested in Me, which is to be published this spring by Jason Aronson.

        They are supposed to be “the walking, talking, living symbol of humankind's best attributes,” he says. “It's not the clergyman's abilities and skills that make the ultimate difference. It's who the clergyman is perceived to be inside.”

        So if clergy have difficulty in their marriage, it's held against them. And if their children run into problems such as getting arrested for marijuana possession, a pastor's job is at stake.

        “Clergy have the same public persona as a politician,” says Rabbi Bloom. “Except nobody really expects politicians to be moral.”

Signs of burnout

               Fatigue, sleeping problems and isolation all are signs of clergy burnout.

        The Rev. Thom M. Shuman says there are other, more intimate, signs too.

        “When prayer becomes something you do as a "professional,' rather than as a believer, you are in trouble,” says the Rev. Mr. Shuman of Greenhills Community Church. “The same goes when you are reading Scripture for private devotions, and all you can think about is how you would preach on the passage you are reading, rather than how it is shaping you as a disciple.”

        The Rev. Shuman left social service work and was ordained at age 40. Now 54, he's served Greenhills, a Presbyterian church, for 11 years.

        He was feeling signs of clergy burnout when he heard of the Lilly Endowment program. The Rev. Mr. Shuman talked with the church, and they supported his application.

        He didn't expect to receive it.

        “After all, what I proposed was to do nothing. No study, no writing of a book, no research project,” he says. “Just a month's retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and then travel for 2 1/2 months to various religious communities in Europe.”

        The Rev. Mr. Shuman and Greenhills church were among 118 congregations that received Lilly grants last year. He left a month ago for the Abbey.

        Lilly grants help nurture talented people in the ministry and building healthy congregations, says spokeswoman Gretchen Wolfram. Clergy can receive up to $30,000, with $10,000 earmarked for a substitute pastor.

        “The grants allow “ministers to take a fresh look at themselves, their families and the church, and for congregations to do the same. Hopefully, they'll come back together and be stronger.”

In the battlefield

               The Rev. Mr. Fields is convinced his sabbatical made him a better pastor.

        “Part of my nature was go-go-go,” he says. “I didn't realize until after I got back how worn down I was . . . how I had lost focus.”

        For the first two weeks of the sabbatical, he still called his voice mail every day to check messages and worried about how things were going at the church. By the third week, he started to relax.

        It was good for him not to worry about the church for a while, says his wife, Debby. “I think he was able to enjoy the little things more.”

        A new addition to the church's personnel policy allowed full-time pastoral staff a five-week sabbatical after five years.

        “The church realized a pastor is a better pastor if he has a chance to renew himself,” says the Rev. Mr. Fields, 35.

        During the sermon on the Sunday he returned, the Rev. Mr. Fields laid out his vision for the church and gave testimony to his renewed spirit.

        In the past two months, attendance is at an all-time high. More people have joined the church. And donations are up 17 percent over the same period last year.

        More churches should consider such programs, says the Rev. Mr. Fields. It's good for congregations, and it's vital for clergy.

        Liberty Heights purchased 94 acres in 1999 to build an $8 million church. The congregation intends to turn an existing house on the land into a sanctuary for bruised or burned-out ministers and their families, similar to the Sabbath House at Kenwood Baptist.

        “The Christian army shoots its own wounded,” the Rev. Mr. Fields says. “Often a guy gets beat up on the battlefield, and . . . we send him back out on the battlefield or just ignore him. It's no wonder some of God's best soldiers are no longer ready, willing or able to go into the battle.

        “We've got to change that.”


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