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Clergy in Crisis: Who Ministers to the Ministers?

by Karen Krakower

A 51-year-old minister, father of two kids in college, and husband to the church choir director, is putting the finishing touches on his Christmas sermon when he receives a call from one of the deacons, requesting a meeting as soon as possible. The deacon is sorry to inform him that his services are no longer needed at the church that he and his wife have served for ten years. No reason is given. He was to be out of the parsonage in one week, three days before Christmas. He is asked not to make this difficult on his parishioners by discussing it. With anyone.

A young rabbi has spent the last three days and nights at the bedsides of one congregant's mother and another's gravely ill child. In between, he has conducted a wedding, a funeral, and has led two Shabbat services. He is preparing notes for what is sure to be a bitter board meeting regarding a dues increase to cover a large deficit, and will spend his first day off in two weeks at the oncologist's office with his wife who is in the middle of aggressive treatment for breast cancer.

The path of human existence is pot-holed with trials, traumas and tragedies. Those of us who are a part of a religious institution have the luxury of a full-time spiritual healer, psychological guide and life navigator who leads us down the path when we no longer can do it alone. But to whom can our care givers and spiritual leaders turn when THEY are on that path?

In the past few years, a movement seems to be underway cross-denominationally to create programs, support structures and organizations to nurture, comfort and minister to one's own.

"The strength of our faith lies in our commitment to help all in crisis. But sometimes, the ones who need it most and receive it least are our own spiritual leaders," says Dr. Brooks Faulkner, senior manager of LeaderCare.

Sponsored by the Baptist Sunday School Board under the Southern Baptist Convention, LeaderCare is an organized network of services designed to help pastors and staff facing personal and professional crisis.

Where to get information? For more information on troubled ministries, contact:

LeaderCare (Southern Baptist Convention)
Brooks Faulkner, senior manager, 888-789-1911

CcareNet (Central Congress of American Rabbis)
Rabbi Matthew Michaels of Houston's Congregation Emanu El, regional chair, 713-629-5771

Ministering to Ministers Foundation (interdenominational)
The Rev. Dr. Bill Turner, pastor of South Main Baptist Church, board member, 713-529-44167
Dr. Charles H. Chandler, executive director, 8004-320-6463

According to BSSB reports, approximately 135 pastors in the SBC are fired each month. "And those are just the ones reported; we suspect the number is twice that," says Faulkner.

LeaderCare steps up to the plate, going to but as advocates for the pastor, counseling spouses, providing temporary financial assistance and, of course, providing plenty of pastoral care.

The newly-formed group has a three-pronged approach: prevention, intervention and resolution. "When a pastor calls us who has just been terminated, it is usually with little or no explanation or advanced warning. We immediately tap into every resource we have, from mental health professionals to mediators." LeaderCare's hotline offers immediate counseling, network services for the clergy's family, pastoral support, career assessment and innumerable other referrals.

Barbara Harris, the nurturing voice on the other end of the hotline, us usually the first contact a pastor dealing with forced termination has. "It just breaks your heart," Harris said. "These people have become a leadership in the community, their kids grow up in the church, even their home is in the parsonage. Then overnight, they have lost everything they had in the world, and are literally all alone in this."

But even when controversy and termination are not current factors in a clergy member's life, it is still a lonely profession. The daily pressures and stresses of modern ministerial life is enough to create feelings of insecurity and isolation that only another member of the cloth would understand.

"Being in the ministry has become oxymoronic in job description," explains Rabbi Matthew Michaels of Houston's Congregation Emanu El. "We are expected to be spiritual healers on the pulpit, yet CEO's in the boardroom, religious leaders, yet politicians; savvy fundraisers, yet able to transcend the 'selfish' desire for our own financial security. Pastoral care has become professionalized, when makes it hard to divide the pie into enough pieces to serve everyone well."

CcareNet is the intra-organizational program within the Central Conference of American Rabbis that comes to the aid of rabbis in need of support, advocacy and guidance. Rabbi Michaels is its Southwest regional chairman.

The 15-month-old program reaches out to rabbi by region through seminars, panel discussions, one on one contract, in addition to crisis intervention services and career placement and counseling services. What Michaels hopes to build in his region, however, is strong emotional and educational support for the rabbi and his or her family.

Recently the Southwest region of CCAR held a panel discussion for rabbis and spouses to identify issues in the rabbinical family and offer solutions to both ancient and new dilemmas.

The role of the spouse in the rabbinate, as in other faiths, has changed dramatically in recent years. "For starters, the spouse now is just as likely to be the husband of a rabbi. Either way, chances are both persons are holding down full-time careers, have children, a burgeoning schedule of extra-curricular activities," Michaels says.

Of course, this set-up does not sound much different from the lives of a rabbi's congregant's. "The difference is, when our kids are sick, or our parents aging, we often have no one in our congregation with whom we feel comfortable being human. After all, who wants a spiritual healer who is in need of healing themselves?"

Franne Michaels, a Houston educator and mother of four children, learned early on that true friendships often eluded a rabbi's family. "The one couple I thought we could trust to accept us as regular people said to me one night, "Just don't ever come to us and complain about your husband's dirty socks on the floor. We don't want to know his faults. After all, he's STILL 'our rabbi.'" To understand the need of CcareNet and other groups like it, one must look at the psychological makeup of a rabbi or pastor. "We are essentially care givers. All we need to hear or sense is 'I need you,' and we'll miss our kid's Little League game, miss our own birthday parties. And the one place we cannot be will play havoc on our minds," Michaels says.

But when clergy need care, they frequently view it as a character flaw or weakness, believing, as their congregant's do, that they are somehow above earthly sorrows and stress. To appear needy in any normal human way may shake the faith of his or her congregates.

"And let's face it," Michaels muses, "the finest psychiatrist I know, even one of my own faith and culture, a logical choice to unburden myself, could end up being the president of my congregation, and in effect, by boss."

Though CcareNet serves the spectrum of rabbinic issues, it also has, like LeaderCare, a focus toward rabbinic advocacy, where it concerns termination and conflict.

The National Committee for Rabbinic/Congregational Relations is a volunteer group composed of lay and rabbinic members trained in mediation, arbitration and facilitation.

"They can land in your congregation in a heartbeat, the minute you need t hem. We believe that speed is often the key to diffusing a potentially inflammable situation," says Rabbi Morley Feinstein, national coordinator of CcareNet.

But regardless of the circumstances surrounding the forced termination, what often gets lost is human/emotional trauma that every individual experiences whether forced to leave because of corporate downsizing or failure to maintain an expected level of performance. Rabbi Michaels sees the function of CcareNet as offering non-judgmental support by clergy to clergy. "Regardless of the details of the situation, I'm dealing with a college whose confidence may have been shaken, but certainly a human being in pain and crisis."

Rabbi Feinstein believes that the role of CcareNet is so important, that already underway is a new fund endowed with $800,000 to staff a full-time national director of Rabbinic Services, "someone who will be there to nurture and reach out rabbi to rabbi, and give them the attention and services they so richly deserve."

Four years ago, Dr. Charles Chandler experienced first hand the shock and pain of being separated from his church by forced termination, the politically gentler phrase for being fired.

"It was devastating, for me and my family, we were blind sided. It it had not been for the support of a small group of pastors I had been meeting with, I would not have gotten through this."

From this tragedy grew opportunity for Dr. Chandler to touch the lives of over 400 ministers and family members. In response to his own termination, Dr. Chandler founded the inter-denominational Ministering to Ministers Foundation, and serves as executive director.

Options of ministers faced with forced termination

The inter-denominational Ministering to Ministers Foundation has compiled a list of options a minister has when faced with forced termination by the congregation. Ministers are told they may:

1. Do Nothing. Even if you have legal rights which have been violated, you always have the choice of taking no action, leaving as gracefully as possible.

2. Negotiate. Here you seek help in the transition out to ease the impact, or, in the rare case, to resolve the problems that led to the termination.

3. Mediate. This is a form of negotiated settlement of your rights where each side works through a third person to settle the differences.

4. Arbitrate. This form of resolution uses an agreed upon third party to proclaim the rights and obligations of the contestants.

5. Litigate. While this option may seem repugnant initially, if there are clear violations of contract or of constitutionally protected rights, this approach should be considered. Since most cases are settled, the probabilities are high the case will resolve long before trial.

MTM attorneys add:
Recognize that, whether oral or written, a contract was entered, when the call was accepted. While its terms include the call and any modification agreed to over the years, the contract is also governed by the Constitution and By-Laws of the church being served, and the laws of the state in which the church is located.

Prevention should be built into the process from the beginning. When negotiating the call, include termination provisions. The By-Laws of the church should be clear and specific regarding both a call and a dissolution.

A quick glance down the board of trustees lists clergy from numerous major Christian faiths, several business executives, health professionals, attorneys and university professors.

The MTM Foundation mission statement says that it "...seeks to be advocates for clergy and their families in all faith groups who are experiencing personal or professional crisis due to deteriorating employment or congregation/clergy relationships."

Says Dr. Chandler: "When a minister is involuntarily separated from his church, both the minister and the church are damaged." He stresses that first they work toward the resolution of conflict, then to restore the life, faith and self-respect of the minister.

Through five-day husband/wife retreats, called Healthy Transitions, clergy receive intensive counseling through workshops on wellness, spirituality, marketing skills, conflict resolution, personal issues, family issues, and career assessment. By the end of 1997 MTM will have held 13 retreats across the nation, seven in 1997.

Other services are available as well The first order of business for Chandler and his associates is to get the minister out of immediate crisis, whether it be through psychological intervention, professional mediation with his church or basic care, such as funds for medical bills or temporary housing, arranged through available networks.

Often a survivor/sponsor from the same geographic area is assigned to the family. A survivor is a minister who has gone through the process of church conflict or forced termination.

Given the situation, a whole chain reaction of charitable contributions in the way of money, housing, counseling, medical assistance can take place through the network of support within MTM.

But most importantly, they are encouraged to tell their story to supportive, empathetic listeners; each other. "The overwhelming majority of persons we deal with have been terminated outside the normal church process, with little or no notice, severance, or even an adequate explanation," Dr. Chandler explained.

And when a reason is cited, it is one that often would not hold up in any other organizational or business setting. "One minister at a recent retreat shared with a church board member that he was being treated for depression after finally confronting childhood memories of abuse he suffered at the hands of his alcoholic father Six months later he was told to resign, later discovering that the entire congregation now knew of his depression."

Another pastor was told that since his eyesight had deteriorated too much for him to drive, he could no longer adequately serve the congregation. "No longer can a marred vessel be used to serve God. We have become a society of perfectionists and the church has come to mirror that," Chandler says.

Why ministers are terminated

The journal, Leadership, conducted a survey on troubled ministers. Among the findings:

  • Nearly a fourth, 22.8 percent of pastors have either been terminated or forced to resign.

  • Nearly two-thirds, 62 percent, of the forced-out pastors said the church that dumped them had also forced out other pastors - and 41 percent said the church had done it more than twice.

  • Nearly half, 43 percent, of the forced-out pastors said a 'faction' in the church forced them to leave, and 71 percent of those indicated that the 'faction' membered 10 or fewer congregates.

  • Only 20 percent of the forced-out pastors said the real reason for their leaving was made known to the congregation.

Several explanations as to why America's clergy is facing massive burn-out, depression and job turnover point to the society it has come to reflect. "We are a society with a consumer mentality, that placed near impossible expectations on their clergy," comments Phil Martin, administrator/senior educator at Houston's South Main Baptist Church. "'But what have you done for me lately?' has become the familiar lament of parishioners. As pastors we want desperately to serve all people at all times. But it simply cannot and never will be done."

Rabbi Michaels agrees. "The service professions have become particularly vulnerable to the corporate style of measuring productivity by numbers. Our congregates are only asking for what they have become familiar with - delivery to your door in 30 minutes or less, or your money back. Yet oddly, the consumerism trend only leaves individuals craving for deeper spiritual experiences. It's a Catch-22."

Dr. Chandler echoes the comment. "We seem to look for a church life that offers comfort, convenience, child care, cost effectiveness and no commitment. When one of those 'values' is threatened, the pastor is no longer doing his job."

Church management styles have changed also. G. Lloyd Rediger, author of Clergy Killers writes: "Another reason [for the epidemic of incivility toward the clergy] lies in the business model for church operation. Most congregations and denominations are now run as a business rather than as a mission, causing change in expectations. The pastor, though, not trained for such a role, must now function as a manager responsible for keeping the customers and stockholders happy.

"Without a sacrificial sense of mission, parishioners know only whether or not they are happy with the pastor."

Dr. Bill Turner, pastor of South Main Baptist Church and board member of MTM, stresses that times have changed for the free churches. Most hierarchical churches have a bishop or higher-up to mitigate the current rends of downsizing.

If a pastor is asked to leave his pulpit, whether for cause or economic reasons, he has a greater chance of finding another position within his faith and religious structure, Turner explains.

"But in a congregational based church, numbers now seem to mean everything, and when we cannot quantify what we produce, or measure our productivity the same way one does in a corporation, we have no one to turn to for help. It then can devastate every part of our life."

"The times are definitely 'a-changing,; in the world of organized religion," says Michaels. "Both clergy and laity must recognize this reality and work together to insure a more healthy, spiritual connectedness between pulpit and pew. Thank God, the clergy is finally realizing what they have preached for years. 'God helps those who help themselves.'"

Michaels feels strongly that the essential lesson to be learned here is the interdependence between clergy and congregation. "Our individual mental, emotional and spiritual growth depends on our ability and willingness to see the human frailties in others as well as ourselves, and to know with all certainty that all of us are created in the Divine image."

This article was published June, 1997 in the Mosiac. Karen Krakower is a free lance writer living in Houston. Permission was granted by the Mosiac for reproduction of this article on the Ministering to Ministers Foundation, Inc. web site.