Burnout a reality for many in clergy
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Wayne Cordeiro, pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship, hit the wall about two years ago. He went to see a psychiatrist, who told him he was on the road to emotional and mental breakdown.
Ralph Moore, pastor of Hope Chapel Kaneohe Bay, went through a tough period years before. He sought help, and began using antidepressants.
These two Christian evangelists have spoken publicly about their brushes with clergy burnout. But while they might be among the most visible of Hawai'i's religious leaders to address the issue and open a conversation about the subject, they certainly aren't alone.
A 1997 Barna Research Group study found that 38 percent of clergy queried said burnout is their greatest issue. And a 1998 Pew Research Study found that half the number of ministers who are ordained leave their post within five years, with one cause often cited as burnout.
What is it about the job of spiritual caretaker that makes it so emotionally, spiritually and physically taxing?
Arch Hart, a dean of the school of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, who talks regularly to Honolulu pastors, offers an answer:
Clergy care too much out of guilt; feel helpless about providing solutions; care all the time without a break and don't care enough about their own self-recovery.
"Pastors tend to get overly involved emotionally," Hart states in a booklet he's written on burnout. "They tend to overextend themselves and then feel overwhelmed by the emotional demands imposed by others. And the more people there are to feel responsible for, the greater the opportunity for burnout."
Evangelist Moore, who's as transparent as a lace curtain when he talks to his congregation about his life's ups and downs, faced one of the most private times of turmoil of his life.
Moore is past the worst of it now, he said, but still he sees resistance when he tells followers, "I'm seeing a counselor who is able to prescribe medicine."
"Psychiatrist," he said with a laugh, "is a word most Christians hate."
Moore now only sees his doctor once a year, and his dose of an anxiety-reducing drug is the lowest possible. He even went off for a bit, but found he was too tense on his days off.
"I want people to know I still see the doctor," Moore said. "And I try really hard to take my days off and make it a day when I don't do pseudo-work."
Moore has heard Hart talk about how top clergy have the second-most stressful job in the nation, right after those in high levels of government service, "because you can't put it down."
As someone who trains pastors, Moore also practices what he preaches with his associates.
"Yesterday, I talked to one of our pastors and told him to pick up a second cell (phone)," said Moore. "He should keep his private one private — and after hours, shut the (work) one off. I'm also pretty rigid that everyone takes two days off a week."
Having down time allows space for a prayer life, he said, "reading the Bible and trusting God to speak through it."
And, Moore said, it's important to set boundaries — though, he admits, "It's kind of weird that you've got to put boundaries around church."
If, say, a couple who attend your church decide that they want free pastoral counseling but don't show the willingness to work on their issues, you refer them to a nonchurch counselor.
"That worked really well for us," Moore said, adding, "People pay much more attention when they're paying money."
He has no regrets about being public about his private demons:
"As for forthrightness with your congregation, I tell it around the world," he said. "... I learned to stop worrying about what people think. If you have a false reputation, you've got no reputation. Maybe if I talk about this, it can help others."
Once burnout hits, what do you do? New Hope's Cordeiro told audiences here and nationwide how he holed up in a Franciscan monastery in California, surrounded by hooded monks who used their voices only for singing during morning prayers and vespers.
He told a group of pastors about it here at a Hawaiian Islands Ministries conference last March, drawing laughs when he described how one day, deep into the week, he snuck out for coffee and conversation.
And on Aug. 12, Cordeiro told an even larger audience about his anxiety attacks, which he described as so severe he thought he was having a heart attack and underwent a series of cardiac tests.
At Willow Creek in Illinois, in front of a live audience of 7,000, Cordeiro admitted his path took him to a psychiatrist, who prescribed six months' rest.
When he balked, the counselor told him that he needed to find something that refueled his engine, and do just that for as long as he could, he said. Cordeiro took about six weeks off.
According to transcripts of that talk, Cordeiro had to learn what "filled his tank," and also focused on balancing duties of family and ministry, learning to meld his ministry to include his family.
As the son of a military man, Cordeiro felt guilty taking breaks, he told the Willow Creek audience.
However, he found that he could enjoy his breaks without guilt if he asks permission first — from his secretary, from an executive pastor. "I don't know if you were raised like me, but you've almost got to trick your mind," he said.
These days, he related, he schedules time for rest, for visiting, for writing, for family.
WHAT OTHERS DO
As vicar of clergy for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ho-nolulu, the Rev. Gary Secor oversees 86 priests here and elsewhere.
While each priest works six days a week, they have a month off each year; they also accrue sabbatical time, Secor said, for a mix of spiritual renewal and education.
"We try to encourage priests to consider the possibility of sabbatical time," he said. "The policy is, basically, (sabbatical time) accrues based on the number of years in ministry. It's difficult. A lot of guys don't take advantage of it."
For other clergy, efforts are under way to network and address issues that face today's spiritual leaders.
For example, Hawaiian Islands Ministries holds pastors' intensive sessions before its annual early spring convention, as well as pastors' meetings in January.
Helping the caretaker has a higher purpose, too, said Secor. "If (a priest) is having struggles, we want to help him as much as possible, not just for the benefit of the priest, but for the people he's serving," he said.