Heal thyself? Pastors must be careful not to put all their energy and emotion into their flock

Heal thyself? Pastors must be careful not to put all their energy and emotion into their flock

February 10th, 2014 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment

Retired minister Bill Owens helps plan a memorial service at Ridgedale Baptist Church. Owens, 64, dialed back his duties several years ago to care for his seriously ill wife.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Bill Owens knew when to say when.

The longtime Ridgedale Baptist Church pastor had dialed back his duties to part-time status during the illness of his wife, Darlene, several years ago, but he found he couldn't devote the time he needed to both his 2,400-member congregation and his spouse.

Owens, now 64, had been a pastor throughout his 40-plus year marriage and that meant his wife was "on the back burner" too often.

"This is the time I really need to spend with her," he said when he retired on Dec. 31, 2011.

He did, in fact, spend 15 months with her before her death on April 11, 2013.

"Your job is to help others through difficulties," Owens says, "so you put yours on the back burner. But if you don't tend to those issues, it could come back to haunt you."

Ignoring his own issues is not unique to Owens. Pastors and other religious leaders are often so focused on ministering to others in times of need, they neglect their own problems. And, when those problems arise -- as they almost always do -- pastors often have trouble turning to someone for sympathy or solutions. After all, their job is to help others, not ask for help themselves.

Such issues, according to the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership and The Ministering to Ministers Foundation Inc., are legion:

* 80 percent of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged in their roles.

* 70 percent of pastors do not have a close friend.

* 45 percent of pastors say they've experienced depression or burnout to the extent they required a leave of absence.

The Rev. Laura Shearer, director of pastoral counseling for the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church, which includes the Chattanooga area, gets it. She's heard the stories and knows the statistics are accurate.

"I think it happens a lot," she says. "People in the pews and leaders in the church aren't often perceptive of that. Some are. But they tend to put more pressure on the pastor to do more, to respond to their expectations that may or may not be realistic. Pastors feel a lot of pressure -- from different places."

The problems can be physical, mental or spiritual, according to Shearer, who is based in Knoxville.

Or even financial, she says. She's never known a pastor to lose a home, but she's aware of some who have sought debt counseling.

"I know that there are situations like that," she says. "Most [pastors] are not in the higher levels of income. And there are expectations of dressing well, of meeting people for dinner. Other people -- society in general -- add a lot of pressure. It's very hard."

Billy Dean, 83, who retired four years ago after pastoring eight churches within 100 miles of Chattanooga for the last 65 years, says ministry is no different than owning business.

"Like anything," he says, "if a man puts all his time into his business and [doesn't] seek help, retirement comes early."

It may have been worse for pastors before larger churches employed associate pastors, Christian education directors and youth pastors, Dean says.

"Most of that has not been put on the shepherd," he says. "They did everything [before]. They felt obligated. But I've seen a lot of changes."

In the Baptist church, Dean says, lay deacons are also supposed to help with some of the physical needs of the congregation.

"That's the reason they ordained deacons in the early church -- to relieve [the shepherd] of some of the obligations," he says. Still, "some of the older school [pastors] still think they have to move every time the phone rings."

Shearer, a former Chattanoogan who says a class on self-care wasn't offered when she attended seminary, now teaches just such a class for candidates seeking local pastor licensing.

It's important, she says, for pastors to recognize their personal signs for the need of a break, whether they be shortness of temper, lack or sleep or gain in weight.

"You need to recognize what it is that goes on for you," Shearer says. "Is there something going on where [you] need to stop and notice?"

She says she encourages pastors to take a regular retreat, a vacation with their family or even a longer sabbatical.

"They need to remember that their strength to get through life comes through their spiritual connection," Shearer says. "They need to stay in touch with God, take care of their health and have regular health check-ups."

It's also important, she says, for pastors to have a clergy colleague or a group with which they have accountability for self-care -- to not operate alone.

Dean, who most recently pastored Frawley Road Baptist Church, didn't give up his ministerial activities entirely when he retired. Even though he is now the caretaker for his wife, who has been ill, he still performs funerals. However, he did give up weddings, with the exception of those involving family members, citing that "they take all week."

"You have to learn to say no," he says.

Owens also has continued as a clergyman of sorts, offering advice from a bar stool at restaurants where he prefers to eat his dinners.

"Now that my wife is gone," he says, "I go out to eat rather than stay at home. I sit in the bar area; it's very informal, and people are comfortable talking back and forth. Some of my greatest ministry has taken place there. I [don't] announce I'm a minister. It's an awesome thing to give when no one has expected you to give."

Indeed, Owens says he knew other men and women who found themselves in the same position as those he encountered, people who were burned out on some aspect of life, people who'd lost a loved one, people who didn't know what to do or where to turn. Why not, he reasoned, ask those people to meet for dinner.

Now, he and a fellow pastor host a "more secular" monthly dinner where they are able to minister to both the emotional and physical person.

"Those are the important things," Owens says. If they ask about spiritual matters, he is willing to discuss those.

If they don't ask, he says, the goal is simply "not to let people go through that torment alone."

Contact Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.