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Pastors Realize They Need Ministers Too

Churches: Attention turns to how to guide those who guide others. A gathering in L.A. today will try to help.

November 07, 1998|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

The Rev. Steven E. Berry grew up as a preacher's son and saw his parents divorce after 45 years of marriage--a casualty he attributes to the unremitting stresses and strains of ministry life, including death threats stemming from his father's views on social issues.

Now, as pastor of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, Berry is constantly barraged by an onslaught of demands: to prepare uplifting sermons, minister to the sick, counsel the confused, sit on numerous church committees, juggle a budget despite having little formal administrative training, and help clear the streets of crime so his parishioners are safe. Little wonder he works virtually every day, often 14 hours; the strains have taxed his health and tested his family bonds.

"We've been so enriched by our relationships in the community, but burnout does exist," said Berry, who confesses that he has thought about quitting during 25 years of ministry. "People are leaving the ministry in droves because it's so difficult."

Pastors are what one study called the "most occupationally frustrated people in America," and their frustrations are increasingly becoming the focus of attention as groups seek to minister to the ministers.

Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization headed by prominent conservative the Rev. James Dobson, will sponsor a "Pastors Gathering" this morning at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport to brace up the embattled men and women of the cloth.

The gathering will be led by the Rev. H.B. London Jr., who left the Pasadena First Church of the Nazarene in 1991 to begin the group's pastor care program, based in Colorado Springs.

"I felt the leaders of the greater church were not being given the responsibility and honor they deserve," London said. "I saw their lives falling apart because of all the pressures."

According to the Barna Research Group, an organization based in Ventura that studies U.S. religions, 80% of pastors surveyed said their ministries negatively affected their families; 70% said their self-esteem had dropped since beginning their work; 70% had no close friends.

Meanwhile, although some clergy at especially prominent churches or synagogues are highly paid, the survey found that the average pay is modest at best: $36,410 for senior pastors, a package that includes housing allowances. Despite eight years of higher education or more, London said, "I know lots of pastors who make $150 a week."

London and others also say that the job of pastoring has become more difficult and complex, in part because ties among the once close-knit communities of church, family and school have weakened.

Congregants often look to pastors to be all things to all people--parents, friends, confidantes--and demands are greater in Southern California, some say.

"I've been amazed at how many people have a need for one-on-one counseling. People are more emotive," said the Rev. Gregory Stewart, who joined the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena last year after serving in Chicago and Cleveland. "People in Southern California spend a lot of time by themselves, or with co-workers they don't particularly like."

Stewart, who says he knew he was called to serve from the time he was 18, has gone out of his way to establish a routine to avoid burnout. He gives himself "sacred space" with a near-unbreakable rule to keep to his Monday off. He begins each day with spiritual practice--a meditative jog or weightlifting routine, followed by morning prayer.

And he tries to keep clear boundaries between his personal and professional lives. Sometimes, Stewart said, he declines invitations to dinner from congregants so he can spend time with himself or his family and has cultivated friends outside the church--most of them on the Westside, outside of his neighborhood.

As a result, Stewart has managed to defy the statistics about burnout, still exuding passion for the enriching moments of his ministry.

London said today's gathering will focus on inner-city pastors and offer group prayer, gifts of appreciation, sessions on how to stay the path and tips on dealing with the church of the 21st century.

The group will also try to learn from the inner-city ministers--many of whom, he said, seem to enjoy greater prestige and respect than their suburban counterparts despite the difficulty of their work.

Compared to the relatively short tenure of white pastors, many black religious leaders stay in their churches 10 or 15 years or even a lifetime, London said. And many of them are virtually unshakable community paragons, he added.

"The Anglo church is where the carnage takes place," London said. He said that too many affluent communities have become afflicted with the "mind-set of entitlement," and act as consumers expecting a variety of services more than a faithful flock eager to serve their church and community.

"We've lost enthusiasm for each other and are more interested in style," London said.

London said pastors need prayer and permission to make mistakes and "dream impossible dreams," along with adequate resources and honest feedback to help recover the belief he himself still holds after 31 years in ministry: "There is no promotion from pastor."

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