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Pastoral Pressures Test Faith

Religion: Demands of spiritual leaders leave many suffering from 'pastor burnout.' Psychologists say some quit, suffer mental breakdowns, even contemplate suicide.

January 29, 1999|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Psychologist Archibald Hart well remembers the downtrodden man sitting in the waiting room of his office some months ago.

He perched himself silently in a chair and, looking toward the floor, said not a word for three hours. Finally, Hart walked up to the man with the slumped shoulders and asked if he needed help.

"I was just waiting to get your attention," Hart recalled the man saying.

The man said he was deeply depressed. The despair was so profound that he was considering taking his life.

He was also a pastor--the spiritual leader of a fairly large church.

It is a scenario Hart has witnessed many times. As a psychologist and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Hart has dedicated his practice to counseling pastors and other religious leaders.

After 25 years in the business, Hart is a specialist in what he terms "pastor burnout."

Colleague Richard Blackmon, who has a similar practice with offices in Simi Valley and Pasadena, adds: "Pastors are the single most occupationally frustrated group in America."

Roughly 30% to 40% of religious leaders eventually drop out of the ministry, Blackmon said. About 75% go through a period of stress so great they consider quitting. The incidents of mental breakdown are so high, insurance companies charge about 4% extra to cover church staff members when compared with employees for other businesses.

Maybe that's why Pastor John Huffman, who since 1980 has led South Coast Fellowship in Ventura, said he could empathize with Ron Dybvig--the 55-year-old pastor who ran away from his 100-member Santa Paula church last Sunday and spent three nights wandering the snow-covered mountains in San Diego County. When he was found, Dybvig told authorities he was overwhelmed by life and just needed to get away.

By Thursday, Dybvig--who slept under a clump of bushes while snow fell over the Cleveland National Forest--was still recovering from frostbite to his toes at San Diego's Grossmont Hospital.

Huffman, who leads 2,700 parishioners, explained: "There isn't a pastor I know of who hasn't thought, about a hundred times, of doing just what Ron did--driving to church on a Sunday morning and just keep going."

The demand to be on-call for a congregation 24 hours a day--as personal confidant, marriage counselor, crisis interventionist--puts church leaders in a constant whirlwind of stressful events. And when the phone rings, a pastor, regardless of how tired or strained he or she may feel, is expected to answer the call.

"When I go home," Hart explained, "I can shut it off. I have an answering service that will screen through my calls and make sure only the emergencies get through. But a pastor, he can't do that. If he hired an answering service, that church would fire him. He is supposed to be available to everyone for everything all the time."

Emotional Support Sought From Churches

Some even characterize the profession as more stress-ridden than that of a doctor dealing with terminal illnesses. A doctor may deliver the devastating news to a cancer patient that the prognosis is terminal, but then he leaves the hospital room.

"And that's exactly when a pastor comes in and is supposed to pick up the pieces," Hart said. "These people are looking at him to give life meaning."

And it will be the clergy leader delivering last rites or praying with family members as a loved one takes their last breath.

These moments are especially gut-wrenching for pastors, who, unlike other professionals, often have emotional links to those they are helping.

"You have a personal tie," Huffman said. "You can't shepherd a flock and not be personally involved. You know their kids, you know the spouses, you love them."

That pressure on church leaders is greater today than ever before, experts say. Families are more mobile today, with members routinely moving out of state and away from mothers, fathers, siblings and extended family. The end result is more people look to the church to provide the kind of emotional support that a few decades ago would have been provided by family.

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Church leaders are also under a tremendous amount of scrutiny. Parishioners and others in the community watch spiritual leaders closely, and are ready to criticize when they fall short of biblical expectations. Huffman knows some members of his congregation expect him to conduct a life they could never live up to.

"If I'm coaching Little League or basketball," Huffman said, "I'm not just Dad out there, and I can't just tell the referee his eyesight is needy, because I'm the pastor. But that's OK, I guess. It's kept me on the straight and narrow when I really wanted to wrap the referee's whistle around his throat."

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