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Who Will Heal the Healers?

Members of the clergy share their congregants' lives in joy and sorrow. But when it comes to their own problems, they often suffer in silence.

September 02, 2000|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Did you hear the one about the rabbi whose congregants held up scorecards at the end of his sermons, rating his performance as if he were in Olympic competition?

Or the rabbi who was fired because he walked with a limp?

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond has. What's more, they're no jokes.

The stories are among the thousands told by ministers, rabbis and priests who more often than not suffer silently as they go about their duties of helping others.

Members of the clergy have the privilege of being invited into the lives of others to share moments of joy--a wedding, a baptism, a bar mitzvah--but also moments of profound sorrow. Funerals and counseling and comforting others in crisis can all take their toll.

Then, too, there are the complaints: Why don't you visit us more often? Your sermon's too long. The choir was awful.

To whom do the clergy turn when they need to talk or share their problems? Who heals the "wounded healers" who may be beset with their own problems?

"Most congregations don't have a sense of the stress ministers are under. It's a vocation of crisis," said Archibald Hart, professor of psychology and former dean of the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

Despite the coming of age of support groups, the widespread acceptance of therapy and retreat centers, many clergy continue to suffer in silence, Hart and others say.

"There are times--many times--when the rabbinate can be a lonely profession, when the rabbi feels like the legendary Maytag repairman," Diamond said recently during his inaugural address as executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Speaking to many of the board's 250 members during a luncheon at Stephen S. Wise Temple, Diamond, 46, invited rabbis to consider him a friend and a confidant if they needed to talk about problems.

"You can always be assured of three things: complete confidentiality, unwavering friendship and support, and the very best professional advice I can offer," he told them.

It's not always easy. For years, the Rev. Canon Everett Simson refused to share his burdens. Now retired in Santa Barbara, the former dean of the since-demolished St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in Los Angeles has become a spiritual advisor to Christian clergy of several denominations. He has been involved in a clergy support group for 25 years.

"I tended to want to face it myself and solve it myself, because that's the American way--and having a savior complex just adds to it. It can be very dangerous," Simson said.

The crisis came to a head for Simson when he was faced with a shrinking congregation and diminishing finances at the old downtown cathedral, at Wilshire Boulevard and Figueroa Street.

Privately, he thought of himself as the captain of the Titanic. "My ego said, this is not going to sink. I'll keep it going," he said.

His clergy support group saw through him and said he was committing a kind of figurative suicide. "I finally got the message and asked for help. I got a very fine therapist and very fine spiritual director, and life began to turn around."

Feeling Others' Pain

In counseling the bereaved, clergy can become mourners themselves. Those in other helping professions are trained not to be sympathetic, but to be empathetic; clergy often feel that unless they feel someone else's pain they are callous, Hart said.

"Everyone else's crisis becomes your crisis . . . on top of your own crisis," said Hart, who has written several books, including "Coping With Depression in the Ministry," published in 1984.

Female clergy may be more willing than men to deal with depression, Hart said, which can bring on feelings of lethargy, negativism and cynicism.

"Men act out their depression, so they go jog 5 million miles, become workaholics, burying themselves in projects, and become irritable and angry," said Hart. "Pastors are about the angriest people I know."

"It takes a healthy pastor, priest or rabbi to build a healthy congregation. Otherwise you're projecting your own pathology," Hart said. "Sick pastors create sick congregations."

Refusal to seek help, Hart said, is blamed on several factors. Some clergy worry that if they show any sign of weakness, their ministries and careers may be hobbled. In hierarchical churches, for example, priests may be especially reluctant to tell their bishops their problems. Rabbis may fear sharing their concerns with another nearby rabbi who may be seen as a competitor.

Leadership dynamics work against confiding in congregants. "You always worry, in talking to a congregant, of playing favorites," said Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. There is also a risk, he said, that the congregant may expect something in return--say a favorable sermon on his pet political or social cause. "Freedom of the pulpit is a very important issue," Schulweis said.

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