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COMMENTARY: Pastoral ministry: a gift or an addiction? Sally St. Clair, Jan 13, 2010
Sally St. Clair
By Sally St. Clair Special Contributor
A pastor once told me that he named his fishing boat “Pastoral Calls.” So when he needed time away from the church, his secretary could truthfully tell callers that the pastor was out on “pastoral calls”!
The story reflects an unfortunate reality: Congregations often expect their pastors to be available to them 24/7. Many pastors set high expectations for themselves, too, in the name of sacrifice and dedication. As a result, many clergy neglect to take time away from their jobs to nourish their own spirits and psyches.
But as the psychological adage goes, if you don’t take care of yourself in healthy ways, you’ll likely end up taking care of yourself in unhealthy ways. Too many clergy aren’t taking care of themselves, emotionally and spiritually, and as a result, clergy are particularly vulnerable to unhealthy patterns of workaholism or addictions to alcohol, drugs and pornography.
As the ministry tasks of the United Methodist clergy person grow broader and more demanding every year, clergy need to learn healthy patterns of managing anxiety with realistic expectations. These are essential to safeguard against self-defeating habits.
God’s CEO—and more
Years ago, a minister’s own sanctuary within the church was called “the pastor’s study.” Today it’s called “the pastor’s office.”
“The minister’s role as theologian has been eclipsed by expectations for clergy to function as CEO, managing a corporation,” says Barry Hughes, associate director of the intern program at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.
Dr. Hughes describes the pastor’s job this way: “Evangelist, preacher, counselor, educator, CEO, theologian, fundraiser, manager, entertainer, activities director, judge, visionary, social worker and sheriff!”
Given these impossible job expectations, how does a minister find balance between juggling responsibilities and appropriate self-care time for family, reflection and recreation? It’s an ongoing challenge to focus on doing God’s work, rather than trying to please the congregation.
Because clergy are often idealized, their public images are often at odds with their privately held self-concepts. Clergy with low self-esteem tend to work especially hard to please others and avoid conflict—a prescription for over-functioning. “Over-functioners” are quick to take responsibility for the feelings of others and for making everything OK. Over-functioning enables others to “under-function,” and the result is exhaustion and buried resentment.
Added to that, many parishioners place unreasonable expectations on their spiritual leaders. Some pastors tell me about receiving calls in the middle of the night about issues that could easily wait till the next morning. Unless ministers set boundaries and take a clear stand at the risk of displeasing someone, they are vulnerable to developing addictions.
Threat of addictions
Low self-esteem from abuse or neglect in childhood predisposes a pastor to addictions, triggered by rarely feeling good enough and sometimes even feeling worthless. These triggers often lead to perfectionism and workaholism, then increasing isolation and loneliness that may result in burnout or acting out in other forms of addictive behavior.
Behaviors that begin as unwise habits can become excessive under stressful conditions and out of control in addictions: alcohol, drugs, sex or the most common addiction among clergy, workaholism.
In his book, Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics (NYU Press, 2007, 2nd edition), Bryan Robinson, a marriage and family therapist and professor at University of North Carolina, distinguishes between the “hard worker” and the “workaholic.”
Hard workers, he says, manage time and expectations by setting attainable goals and seeking balance. Their calendars include time for leisure, solitude and reflection for spiritual renewal.
Workaholics, on the other hand, thrive on adrenalin rush from meeting deadlines, often waiting until the last minute to race across the finish line, and don’t take time for self-renewal.
With pastors feeling increased pressure to meet all these expectations and produce more members, contributions and projects, what’s the answer?
Since 2000, I’ve been privileged to serve as a consultant to a unique program at Perkins School of Theology that helps guide clergy candidates as they learn to balance their personal needs with their increasingly difficult professional demands. I’m part of a team that includes professors, mentor pastors and professional psychological consultants, all dedicated to helping student interns toward successful, satisfying ministry.
Interns participate in “growth groups” and individual sessions with consultants, to help them find balance between personal and professional identity. By stressing the importance of self-care and peer support, both interns and pastors have the opportunity to evaluate how their calling can best be served.
Tips for self-care
Through my work with this program, I’ve learned how some pastors manage to find and maintain balance. Here are some of our lessons learned:
* Replenish energy. Strive for excellence, not perfection. Clergy must be responsive to needs of others—but also need to avoid “over-functioning” by assuming responsibility for them.
* Be ruthless with your calendar. Put aside time for rest and spiritual renewal. Putting yourself first in this way is not selfishness. It’s making sure you’re strengthening your own faith regularly, just as you urge your parishioners to do.
* Enlist congregational support. Congregations, led by Staff-Parish Relations Committee members, should periodically review the pastor’s job description and encourage positive self-care: time alone for reflection, walks in nature, regular exercise, healthy sleep and food choices, yoga, meditation, leisurely lunches with a friend, listening to music, reading for pleasure, travel, and couple and family time.
Jesus wasn’t available to his flock 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Instead, the Bible tells us that Jesus took time apart—especially in times of stress. He spent time alone in the desert for prayer and contemplation; he retreated to the garden for prayer and time with God. We should expect no more—and no less—from our United Methodist clergy.
Dr. St. Clair is a psychologist in private practice and a consultant to the internship program at Perkins School of Theology.