PC(USA) podcast explores the difficulties of modern-day ministry

The authors of ‘Wounded Pastors’ are the guests on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Ahead of the Jan. 16, 2024 publication of their Westminster John Knox Press book “Wounded Pastors: Navigating Burnout, Finding Healing and Discerning the Future of Your Minister,” authors the Rev. Carol Howard and the Rev. Dr. James Fenimore told the hosts of the podcast “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” earlier this month that one helpful step congregations can take to help ease the anxiety present in many congregations is to stop blaming their pastors for not doing enough.

While “there are ineffective pastors out there,” Fenimore, a former Methodist minister who’s now a licensed marriage and family therapist, told “A Matter of Faith” hosts the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong, there’s also “this kind of blanket sense that pastors are the problem.” The thinking among some congregants and even some mid-council leaders is, “if they were better pastors, we wouldn’t have these issues.”

Listen to the 55-minute podcast here. Howard and Fenimore are introduced at the 4:35 mark.

Howard, a Presbyterian pastor and sought-after speaker, said a friend who’s an associate pastor told her that a church member visited this pastor on his first day in a new calling. “I own you,” the man told the pastor. “I give x-amount of money to the church, and that pays your salary. I own you.”

Those pressures “are on top of [pastors] wanting to save the church in some way and our own savior complexes, thinking that if we just work harder or longer, we can turn this around,” Howard said. “It’s hard to create boundaries in a system that doesn’t have them.”

The Rev. Carol Howard

“We’re trying to build this beloved community together,” Howard said of pastoral-congregational relationships. “We’re trying to be vulnerable and we’re trying to be loving toward each other, but that also puts us in really uncomfortable positions where we may not have the same professional guardrails that many professions have.”

Fenimore employed a medical description.

“Sometimes it’s like we are the doctors and they’re the patients and the patients are telling us what the treatment’s going to be and it doesn’t matter what we say,” he said.

For Fenimore, it’s a boundary issue. “We’re trying to build a congregation and do all the work we’re trying to do. At the same time, we have to in a sense appease the congregation so we don’t lost our job.”

For clergy, burnout often happens “when we start to take it personally,” Fenimore said. Understanding it’s not personal comes “when we start to recognize this is a systemic response to the potential death of a congregation and the fear it’s generating” among “the people we are serving, people who have been part of that system for maybe all of their lives.”

“We’re merely a lightning rod,” he said. “We have to ground ourselves in a way to make sure … it’s not destroying us, that we are allowing it to just pass through us.”

“I always have to remind myself that pastor 20 year ago was not that much more awesome than I am,” Howard said with a laugh. “As we think about healing, we realize we are part of this system that’s pretty anxious, and we understand what happens in anxious congregations … There might be people who triangulate, who cut off — and there might be people who get really angry.”

“I know we used to talk about self-care,” she said. “We would sometimes talk about taking your day off, and that was it. But there’s so much more now that we need to navigate when it comes to boundaries.”

She encourages those who construct the worship service to celebrate the fact they help to create a service each week that includes art, music, a sermon and more. “There’s so much that we’re doing as pastors that’s fantastic,” Howard said.

Supportive feedback for the work of clergy often must come from outside the congregation. “I think this sense of clergy coming together and realizing the particular difficulties that we’re going through — it’s just really good to support one another and to make sure that we have spaces where we can cry and laugh and do all of the things that we need to do to get through this very difficult time,” she said.

The Rev. Dr. James Fenimore

As a therapist, Fenimore counts a number of clergy clients. “We have some unique trials we go through,” he said of pastors. “You don’t have to see someone who was previously a pastor, but just the idea of having a space to be able to unpack some of that is very helpful.” Without that kind of support, “you’re going to start absorbing” the criticism, he said. Many of Fenimore’s clergy friends “have suffered from cancer and other illness that I can’t not believe that the stress of the job didn’t have an impact on all of that.”

Seeing a congregation as a body, if there’s a virus attacking the body, “we need the whole body — all the white blood cells — making a defense against that attack, right?” Howard said. But in many church settings, “people are worried about being nice and being kind, so they just placate the bullies.”

“I think people have been confused in thinking that having boundaries is not a loving or kind thing to do, but it is the most loving and kind thing to do,” she said. “It helps the other 99 people who are worshiping and building the beloved community together to say, ‘Hey, that’s not appropriate. If you do this again, we are going to talk to you again.’ Oftentimes pastors alone aren’t in the place where they can stand up for themselves — or if they do, may times you’ll watch an entire church turn against the pastor to save their own or defend their own. We just need to realize that’s just really unhealthy behavior.”

“I’m not saying that pastors should never be criticized or anything like that,” Howard said. “I’m talking about those people who are kind of constant bullies. We just need to be able to empower people to stand up to them and to let them know that the church has boundaries.”

“At the same time,” Fenimore said, “I think as a pastoral leader that it’s also our responsibility to try and then still be in contact with that person, to still be their pastor.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

“We can’t do that with everybody, because some people are just not going to work like that,” he said. “Trying to establish boundaries while at the same time modeling that you can still be in community together — that’s the challenging part, I think, for a good leader.”

Fenimore said he would have loved to have “Wounded Pastors” as a ministry resource 10 years ago. “I think what people will find,” he said, “is the commonality of our experiences and the trials and the difficulties that we’ve had.”

“As isolating and as lonely and as weird as this calling feels, you’re not alone,” Howard said. “There are so many people who are struggling through it and doing it faithfully.” Her message is, “I’m so glad to have you all as colleagues and I’m glad to be along the ride with you all.”

Listen to past or upcoming editions of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” here.

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