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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’

January 25, 2024

Ahead of the 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” 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.”

The Rev. Carol Howard

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.”

“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.”

The Rev. Dr. James Fenimore

“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.

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

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Monty Anderson, Vice President, COO & Corporate Treasurer, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation
Rachel Anderson, Mission Associate for Strategy and Implementation, Global Connections, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray

Lord God, remind us that the tables we gather around are not ours but yours. Give us your eyes to see beyond until all are shoulder to shoulder, worshiping and serving to your glory. Amen.