Acknowledging and seeking to heal the wounds of pastors

How can we acknowledge pain while still celebrating the call? Carol Howard and Martha Mitchell discuss the very real problem of clergy burnout and the hope-filled responses of clergy care.

Martha: I wanted to start our conversation by talking about your previous book, Healing Spiritual Wounds, because I saw that in many ways it was the impetus for your new book, Wounded Pastors, and sets the scene of this space where we live and work called church.

Carol: When I was traveling around and talking about Healing Spiritual Wounds, I was also working for the denomination on a task force for survivors of sexual misconduct. I was deep into this work with people who had been hurt by the church. When pastors opened the book, and they realized it was about laypeople who have been hurt by the church, they asked, “What about us? We are walking around in a lot of pain!” I realized there was a need to pursue that.

When I started the book, I had experienced some minor difficulties throughout my years as a pastor but didn’t have a lot of personal experience to draw from, but then COVID hit. I was in the middle of personal transitions, starting a new pastorate during COVID, and I realized this needs to be a more substantial book than what I was working on before. I asked a colleague who is a Methodist minister and a psychotherapist, James Fenimore, to write it with me mainly because I was going to him so much at the beginning and asking him for his advice throughout the book. Then it became embarrassing, and I realized that I would either be quoting him every other page, or I needed to ask him to co-write it. He was writing a similar book, so we just started merging.

Martha: So, you started the book on behalf of colleagues and friends who were in pain, but then, your writing became more personal.

Carol: My clerk came up to me at one point and said, “You know Carol, you’re spending a lot of social capital, and you really don’t have any.” Because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to make those lunch visits and get to know people at coffee hour. I wasn’t even able to see people in the hospital. When people died, all I could do was call family members to offer pastoral support. The connections were not there at all. My clerk was right. I was just spending all kinds of social capital I didn’t have.

James was really helpful in explaining what anxiety does to a family system. I had read (Dr. Murray) Bowen’s systems theory (a tool for recognizing patterns that influence the lives of family members) and thought it was an interesting way to look at different aspects of the church, but it became so clear during COVID how those mechanisms that come into place when anxiety is high affect a congregation and affect us. As pastors, we were already working in the midst of declining membership and giving. Then the pandemic accelerated those trends. And now we are still working through so much trauma that we don’t want to look at. We just want to say it is over and move on, but it’s still there and it’s still messing with us.

Whenever I’m going through difficulty, the way I deal with it is I try to figure it out, process it, write through it. Sometimes I paint, too. Writing this book was an opportunity for me to look at every angle of this and seek to understand it. It gave me an opportunity to talk with other pastors, put words on the pain, and articulate some of what we are going through.

Martha: One of the things I noticed right away was that you’re not offering advice for others, but you are being vulnerable enough to identify with the rest of us wounded pastors.

Carol: I love being a pastor. I love my calling. I love my church. Any time you love something or somebody, any time you love that much, it’s not going to be easy. There are going to be times when there is sorrow along with the love of this vocation. Working through how to respond and what to do next is really hard.

Martha: I appreciated that at the end of each chapter you have questions and prompts that help the reader do their own work, not towards a solution because life isn’t that simple, but maybe towards a “what’s next?”

Carol: Einstein said if he had an hour to solve a problem, he would think about the problem for 55 minutes and the solution for 5 minutes. I feel like that is what the book does — it helps people reflect on how we got here as they make decisions. If you don’t think about the problem for 55 minutes before jumping to a solution, then you might end up in this same situation again. Hopefully what we are doing here is helping people come to a deeper understanding of their congregation, their self, their family, and of what we are doing together as a beloved community. You just can’t be a beloved community without the struggle.

I always tell couples when they are getting married and they pick the 1 Corinthians 13 passage that it was written during a church fight. They’re anticipating that it will be a beautiful day celebrating all of this love, but it’s kind of an acknowledgment that things get tough, and that’s when you have to remind each other that love is patient and love is kind. So if we pastors are building a beloved community, there are going to be difficulties because we are humans and we are trying to be broken together and be vulnerable together and to live out this amazing vision of what it means to be with each other during all of that.

Martha: This quote in your introduction spoke to my counselor’s heart: “We sensed a general longing for someone to name the challenges that ministers face, not so that we could wallow in self-pity and bitterness, but so that we could diagnose the problem and heal.”

There have recently been several articles by pastors recounting their struggles in ministry and sharing why they have decided to leave church work or found ways to stay.  An article by Alex Lang went viral to the point that pastors were just referring to it as “the article.” People have theories about why it struck such a nerve, but I know I responded to it because he used diagnostic language and talked about the mental health ramifications of pastoring. People publicly acknowledge that ministry is a not easy, but we are usually more private about the ways and degree to which the work changes us, sometimes to the point of feeling broken. As a therapist, I’ve recognized there is so much freedom in the diagnosis. If you’re able to figure out what is actually going on, there is a lightness that comes over people as they realize, “Oh this isn’t just me.”

Carol: Yeah, it all feels very personal. When you hear constantly “Twenty years ago when we did this thing, it was so great.” It can feel like you’re not enough, like they’re saying, “We used to be awesome and now all of a sudden no one is going to church, and it’s because of you.” It can feel like such a personal thing.

Then when you realize, “No, it’s not me! These are national trends, national statistics and cultural shifts that have taken place. I don’t have to take this so personally.” Hearing a diagnosis indicates that the pain is not only personal, but it is shared.

That’s the way of healing, being able to connect and identify with other pastors, to hear what they are going through and listen to their difficulties without judgment. People hurt. Certainly, there are systems of privilege that we need to acknowledge but also there is a shared humanity in the midst of it. We have to realize that we are not going to be able to get out of this without acknowledging our own wounds and the wounds we share. I think it’s good that these articles are out there. Not only because we can see ourselves in the words, but sometimes we only talk about these things within clergy circles, and congregations have no idea about the demands and how we are feeling. So I think it’s good this is getting some airtime.

Martha: I love that you remind pastors of the importance of their calling, because a huge piece of burnout is hopelessness, feeling like all the work isn’t seen, the words you preach never land, and you sacrifice so much and wonder if it even made a difference. Feeling tired, overworked, frustrated and irritable is definitely part of it, but toward the end of burnout, it is the hopelessness that leads people to give up.

Carol: I really feel like this is an extremely important time for pastors. Not only because there are minister shortages and all of that. Not only for the institution, but also this is an important time for our communities. After years of social distance, they need someone who is going to bring people together and help people to stay together and encourage that healing force. But we are not going to be able to do it unless we learn to connect to ourselves and learn to both talk about our own vulnerabilities and become those wounded healers, those wounded pastors through this.

Martha: I think you’re exactly right. Pastoral care really is the work of this time. Bringing everyone back together, helping people to reconnect, reaching out to those who are isolated, those who have estranged themselves, and those who are struggling with their own emotional needs. That pastoral care will bring the healing that people and the church need right now. But it’s hard emotional work, and if someone’s feeling fragile themselves, it can seem almost impossible.

Carol: You bring up the issue of burnout. It can be so isolating, this profession. We are moving around a lot, and sometimes those closest to us can’t carry the weight of our frustration. We need to lift up the importance of connecting with one another. These are spaces that are hard to find as pastors. I just hope we are able to acknowledge this is a difficult time in ministry and support one another. We may not always do it perfectly, but if we could step away from our tendency toward spiritual shaming for being wounded, that would go a long way.

Some of the pain that we are going through may be difficulty achieving financial stability, or we may be feeling a loss of status in the community, or we may find people being almost repulsed by us because of their past religious trauma. We may find ourselves being skewered in our congregation because someone is acting inappropriately, and the rest of the congregation acts to preserve a norm. We are in all these situations, which are parts of very difficult systems that have very high stress, not just because of COVID, but because of years and decades of loss and grief, and people are very afraid for their survival. Understanding what that heightened degree of stress and anxiety can do, I think could go a long way as well as appreciating each other and appreciating ourselves, recognizing the hard work we are doing.

One of the important ways to overcome burnout is having the ability to celebrate some of the things we’ve done. Celebrate that you’re doing really hard work in a hard time and God has called you to this work at this time. We have to remind ourselves how valuable our work is right now.