Faith tested

Program will help church leaders deal with emotional and spiritual exhaustion

“Their presence can bring a calm that is often needed when spiritual crises could be or are happening, and that’s a lot to bear or carry,” said Desta Ronning Goehner, director of congregational relations at Cal Lutheran.

The twin tragedies of the Borderline Bar and Grill mass shooting and the devastating spread of the Woolsey Fire shocked Thousand Oaks and Ventura County to the core on November 7 and 8. As thousands fled their homes and millions worldwide watched coverage of both events, many of those caught in the middle likely tried to find solace spiritually in the same way that countless Americans poured into houses of worship after other tragedies such as 9/11.

But what is the impact on the spiritual leaders who are charged with making divine sense of it all in situations like these? When horrific events affect both congregants and additional outsiders, their need for advice and prayer is piled on top of the usual emotional and spiritual demands presented by requests to discuss life’s hardest aspects ranging from addictions and marital problems to grief counseling — creating a surefire recipe for pastor burnout.

Last October, California Lutheran University announced a strong step towards helping clergy handle the stress to continue thriving in their ministries. The Thousand Oaks-based university and its Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) announced that they had been awarded nearly $1 million from Lilly Endowment Inc., a private philanthropic foundation supporting the causes of religion, education and community development, to help pastors and church leaders throughout 14 Western states with these issues.

The grant comes as declining church attendance and funding, changing parishioner expectations and increasingly diverse communities have made pastors’ jobs more challenging. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) bishops report that pastors suffer from dissatisfaction, anxiety, fear, spiritual depletion and loneliness as they struggle to revitalize their congregations — and the problem extends across all spiritual lines.

“Our two campus pastors went onsite at Cal Lutheran after the shooting and made sure students were good, offering support to any students and staff who need it even though the campus was shut down as a result,” recalls Desta Ronning Goehner, director of congregational relations at Cal Lutheran. “They enlisted numerous pastors and faith leaders to come to the scene and at hospitals to offer support to people.”

“Their presence can bring a calm that is often needed when spiritual crises could be or are happening, and that’s a lot to bear or carry,” Goehner adds. “You’re always shifting among divorce, spiritual crisis or helping someone die well to happy events, too. They don’t have time or space to deal with how they’re affected by that, and they have their own things to deal with, too.”

Goehner notes that the Lilly Foundation put out a request for grant proposals for programs that would help pastors not feel so isolated, burnt out and alone and to help them support each other through hard times.

“It’s hard to say to people, ‘I can’t talk now due to my own therapy appointment,’ or ‘I can’t come to the hospital because I’m dealing with my own crisis.’ It ends up being months and months and years and years of heavy lifting.”

Building on PLTS’ Theological Education for Emerging Ministry program and Cal Lutheran’s Executive Skills for Church Leaders program, the new project will develop curriculum to strengthen practical leadership skills not covered in seminaries and deliver those lessons to about 150 pastors and other church leaders throughout the West. Topics will include social entrepreneurship, cultural competency, community organizing and conflict management. Pastors and church leaders will form cohorts for collaboration and support, and they will receive mentoring and spiritual counseling.

Participants will also be connected to mentors who will offer spiritual direction, coaching and therapy as needed. In the end, the desired result is for pastors to form strong support networks for each other, and in turn improve their work with laypeople. As she checked her cellphone amid her interview, Goehner realized that she herself might benefit from the program as well.

“I have 147 texts on my phone from people sending love, saying they’re thinking about me, but for me it’s self-care not to respond to those so i can be present for people here,” says Goehner. “I’m currently in bed, needing a nap because I was up all night with a family that lost a loved one in the shooting. I know I need to pull away to care for myself, but we need supportive relationships and [to] help each other out. I sent emails to interfaith leaders to come together and share collective grief. It was really powerful.”

Looking at Dominic Balli, a dreadlocked, 30something reggae musician who has spent the past 15 years in ministry in the Carpinteria and Ventura branches of the eight-city worldwide Reality family of churches, it might seem that his jovial spirit would help him avoid the dangers of burnout. But speaking amid the week after the twin tragedies, he admitted that the prospect is always there for anyone who devotes their life to assisting the burdens of others.

Balli notes that Reality churches have been carefully established to feature a team of pastors, “so that the weight, focus and pressure of the church and ministry doesn’t fall on just one of us.” He is careful to note that he and his fellow pastors are not immune to becoming weary or exhausted, but that splitting the work up carefully helps prevent severe emotional and spiritual exhaustion.

“Things that contribute to the weightiness of pastoral ministry are that you’re helping care for people, and it’s easy to take that on, with their heartaches, pain, drama and relational activities,” says Balli. “It’s hard not to take things home with you because you care for them. If you don’t have a healthy pattern of disconnecting yourself, you can carry that all the time.”

“Pastoral ministry is centered on people, and people are always there. In some ways, you’re on 24/7 and ministry doesn’t ever stop,” he adds. “It’s like being an emergency room doctor versus an optometrist who works from 9 to 5 and then they can wait ‘til tomorrow at 9 o’clock to see you if you have an issue. Someone can say to you, ‘My son just committed suicide,’ and I can’t say ‘Sorry, please call me tomorrow.’ The type of demand that comes from being a pastor, and that frequency and consistency of demand, is unique to only a few career paths.”

As a female pastor at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Simi Valley, Jennifer Chrien has a somewhat different perspective on the issue of burnout than Balli. The 32-year-old, who has led her church for the past six years, is excited by the new Lilly grant program, having participated in a prior Lilly-funded program designed to help pastors
set goals and improve their outreach.

Chrien recalls that the Lutheran faith has long been central to her life, having been raised in the church from a young age and discerned her vocation as a minister when she was still a teen. Her husband is also a Lutheran pastor, which results in both supporting each other due to their shared understanding of the calling’s demands. But she also notes that their dual careers affects both their professional lives and the personal time they are able to spend together.

“I like that you get to be a part of some really important moments in people’s lives, such as births, deaths, weddings and funerals,” says Chrien. “People really invite you into those sacred spaces and that’s really powerful. I enjoy the week to week rhythm of preparing for worship, leading worship and teaching. But I find that the really difficult moments and questions can certainly be draining. I’m in a period right now where I’m doing a lot of funerals. I t does wear you down. What contributes more to burnout is the kind of petty stuff you have to deal with. If somebody comes to me struggling with their faith, I feel I can offer guidance and support, but if they come to me upset about people not putting the chairs back in the right place after a church event, I wonder if this is the best use of our time as Christians? It wears me down.”

Support from colleagues, such as the two other pastors on staff at her church, is vital to maintaining an even keel and positive mindset. She finds that they provide “a built-in sounding board of people who know the work and the congregation,” but also looks forward to programs that provide time and money for continuing education and sabbaticals that enable pastors to recharge mentally.

One pastor who has dealt with burnout from a unique perspective is Jim Duran of the River Community Church in Ventura. He recalls overcoming a severe, seven-year prescription-drug addiction in which he was consuming 60 to 80 Vicodin tablets a day until “the Lord delivered me from that in October 2002” amid an intense prayer session at another church.

Now 58, Duran helped start River as Ventura Foursquare Church in 2004 and received his pastor’s license in 2005, working his way up until he became a full-time pastor at the church in 2014. Foursquare churches are Pentecostal in their approach, with highly charismatic prayer and worship music, while the Foursquare moniker derives from four basic principles of their approach to the Gospel.

“Back in the early days of the Christian faith, church services were held in homes and focused on Scripture readings and praise and worship music and prayers,” explains Duran. “Then churches became corporate and institutionalized, and pastors were made to do everything, including accounting, evangelizing, preaching, maintenance and paying the bills.

“What’s really been interesting throughout the years is that in the church, we have the Ten Commandments, and the crazy thing is that if I broke nine of those 10 commandments as a pastor, I’d lose my job. But if I didn’t take a day off to keep holy the Sabbath day, having a day to rest, I’d get a raise. The reason for burnout is that pastors have been violating the need for a day of rest, and if pastors really checked out and disconnected from all their responsibilities for a day a week, there’d be less burnout in our churches.”

The River Community Church helps people take on all manner of problems, as it runs The City Center, a 30-room transitional living motel for homeless children and their parents as they transition from life on the streets to permanent housing. The church also oversees the Tender Life Maternity Home for homeless pregnant women, and that combination has subjected Duran to some pretty harrowing experiences.

“I deal a lot with the homeless population, and have seen suicides in front of trains and murders, and dealt with not just with families but the general homeless population,” says Duran. “It’s taxing, difficult, hard. When they lose, we lose. It’s a difficult place to be but we have to depend on the Holy Spirit to guide us through that.” 

That belief that God is there to guide and protect ministers and their work is a belief that is shared by all of the pastors involved, carrying them through their own dark nights of the soul. There truly is something inexplicably powerful about the work for each of them and their fellow pastors, a factor that Balli says he tries to never forget.

“Just like a cardiovascular surgeon can go home and say ‘I helped someone have a long, happier, healthier life because of fixing their heart,’ when I share the love and life of God with someone, I can see it transform them from the inside out in a very fulfilling way,” says Balli. “It’s great to see that I was able to participate in their spiritual growth or a spiritual ‘Aha!’ moment and being healed in an emotional way as they experience God in a miracle. I get to facilitate encounters with God.”

--- Published in the Ventura County Reporter on Jan. 17, 2019


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