A few years back I heard a story of a family who were serving in a regional church community as Pastors. The husband was doing much of the work but, as we know, expectations always extend to the Pastor’s family, so his wife and two teenage children were also carrying the load of ministry life. They had served several years without a holiday and had saved enough money to drive interstate for three weeks on a break over the summer. When they returned home one evening (church rental) they noticed the lights on and a car in the driveway. They discovered another family was living in their home. Why? Where were all their belongings?
The pastor rang one of the Board Members to see if he knew what was going on. The Pastor was told that while he was on holidays the Board of Elders decided to promote the Associate Pastor to the Senior position. He told the Pastor that he didn’t want to tell him the bad news on holidays and wasn’t sure when they were returning home. With the family in their car, now homeless, the Pastor asked the Elder what the Board’s plan was for their housing. The Elder replied that their belongings were in local storage but there was nowhere to house them and that wasn’t their problem to solve. In disbelief, the Pastor rang another Elder who confirmed this was all correct. When he asked why they would do this to their family, the Elder explained that the Associate and the Board just felt God had more for their town – that the gifting and vision this Pastor had was not enough. They needed younger energy and a vision for more young families. There were also a couple of doctrinal issues. So they made a ruling vote and acted quickly while they were away on holiday, informing the congregation of their decision – asking them not to disturb the exiting family on their holiday with the news. The Pastor and his family spent the rest of the night in the car, mainly in shock and tears. The following weeks were slow and painful as they sought for a new life elsewhere.
I’ve modified some of the details of this true account for privacy reasons but this kind of thing happens more often than is talked about. I suspect part of the reason it’s not talked about is that many Ministry Workers, like this family, don’t want to give the whole Church a bad name because of outlier incidents like this. The problem there is, not unlike abuse stories that surface from Ministry Workers’ traumatising actions towards others, victims are not willing to tell their stories of abuse because deep down they; are afraid, are threatened, still believe in the good of The Church, don’t think they’ll be believed, or may think silence and forgiveness is the noble way forward. As a result, victims (incl. Pastors) can feel alone. It can be terribly complex, particularly considering that many religious systems are protected through tribal scapegoating mechanisms – and despite Jesus’ efforts to expose these systemic issues, they remain an evil hidden in plain sight.
Over the last fortnight I penned and published two lengthy articles. One on why our family doesn’t attend a local church in this season. The other on reducing church-based trauma. Responses varied, particularly negatives ones from those who skimmed the articles or breezed through the Instagram slides, drawing fast conclusions. I get that, we’re all busy. We all have our stories, woundings, biases etc. It’s what makes good writing an art and a sincere challenge.
Most of the unintended responses sent via comment or email were around a sense that I was placing the weight of responsibility for all the trauma on ministry workers (Pastors etc) – assuming they don’t suffer or are subject to church-based wounding for religious trauma syndrome. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here’s what we know: When people gather together around mission, purpose and transformational ideals, you can be sure that the potential for great harm will be in their midst. Regardless of whether it’s a family, company, sports club, Rotary club, non-for-profit organisation etc. where people are, there is risk of wounding. I think many Christians hope and wish this were different in The Church, because we think that of all communities and missions, The Church should be without pain and suffering , but it’s not. Should Church Leaders seek to mitigate abuse, suffering and unhealthy conflict? Absolutely…but so should every leader in every home and organisation, right? Leaders should be protectors of others, not predators looking for victims or possums who shy away from injustice. But again, let’s not be under the illusion that leaders are not subject to the abuse of others either. I have lost count of the number of Ministry Workers I know who have been sacrificed on the altar of performance and expectations by Boards and Congregations. Heck, I have experienced that myself! And with embarrassment can say I have been part of a crucifying mob too.
In the Pastors Under Pressure workshop I ran last week, we had a good number of participants who were active workers in The Church. We spent three hours diving into the complexity of being a Ministry Worker which is often compounded when one is on the payroll and under the agency and expectation of the entire congregation. The following paragraphs outline some of these complexities. Towards the end of this article I’d like to clear the air on these misunderstandings. Not for my sake, but for the sake of Ministry Workers out there. Many, suffering in silence.
SPOUSES AND FAMILIES
Think for a minute of the spouse and family of your local church pastor. Notice your expectations and judgements on them. On their behaviour. On their attendance. On their performance – even if they are not on the payroll. Research confirms that spouses assume there is an expectation held in their roles, even if they do not directly feel pressure from the ministry work and the congregation (Knight Johnson, 2012). Other findings suggests that the emotional demands of the clergy role resonate within their spouses and may indicate the existence of tertiary trauma (Hendron et al. 2014). Tertiary trauma is a kind of trauma felt by people connected to those exposed to primary trauma. In this case, the Pastor may have to attend to a trauma-based scenario ( e.g. death, DV, suicide), and as a result experience secondary trauma (AKA vicarious trauma) and then come home and effect the family which creates tertiary trauma (3rd level). This pressure and exposure can lead to a phenomena called Clergy Fatigue. A Danielsen study in the US found post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in one Christian denomination’s clergy that “was higher than that of post-deployment soldiers.”
*Q*May I ask, when was the last time you were genuinely concerned and / or prayed for the wellbeing of the family of Ministry Workers?
Like it or not, churches MUST deal with governance matters. Just like you do personally. Just like families and every other organisation need to. A quick read of Acts 16 will confirm that politics and governance has been part of The Church since the beginning. I don’t see it disappearing. I hear so many people complain that the Church has become an institution and absorbed in capitalism, and although the pendulum may swing heavy to the negative neoliberal and political side of things, on whole, I know most Pastors and boards that hate all the governance stuff, but also see the value of it and do what is required of them by law and function (much like managing a home). Here are a few things Ministry Workers, especial Senior Pastors have to manage and stay on top of these days: Insurance, staffing, buildings, leases, legals, constitutions, reporting, boards, bookkeeping, audio and visual tech, volunteers, finances, maintenance, budgeting, governance, strategy, marketing, administration. This is all besides pastoral care, sermon preparation and maintaining a level of relationship with family, friends and God.
*Q* When was the last time you considered all the things the average Ministry Worker is responsible for?
Working in and for a Church is a very unique vocation. If you’ve not experienced it, it can be hard to explain. But it involves particular stressors. Particularly for those in leadership roles. According to Morris and Blanton (1994), in terms of mental health, clergy experience a number of stressors, such as frequent moves, financial strain, lack of social support, high time demands, and intrusions on family boundaries. Lee and Iverson-Gilbert (2003) have conceptualized the antecedents of pastoral stress into four categories: personal criticism, boundary ambiguity, presumptive expectations, and family criticism. In last week’s workshop, boundary ambiguity was voted the biggest stressor by attendees who were Ministry Workers.
*Q* Do your pastors exhibit clear, healthy boundaries? And are they honoured by the congregation?
Ministry Workers are subject to a very strong and formulated social construct of what these kind of people should be and do. This construct exists inside and outside The Church. In another workshop I did with 100+ attendees (most of them counsellors) I asked them to list something they expected of their Pastor/Father/Bishop etc. The list was huge and varied. We all took a look through the list of over 50 different expectations and agreed no one on earth could ever fulfil all these expectations- but it was an indication of how, by default, Pastors are setup to disappoint countless people. I then asked them to list how Pastor’s spouses and children should behave and the list also proved impossible to fulfil.
*Q* Are there some expectations on Ministry Workers and their families you need to adjust? I’m sure there are.
Again, the only word that I can think to describe the vocational lives of Ministry Workers is ‘complex’. My heart goes out to them. Many are friends. I will continue to advocate for their wellbeing. Most manage the pressures and complexities well. But no one does well all of the time, especially when traumas compound and windows of tolerance narrow.
Does this mean that Ministry Workers should be excused from harming others? Not at all.
Does it mean Ministry Workers won’t harm others? Also no.
Might it be that stressors and pressures from all sides of life can drive Ministry Workers to do unjustifiable harm to others? Findings seem to suggest this.
Do I think most Ministry Workers are adequately trained and supported to do the work required of them? No. Fact: Many bible colleges and seminaries teach little on governance, business, counselling, social justice or trauma stewardship.
Is there room for improvement and measures we can take to care for religious leaders (and their family’s) wellbeing? Absolutely. (And I’ve outlined suggestions in other articles)
In summary, as Dr. Diane Langberg points out, systems that are created should be for ‘the purpose of educating, nurturing, and blessing others spiritually. Systems are meant to benefit and bless.’ But whether a system is a large denomination, a local church governance structure or a small departmental operation – all systems have the potential to become toxic if left unquestionable, untouchable and unaccountable.
Many systems start with good intent to serve and do good but and end up something people are overcommitted to protecting any cost. Let’s not fool ourselves, for every perpetrating Pastor, Evangelist and public religious figure that makes the news for their abuse, there are also many Ministry Workers (and their families) suffering, being sinned against, traumatised, sacrificed, buried or wounded by (and within) these systems. In any case, this all matters. We should be doing better… I believe, as you may, The Church should be a place of safety and refuge for the sheep and shepherds.
Where can we start? That’s big question. But you can personally start somewhere. Perhaps it’s speaking out. Perhaps it’s answering some of the questions I posed. Perhaps it’s moving to a safer place. For me, generally, I tend to start with myself – I’m learning that my ego is very clever at projecting and externalising the problem – because perhaps I am part of it. There is a story that early in the last Century, The Times once sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?”. GK Chesterton responded simply,
Whatever side of the pulpit you find yourself, if you are seeking justice, peace, healing and restoration from church-based wounding, may you find it. May this article remind you that wolves in sheep’s clothing may look like sheep, but at their core, are not. Toxic and abusive religious systems may like The Church, but at their core they are not – and therefore don’t need protecting, they need exposing for the sake of the flock.
Feel free to share your thoughts or share this article.
Legrand, S, Proeschold-Bell, RJ, … Wallace, A 2013, ‘Healthy Leaders: Multilevel Health Promotion Considerations For Diverse United Methodist Church Pastors’ Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 303–321, doi: 10.1002/jcop.21539.
Hendron, JA, Irving, P, & Taylor, BJ 2014, ‘Clergy Stress through Working with Trauma: A Qualitative Study of Secondary Impact’ The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling