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Stresses multiply for U.S. clergy

NEW YORK — Greg Laurie is among America’s most successful clergymen — senior pastor at a California megachurch, prolific author, host of a global radio program. Yet after a youthful colleague’s suicide, his view of his vocation is unsparing.

“Pastors are people, just like everyone else,” Laurie said by email. “We are broken people who live in a broken world. Sometimes, we need help too.”

Laurie’s 15,000-member Harvest Christian Fellowship, based in Riverside, California, was jolted in September by the death of 30-year-old associate pastor Jarrid Wilson. He and his wife had founded an outreach group to help people coping with depression and suicidal thoughts.

“People may think that as pastors or spiritual leaders we are somehow above the pain and struggles of everyday people,” Laurie wrote after Wilson’s death. “We are the ones who are supposed to have all the answers. But we do not.”

There is similar introspection among clergy of many faiths across the United States as the age-old challenges of their ministries are deepened by many newly evolving stresses.

Rabbis worry about protecting their congregations from anti-Semitic violence. Islamic chaplains counsel college students unnerved by anti-Muslim sentiments. A shortage of Catholic priests creates burdens for those who remain, even as their church’s sex-abuse crisis lowers morale. Worries for Protestant pastors range from crime and drug addiction in their communities, to financial insecurity for their own families, to social media invective that targets them personally.

It’s difficult to quantify the extent of clergy stress, nationwide or denominationally. But a 2018 Gallup poll bears out a common impression that clergy no longer enjoy the same public esteem as in the past. Only 37% of American rate members of the clergy highly for honesty and ethics, the lowest rating in the 40 years Gallup has asked that question.

“Not very long ago, they were seen as one of the pillars of the community,” said Carl Weisner, senior director of Duke Divinity School’s Clergy Health Initiative. “There has been some loss of status… and that does add to stress.”

Stress  and rewards  come in many forms for Rodney McNeal, 54, an Army veteran and social worker who has pastored Second Bethlehem Baptist Church in Alexandria, Louisiana, for nearly eight years.

Officially, the African American church has 300 members but only about 130 attend a typical service, he said.

“They don’t understand that I get tired like they get tired,” he said. “They want you to be at their constant beck and call.”

He has attended five seminaries but never completed them. The courses, he said, didn’t cover all he sees on the job.

“The preaching part is the easy part,” he said. “Had I known the ugly side of ministry — the hospital visits, burying the dead, being in the room when someone is dying and trying to comfort their family … Had I known all that, I don’t think I would have accepted being a pastor.”

What keeps him going?

“I will be out in the community and somebody will say ‘Hey man, you changed my life,'” he said.

Episcopal Bishop Chilton Knudsen, from the vantage of a nearly 40-year career, cites several factors affecting the clergy’s morale — including sex-abuse scandals that have rocked several Protestant denominations as well as the Catholic church.

“As the scandals became public, the public trust of clergy has dropped a little notch with each revelation,” said Knudsen, 73. “Even if you never had a scandal, there’s still a taint by association.”

“At the same time, the clergy has more complicated situations come across their doorstep,” she said. “There’s a wearing-down effect… they’re thinking, ‘I’ve spent all these hours with people trying to do good things, and I’m just getting nowhere.'”

Another challenge, she said, is the willingness of some churchgoers to engage in “clergy bashing.”

“Sometimes your congregation is polarized — a group who wants you gone and believes another priest will be so much better, and a group who are supportive,” she said. “People are acting out, circulating rumors about you in email chains — it’s traumatic.”

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