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Clergy stress from isolation

Clergy stress from isolation

Photo: Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle

The Rev. Peter C. Boullata wrote a long letter explaining why he’s leaving parish ministry 12 years after entering it. Boullata describes a number of problems–from long days to the emotional weight of being in the congregation but not of it–and the stress of knowing more than you can tell the congregation, regarding hiring decisions and other administrative aspects of parish ministry.

From the letter:

And we have to sit there, with our lay leaders, silently, while aggrieved members of our congregations make a big noise. Knowing we will never break confidentiality, knowing we can never share the true story of why that staff person was dismissed. We have to grin and bear it, no doubt making our Puritan ancestors proud.

similar story is in the Houston Chronicle; a profile of Houston area priests experiencing burnout due to isolation and the ‘fishbowl’ effect of being in, but apart from, the church family. The story centers on Father Norbert Maduzia, one of two priests serving a community of more than 4,000 families.

If you’re in parish ministry, how do you cope with the struggles of being in but not of the congregation? If you’re part of the laity, how do you avoid burdening your clergy with unfair or extra-spiritual issues?


Posted by David Streever


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Bill Carroll

I don’t at all think that’s an irrelevant question, and I’m not in any way trying to minimize how hard it is. I think healthy dioceses do quite a bit to foster clergy collegiality and wellness, as well as healthy partnerships between lay and clergy leadership, and I’ve been blessed to serve under bishops who take that responsibility very seriously. I don’t want to lose a sense, though, that we are called for missionary service and that it involves certain difficulties, especially in the present climate. (But very few of us are being called to martyrdom, which has been the norm in other chapters of the Church’s life and in other places still is today.) Being clergy in today’s North American ecclesial environment is relatively precarious, but most middle class and working class people are living precarious lives right now, and we ought to share in these struggles. In my view, the key to engaging these difficulties faithfully is the ability to make meaning in terms of service to our Lord and having parishioners and colleagues who will support us and challenge us in this shared missionary enterprise. It is easy to get excited about parish ministry today, if we stay focused on the Lord Jesus and his Gospel and helping others to find and do God’s work.

Bill Carroll

I think what I was trying to do is to answer David’s original question in the article, namely “If you’re in parish ministry, how do you cope with the struggles of being in but not of the congregation?” I honestly believe that many of the kinds of difficulties that Boullata is describing are intrinsic to the job. Our task in ministering to folks who find themselves in his position is helping them find the resources to stay and accept the particular challenges if they choose or to leave if they choose. I suspect the number one predictor is a sense that this is a call from God and the ability to make sense of the difficulties and challenges in light of one’s spiritual life. There’s no shame in having difficulties and no shame in leaving the ordained ministry. There’s certainly no shame in seeking the help it may take to attempt to stay. But we need to give up on the premise that we have somehow failed because someone decides the ordained ministry is not for him/her. In Boullata’s case in particular, he is describing a caring congregation that allows him to set good limits. Even in such an ideal case, leadership leads to isolation. Shared leadership with the laity, which Boullata describes, can reduce it but not overcome the peculiar dynamic of being in but not of. As in any vocation, you have to learn to love and accept the particular challenges. I certainly feel compassion for those who feel as Boullata does. I don’t think that clergy have a monopoly on stress or that our challenges are unique or particularly difficult to deal with. He seems pretty thoughful and reflective and capable of gaining some distance and deciding whether and how to reengage.

Philip B. Spivey

Bill: I guess the basic question for me is: How does our CHURCH reward its clergy for a difficult vocation done well? Or are these achievements taken for granted?

Put another way, for all that the Church asks of its clergy, what’s reasonable for the clergy to expect in return?

I’d posit that the most important thing the Church can provide is the ongoing “care and nurture” of its spiritual leaders. This way, clergy needn’t leave their spiritual home for their spiritual needs.

Bill Carroll

I don’t think suggesting a broad support system and some proven strategies for dealing with relationship stress amounts to platitudes or telling someone to suck it up. Presumably an appropriate support system beyond the congregation is one of the places where we can be listened to and loved. It’s a demanding, stressful job, definitely not for everybody, but there are plenty of those. As with the rest of life, we choose the challenges we can live with and seek help in meeting those challenges as necessary.

Philip B. Spivey

Bill: I think I understand your points and you obviously understand what Fr. Bullatta might be going through. It’s just that our means of addressing the problem are different.

For a cleric who feels isolated, perhaps building that sense of community “outside of community” is too daunting; in rural areas, maybe darn near impossible. What I’m suggesting is that sending him/her away with a to-do list before we’ve sat and listened long enough is not the most helpful way to go. As most of us know, “One can be alone in a sea of faces”.

Philip B. Spivey

Frankly, I find some of these comments chilling. Suck-it-up seems to be the general sense. I admire Father Bullatta’s courage in making his pain public and I can see why he, and other clergy, might be reluctant to voice their loneliness, alone-ness and isolation—even to themselves.

As quiet as it’s kept, Father Bullatta speaks for many clergy who choose not to speak publicly or privately about their feelings, particularly painful ones. Apart from geographic isolation, some clergy (and more disturbingly, some laity) do suffer from spiritual isolation not remedied by well-meaning panaceas. Offering advice and fixes for their painful feelings does not help; it exacerbates their pain and sense of isolation.

Only listening, and listening and listening with an open heart of compassion and love will help.

Canon Kale Francis King, Tssf

1) And where do we bring this about?
2) Living “way out there and a little beyond” one was lucky to have a physician and a dentist, let alone someone you could rely on for spiritual direction.
3) Sounds awfully like “suck it up.” “What I know with my head I don’t know with my heart.”

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