samedi, novembre 07, 2009

My column from Lancaster

Column: A disturbing trend among our clergy
Intelligencer JournalLancaster New Era

This is the first part of a two-part series on troubled clergy and what can be done to help keep congregations and clergy healthy.
What's going on with our clergy?
Once upon a time, they were regarded as role models.
Serving at the altar, baptizing babies, delivering a sermon on a Torah portion, asking God's blessing on our marriages — they seemed just a little holier, more knowing, perhaps more innocent, than the flock which sat in front of them on Saturdays and Sunday mornings.
But the televangelist scandals of the 1980s, the highly publicized cases of sexual abuse involving Catholic clergy and the occasional eruption of high-profile clergy sex scandals point to a more mundane but troubling reality: in the shadows, many of our clergy are struggling.
Take three stories plucked at random from national media this past month.
The New York Times profiled a mother and her terminally ill son — the progeny of a now-suspended Franciscan pastor.
In a Religion News Service article on pastor suicides and attempted suicides in the Carolinas, one counselor estimates 18 percent to 25 percent of clergy are depressed at any given time.
And an article showed how a Baylor University study found that sexual abuse by clergy is prevalent across all denominations.
In the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, local and national church leaders have been locked in a struggle for years with former Bishop Charles Bennison Jr., who is appealing his ecclesiastical court conviction and deposition on grounds that he covered up the sexual misconduct of his brother John, a former Episcopal priest.
Being in ministry "can be a very lonely occupation" says Dr. Jeff Hamilton, a Lancaster-based clinical social worker whose primary work is with churches and clergy. An ordained United Church of Christ minister, Hamilton spends much of his time helping clergy and congregations navigate often challenging transitions, as well as recognize appropriate boundaries.
"One of the painful parts of being ordained is that we are set apart," Hamilton said.
One of the reasons clergy get depressed is that "there are so few places where clergy can go to tell their story," he said.
Some clergy attempt to quench this loneliness by forming relationships within their congregations.
Not a great idea, argues the therapist.
"It's easy to create relationships that can become muddled … and improper," Hamilton said. "You can end up treating parishioners differently (from each other) without even knowing it."
Upon reflection, I had to admit he had a point.
Most of the congregations where I have worked and worshipped seem to tolerate special clergy friendships. But I also have heard lots of complaints about clergy who appear to favor particular parishioners.
One of the fundamental problems is that clergy don't always recognize that they have needs for companionship, friendship — and sometimes even confession. For married clergy, Hamilton has a straightforward word of advice.
"If you can't tell your spouse, you shouldn't be doing it" — even if "it" is a public lunch with that attractive parishioner who is having marital problems. What starts in all innocence may not end up that way.
"Clergy get into trouble when they don't have their needs met," Hamilton said. "We have such an intimate relationship with people at different times of their lives, that if you don't have a good sense of yourself, things can get confusing."
Hamilton and I didn't get into what effect the Internet has had on clergy, but, as a Christian Century article from a few years ago notes, online porn also is a problem for pastors already troubled by relationship problems — or simply lonely.
And then there are significant numbers of clergy, who, at some point or another, question their call. "When their visions of what ministry might have been is not what they hoped for … they wonder about the value of what they are doing," Hamilton said.
Get too deep into this topic, and the overall picture begins to seem bleak, doesn't it? But in fact, there are many ways in which clergy and their congregants can work individually and collaboratively to prevent clergy meltdown and be proactive about it if it happens.
My next column will focus on strategies for nurturing healthier clergy — and congregations.

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