NEW YORK (AP) — 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 Jarrid Wilson, a 30-year-old associate pastor. Wilson and his wife, parents of two sons, 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 a host of 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.
Adam Hertzman, who works for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, witnessed firsthand the emotional toll on his city’s rabbis after the October 2018 massacre that killed 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue.
“Somehow in the US we expect our clergy to be superhuman when it comes to these things, and frankly that’s an unrealistic expectation,” he said. “They’re human beings who are going to feel the same kind of fear and numbness and depression that other people do.”
A ‘loss of status’
It’s difficult to quantify the extent of clergy stress, nationwide or denominationally. But a 2018 Gallup poll bears out a widely shared 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 their 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.”
Yet Weisner says the challenges of ministry are often offset by the rewards.
“There’s a gift of meaning in the work that not a whole lot of other professions have,” he said.
Stress — and rewards — come in many forms for Rodney McNeal, 54, an Army veteran and hospital 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 the things 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.”
When he began, McNeal rarely took time off, straining his marriage.
Although he has tried to create a work-life balance, he visits sick congregants on his lunch break and, if he gets off his job at 4:30 p.m., tries to make two or three home and hospital visits before he picks up his children at school.
McNeal said pastors in small congregations get close to their parishioners; when a tragedy strikes, “you are feeling the same pains.”
“You have to get them through the process, but nobody is there to help you,” he said.
Over the years McNeal has opened up to two older pastors who counsel him. He also talks to his brother, who is a minister in North Carolina.
“I know what depression is,” he said. “You have to sit in your car when you drive up in the driveway of the church and get your game face on to go in there. I have contemplated walking away so many times.”
What keeps him going?
“I love seeing people just turn their lives around,” he said. “I will be out in the community and somebody will say ‘Hey man, you changed my life. You helped me.’”
Sex scandals, clergy-bashing
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 Roman Catholic church
“Back in the day, you were automatically assumed to be trustworthy,” said Knudsen, 73. “As the scandals became public, the public trust of clergy has dropped a little notch with each revelation. 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, a sense of frustration and malaise — 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.”
The Episcopal church offers subsidized psychological counseling to its clergy, but Knudsen says the service is underused.
In Baltimore, the Rev. Alvin Gwynn — at age 74 — has been getting help from computer-savvy millennials as he serves for a 30th year as pastor of Friendship Baptist Church. His mostly African American congregation of 1,100 is flourishing, he says, and yet he’s weighed down sometimes by the multiple crises of his city — high crime and drug abuse, underfunded schools, a lack of decent affordable housing.
“The hardest thing is trying to keep people’s hope alive,” he said. “We’re no longer a friendly city — our families have been torn apart, and people don’t have the interaction with the church that they once had.”
The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents more than 45,000 churches in the US, published research in 2016 detailing pervasive financial stress among its pastors. Of more than 4,200 pastors surveyed, half earned less than $50,000 a year and more than 90% worried about insufficient retirement savings. Only 20% said their congregations had more than 200 people.
Yet pastors in booming megachurches can suffer as well. Jarrid Wilson’s death in September was preceded in August 2018 by the suicide of Andrew Stoecklein, the 30-year-old pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, California. A few days before killing himself, Stoecklein had preached about his own struggles with panic attacks and depression.
Wilson’s suicide was among the reasons that megachurch pastor Howard John Wesley recently told his 10,000-member congregation at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, that he was taking a 15-week sabbatical.
“There’s not been a day in these past 11 years that I have not woken up and knew that there’s something I had to do for the church, that I have to be available for a call,” Wesley said. “I’m tired.”
Fighting anti-Muslim rhetoric
For Muslim clergy in America, the stresses of being a faith leader are often magnified by awareness that their communities face prejudice and suspicion.
“We’re framed in this idea that somehow we’re a fifth column trying to take the country down,” said James Jones, vice chair of the board of the Islamic Seminary of America. “We’re asked to prove ourselves — that we are patriotic — in ways that other people aren’t.”
Jones, a religion professor at Manhattanville College, says engagement in interfaith activities can be valuable for Muslim clergy.
“We in our community have to share that more inclusive approach,” he said. “Not insular, harsh rhetoric.”
Adeel Zeb encountered anti-Muslim sentiment head-on while serving as Islamic chaplain at Duke University in 2015. The school invited Muslim students to give their call to prayer from the bell tower of the campus chapel, only to withdraw the invitation — citing safety concerns — amid a backlash that included death threats and outraged criticism from prominent Christian figures such as evangelist Franklin Graham.
Zeb, now chaplain at the five-college Claremont Colleges network in California, described Duke’s backtracking as “a hard call.”
“Students’ and staff’s lives were being threatened,” he said. “You don’t want to live with that on your conscience — one of your students getting shot and killed.”
At Claremont, Zeb ministers to about 300 Muslim students on multiple campuses, striving to keep up with their political and cultural interests.
“We chaplains are having to be far more socially conscious than before — you have to be very cautious, and hyperaware,” he said.
His students grew up in the post-9/11 era that kindled anti-Muslim sentiment among some Americans.
“Many of the students here haven’t seen much of the blessing or sweetness of being a Muslim in the US,” he said. “They usually see the curse of it.”
“If they see oppression happening, they will all start feeling the pain, and start causing a ruckus, and that causes stress for me,” said Zeb, who meditates and works out to cut the tension. “I have to make sure there’s a very strong dose of self-care, so I can be resilient.”
Anti-Semitism takes a toll
In September 2017, on the first day of Rosh Hoshana — the Jewish new year — a security guard found a hateful, obscene anti-Semitic message scrawled on an outdoor wall of Temple Sinai — home to the oldest Jewish congregation in Oakland, California.
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin rushed to the synagogue after getting a predawn call and devised a plan before worshippers gathered for morning services. As they arrived, she encouraged them to write positive messages on sheets of butcher paper, which were then used to cover the graffiti until a work crew could paint over it.
“Love Not Hate,” “Shalom” and “Stronger Together” were among the scores of multi-colored messages.
Looking back now, Mates-Muchin says the incident had some upsides: Her congregation was heartened by an outpouring of support from civic and religious leaders. Among those expressing solidarity was a women’s mosque in neighboring Berkeley.
However, the graffiti incident — and the subsequent deadly attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and in Poway, California — took a toll.
Since the Pittsburgh massacre, Mates-Muchin said. “I don’t begin a service without having a rough plan of where I’d direct people if someone came in with a gun.”
During that span, her synagogue has beefed up security measures — more lighting, security cameras and guards. For the most recent high holy days, synagogue leaders requested the deployment of armed off-duty police officers.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis — the main rabbinical organization for Reform Judaism in North America — seeks various ways to provide personal and professional support to its members. There’s a rapid-response line to field calls from troubled rabbis, and a social worker who offers free short-term counseling.
The flare-up of anti-Semitism compounds the day-to-day challenges, says Rabbi Betsy Torop, director of rabbinic engagement for the organization.
“We’re living in a country we’ve felt safe in, and now we see anti-Semitism everywhere,” she said. “Rabbis deal with their own feelings about this — plus the need for increased security for their congregation. It plays out in creating stress and anxiety in a lot of ways.”
Security worries have affected other faiths as well.
Pardeep Singh Kaleka, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, said his own Sikh temple has armed guards and an evacuation plan, the result of a 2012 attack in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that killed six worshippers, including his father, the temple president and one of its founders.
He said some Sikh leaders are tempted to avoid outreach to non-Sikh faiths and communities, but he urges them to take the chance.
“All of us are facing uncertainty and divisiveness,” he said. “It’s a responsibility of faith leaders to bring people together.”
Are you relying on The Times of Israel for accurate and timely coverage right now? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel eleven years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel