Thursday, July 26, 2007

We bleed, oh, how we bleed.

I'm feeling somber this morning after receiving the news that a woman seminarian in this district committed suicide this week, leaving behind a stunned home congregation, a young child, and a host of friends and colleagues who now must make sense of her act. Depression was a factor, as it usually is, but it doesn't answer all the questions her friends and family have. One of my congregants is also a seminarian and friend; my heart aches for him and for the other seminarians who knew her, as well as for her pastor and her family.

Her death underscores a recent article mentioned on several blogs lately about the deteriorating health of the clergy. Much as I love being a minister, I know that it is a dangerous, high-risk profession. Ministry was a factor in my dad's death in 1970; the stresses of being all things to all people and dealing with the innumerable critics who don't seem to understand that a minister bleeds too---the stresses are too much sometimes, and the heart and mind succumb to the anguish that comes from not being able to meet all the needs, not being able to satisfy all the people, not being able to have a family life like others do.

In my dad, the stress manifested itself in heart damage and other disabilities, sapping his strength and his ability to cope until the combined effects of ill health and the demands of ministry caused his body to give out. When I went into the ministry, I was acutely aware of what had happened to him and have taken what precautions seemed important. Yet I worry about my health, my expanding midsection, the twinges of age, and my genetic makeup. I've outlived my father, and my mother lived until she was 84, but there is never any guarantee that there will be a tomorrow, regardless of all the precautions, exercise, diet, and sane living.

A conflict in a congregation is the death knell for many ministers, literally. I think of the toll taken on my equilibrium when I was in the middle of a conflict in a former congregation. Sure, it was mainly growing pains, but I became the lightning rod and it was awful for quite awhile. And the amazing thing for me was that none of my critics seemed to care that they were causing me huge pain for very little reason. Some of them probably still think that they "saved" the church by causing me to leave.

Luckily, I had a great support system personally and professionally and there were lots of congregants who weren't mad at me and could see the damage being done. I survived, the congregation has made a comeback, and the diehard critics eventually left the church. And a number of the critics did see what harm they had done and asked for my forgiveness.

But it all hurt. My blood pressure was up, my comfort food intake was at an alltime high, and the normal pleasures of life were set aside until I could wade through the conflict and get to the other side. I hope I have rebounded from that time in my life, thanks to the nurture and care of the congregations I next served. But I wonder what kind of permanent damage to my health may have occurred.

If you are in a congregation where there is a minister and a conflict, no matter which side you're on, please think about what you are putting your minister through when you are criticizing that person for his/her flaws, lack of certain skills, sermons, administrative ability, etc. Though we may look tough, we bleed, oh, how we bleed.


Jarrod Henry said...

Ouch. I can imagine that conflict very well, actually, in my own personal anecdote. I was a "product of divorce" child, and that meant a game of one parent versus the other with my brother and I in the middle. This was a game that was made somewhat easier by the fact that I and my brother were children.. and therefore exempt from the lurid details. As a minister, I imagine you not only don't get the exemption from details, but you get an overabundance of them. I would also imagine you get "used" or "name-dropped" in situations that put you in very uncomfortable positions.

All in all, I do appreciate the clergy, for all they go through. For all you go through.. and your entry gave me pause about what I take forward.

Comrade Kevin said...

One of the reasons I left the Unitarian church was that on two separate occasions and at two separate churches, I saw evidence of internal strife.

In Birmingham, the interim minister made a lot of very necessary changes. He streamlined a lot of tasks that had been done ineffectively. He made a point of printing the names of all the visitors in the newsletter and the order of service. He kept the Circle of Lights from being hijacked by activists who wanted to pimp their own private causes.

He confided to me: I'm surprised they haven't driven me off yet. He looked tired and their were dark circles under his eyes due to overwork and lack of sleep.

In Atlanta, a petition circulated among certain members of the congregation wanting to drive off their interim minister because he *gasp* mentioned the name of Jesus actively and openly during the service.

Some months after that, the assistant minister left under dubious circumstances and swirling rumors that she had tried to interfere with the selection of the called ministers. Naturally, none of this was confirmed but the UUA did try to quell the fire by sending along the District Representative, Eunice Benton.

Meanwhile, I got seriously ill and was unable to work. I had no visible means of cash flow and was trying to make ends meet. I went to the interim minister and said: I'm not looking for a handout. Could you recommend some work I could perform around the church? Are there congregation members who need yardwork done?

After listening to me, the interim minister looked at me very coldly and said, We don't do that here.

It really upset me. The first thing that popped into my head was If you can't take care of your own, then how can you call yourself a church? What sort of minister are you?

A month later, an issue arose between myself and another member of the congregation and I was asked to not attend for nearly eight months. The other member, however, was still allowed to attend, due to the fact that the member had a) been there longer than I had b) contributed more money than I had and c) had two kids involved in RE programming.

There's a lot more to that story but I don't really want to go into all of it again. And doing so would only come across as sour grapes, so I'll cut it off right there.

In retrospect, I realize the reason I was dealt with in that manner was that so much negativity had transpired in such a short period of time that the minister made the decision to take the easy way out. Granted, I would have appreciated some degree of mediation, but the minister felt that the last thing the church needed was another drama storm.

I know how taxing a profession the ministry can be and I'm trying to give the Atlanta minister the benefit of the doubt. But I'm still smarting from what I was put through.

In my opinion, churches ought to be inclusive rather than exclusive and it seems that my concern was shoved under the rug rather than dealt with in a responsible manner.

I'm trying to give the Atlanta minister the benefit of the doubt, I really am. I had the utmost sympathy for him because I thought that this Christian-bashing that had been going on was totally juvenile. And I can understand the temptation to take the easiest, less contentious way of resolving the crisis. But I still think that he shirked his responsibilities in dealing with me.

I hear what you're saying, Ms. Kitty. I don't think I have the emotional stamina to be a minister, just as I don't have the emotional stamina to be a lawyer. And for ministers like yourself who strive to be conscientious I have nothing but the utmost respect. Thanks for your honesty.

Lizard Eater said...

Started to leave comments, but it turned into a long post:

Hugs to you.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks to all of you for your thoughts. Conflict which is not respectful on both sides only makes everyone unhappy, doesn't it? And we can only see it through our own lenses, most of the time, meaning that what we see is not necessarily what others see--or what is factual.

I'm sure that my most negative critics thought they were doing the right thing for the church. I know I thought I was doing the right thing. And the truth was somewhere in the middle, because I was a rookie and flying blind some of the time and they'd never had a minister before, so they were also flying blind.

Forgiveness is a hardwon place to get to, but it's worth the struggle in the long run.

Robin Edgar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mile High Pixie said...

Conflict in a congregation must be so hard. I recall our forward-thinking, delightful, energetic pastor being run off by a small but vocal and nasty segment of our congregation. And I would bet that folks don't really think about how it affects the pastor--as if you were immune from stress because you have God on a two-way Nextel walkie-talkie or something. Alas, you're still human and subject to the same stresses and anxieties. I'm with Jarrod Henry: it makes me think about what I bring to others with my stress and worry.

Steve Caldwell said...


I wonder if the problem is we don't establish covenants for adult life in church and when we do they don't have any consequences if one violates covenant.

Youth programming has the "big four" rules and folks who violate these rules are usually held accountable. I've seen youth who could not stop arguing with each over over food preferences (vegan vs. meat) being told that they could not attend district events for several months as a "cooling off" period. This argument had turned vicious and the two youth involved were told they would not be attending district youth cons for a while because their fighting was affecting others.

Youth -- unlike adults -- sign explicit behavoral covenants when they participate in UU communities. They are put on notice that they might be asked to leave if they violate covenant.

I've never seen anything done like this with adults in church. The assumption that everyone has a right to attend a congregation regardless of how they act towards others could be the problem here.

Comrade Kevin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ms. kitty said...

Comrade Kevin, this is really pretty much off-topic, so I'm going to ask you to stay on topic. This isn't a forum for this kind of thing. I'm removing your comment because it diverts the topic pretty seriously.

Comrade Kevin said...

Ms. Kitty, I'm sorry I let my own personal grudges spill out inappropriately. I'm still bitter at what happened to me, and I agree that your blog ought not to be a forum for my discontent.

But in my defense, I am only human. Furthermore, from reading your blog I do believe you would have handled my situation much more responsibly. The past is past and I need to leave it as such.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks for understanding, Kevin, I really appreciate it.

PeaceBang said...

So very upsetting. I'm going to link this over at PeaceBang.

Chalicechick said...

I've never witnessed internal strife in the UU church to that degree, though I'm certain it exists.

Some of the things I saw as a Presbyterian still depress me when I think of them.

This isn't just a UU thing, all faiths put a tremendous amount of pressure on their spiritual leaders.