Monday, November 23, 2009

Pastoral Stress

As multiple deployments of military personnel continue to Iraq and Afghanistan, more and more reports filter back concerning the rise of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in our troops. It stands to reason that these men and woman cannot receive repeated trauma and not react both physically and emotionally. It all builds up over time.

Given the title of this blog article I do not want to insinuate that much of the normal stress endured by pastors is comparable to the overwhelming stress of a battle environment. My point, however, does concern a difference between normal working stress and the kind of stress that is serious enough to eventually result in physical and emotional harm. With training in CISM I recognize that sometimes 'critical incidents' - incidents that are more intense than normal - can and will be life-changing and personally destructive if ignored and left unattended.

Many outside of the immediate working of the pastoral ministry probably do not realize the potential for such stress in the life of their shepherd. They may marvel at times how he seems to deal with death so professionally, or navigate congregational conflict with such calm, that they believe he is untouched by the events themselves. But he isn't. He may be able to distance himself emotionally from the event at the time, allowing an emotional 'buffer' so that he can function. However, back in the quiet of his home or office with time to process the events, he may begin to eventually feel the accumulated burden of what he has carried.

One area that exacts so much toll on pastors, yet is probably too often ignored, is inner church conflict. Unlike the parishoner who blows up at a meeting or storms out of your office, pastors, by and large, do not feel the luxury of allowing themselves to lose control. Instead, they absorb the energy of the anger and frustration, attempting to patiently listen and empathize, yet all the while the intensity within begins to reach dangerous levels. Yet all that we know about stress tells us that the worst possible thing to do is to internalize it. For when we do this, it will express itself elsewhere, usually in inappropriate or hurtful ways. Do we wonder why the marriages of pastors too often suffer the same fate as those in the rest of the community? One might pause to look at what unresolved stressors are affecting his and his family's life.

The pastor's family often absorbs the stress of the parish right along with the pastor. They, too, feel limited in how they can express their own frustration and anger. Living in the 'glass bowl' of the parsonage they feel on regular display, many observing how they will deal with their lives. It is a mixed blessing to be in such a position. On the one hand one has the opportunity to model Christian behavior to those who need to see how one can live our Christ in their family and community. On the other hand pastors and their families are also quite human and have the same emotional needs as others. Finding appropriate venues to express these remains an ongoing challenge.

Pastors know that in accepting the mantle of their office they accept the burden of their calling as well. By and far they are no given to 'whining' or complaining about the weight they carry. In fact, most, like traumatized veterans returning home, will even go to great lengths to avoid talking about it. So many others need their listening ear and understanding presence. How can they be so selfish as to burden others? Furthermore, their churches need their steady leadership in the midst of the tumultuous storms of parish life. Someone has to be calm when others are losing their cool.

Yet stress is stress, and untreated will harm the person enduring it. Much over the years has been written about pastoral burnout, but one wonders if much has been done to address the underlying causes. It's not just from being too busy, although overwork will take its toll in time. The problem is that buried frustration, fear, and anger. That is the hidden culprit. Hopefully most pastors have opportunities at winkels to 'vent' and receive brotherly encouragement. My guess is that many do not. But to let these emotional ghosts drift unseen is to welcome eventual breakdown. I am encouraged to hear of some who are addressing these matters, not least of which is DOXOLOGY. May many more pastors be able to take advantage of these opportunities to release and heal. The church depends on it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Can You Speak of the Church without the Threefold Order?


Having just taught a Bible class last night on the structure and teaching of the Catholic Church, I took a moment this morning to go over to the blog of Daniel Woodring, former LCMS pastor now turned Roman Catholic. His latest post concerns information about the clerical structure of the church as indicated by church father Ignatius of Antioch. The good father, in referencing the typical order of bishop-presbyter/priest-deacon claimed that "Without these three orders you cannot begin to speak of a church." Mr. Woodring (I assume he is no longer in the "orders" of which he writes) notes that if Ignatius was wrong, it is quite surprising, given his relationship to the apostolic church and his status, that no one corrected him. He then says: "You may reject the threefold office, but you cannot avoid the question, 'Why didn't the early Church reject it?'"

I am well aware that for the Catholic church the outward structure defines and identifies what is considered legitimately "church" (as opposed to the biblical Lutheran view that the church is identified by the "marks" of Word and Sacrament.) In fact, the RC church goes a step further in claiming that without the pope there is no legitimate church. I suspect that Ignatius, writing in the second century, didn't anticipate that, although the RC church no doubt simply puts the pope in the "first order" of bishop. To be truthful, however, the pope is an order unto himself. He may sometimes be referred to as a 'first among equals,' but in practice I fail to see the equality.

Still, what are we, as Lutherans, to do with Ignatius' claim and Woodring's challenge? Does the Lutheran church truly "reject" this order? No, we do not. Luther was more than willing to live with the entire ordered structure of the late Medieval church if only the bishops would be the pastors they were supposed to be, instead of political leaders into which they had evolved.

The historical reasons for our current structure in the LCMS are a bit complex and beyond this brief post. However, in many ways we have retained the structure, even if we do not always use the exact titles. Is it right to read the current RC structure as it exists today back into Ignatius? I would think not. The Lutheran church recognizes Ignatius' concerns in that it has always claimed that you cannot talk of the church without the public office of the ministry (contrary to some claims within the Lutheran church notwithstanding.) It has always acknowledged the order of laity and called servants of the Word. And as Woodring rightly admits, the terminology in the New Testament is 'fluid.' A careful read of St. Paul will reveal that there is anything but a rigid and set definition of the terms then employed in the sense that the RC church now insists. Lutherans, for example, recognize that "bishops" are synonymous with "presbyters." In Christian freedom (and that is the operative word - freedom!) we are permitted, as need arises, to order the church with increasingly complex structures, or to remain as simple as a little rural church requires. I cannot see in Paul any insistence on the exact structure now seen in the RC church (And we haven't even dealt with matters such as archbishops and cardinals.) Furthermore, in fairness to Ignatius I suspect he did not visualize the complex ecclesiastical bureaucracy that has now emerged claiming apostolic legitimacy.

For the record, I, as a Lutheran, do not "reject" this structure. I also believe that I can remain true to Ignatius' concerns in the current order we now observe, where the true office of bishop - a churchly office of Word and Sacrament ministry - is mandated within each parish, along with the other supportive structures as well which carry on the time-honored duties we associate with the deaconate office.