The winter's early darkness had already snuffed out the Montana day when Steve Mathewson arrived at the scene. The split-level house was lit up like a carnival at midnight. The 34-year-old pastor walked between the squad cars and around the white ambulance and up the front porch.
Entering, Steve saw a slight woman in her thirties, her head in her hands, slumped over the breakfast bar. She attended the church he serves. A half-hour earlier, she had come home from work and opened her 13-year-old's bedroom door to find him lying in a puddle of drying blood. After school, Ryan (not his real name) had scrawled a note on the walls of his bedroom in lipstick: "Look on the bright side is suicide." The line was from a song by Nirvana, his favorite rock group, whose lead singer, Kurt Cobain, had apparently shot himself just two years earlier. After a phone call to a friend, the teenager pushed the play button on his tape player, and with Cobain growling in the background, triggered the .357 Magnum pressed against his head.
As Steve approached, the group huddled around the distraught mother drew back. Steve hugged her, pulled up a chair next to her, and then prayed. When he finished, she thanked him, wiped the black mascara streaking from beneath her eyelids, and said, "I guess you've got your work cut out for you, don't you?"
Soon the coroner emerged from the boy's bedroom and wanted to know which funeral home the mother preferred. She said she didn't know any funeral homes. Steve suggested Dokken-Nelson in Bozeman. "I've worked with them before," he said.
Soon the chaplain from the Gallatin County Sheriff's Department showed up with the teenager's father. "I'm so sorry," Steve said to the father. "How are you holding up?"
"I feel completely empty," he said, his ashen face deadpan. Then he tearfully embraced his wife, and the two stumbled into the living room and collapsed on the couch.
Finished in the bedroom, the coroner asked Steve to move the parents from the living room into the dining room; the coroner didn't want the couple to see the yellow body bag as it was carried through the hallway and out the front door. Steve, just over six feet tall, gently asked them to move to the other room and then stood blocking their view.
That evening commenced a week of intense pastoral work: Steve located temporary housing for the couple's other two children. He participated in a crisis counseling team at the local junior high Ryan had attended and met with the boy's former girlfriend. Steve planned the funeral and helped rally his rural Montana congregation to support the shattered family.
"God drops into your lap these moments of a lifetime," says Steve. "You accomplish in the space of a week what might have taken five or ten years to accomplish. As a pastor, I have the privilege of being involved in people's lives at their moment of greatest pain."
These moments of a lifetime are, among other things, what set the job of pastor apart from other professions; in times of birth and death, pastors stand at the door that swings back and forth between time and eternity. This is one reason why the job satisfaction of pastors rivals that of doctors and lawyers. Several recent studies, including one by CHRISTIANITY TODAY, indicate that pastors may be more satisfied with their vocations than other professionals.
Yet if you believed everything currently being pronounced about the state of the pastorate, you would be likely to conclude that pastors like Steve are small islands of pastoral health in a roiling sea of crisis. For example, Promise Keepers' Men of Action newsletter said: "Poll after poll reveals that most pastors are battling isolation, depression, and loneliness. They are so beaten up by ministry . …"
So which is it? Are pastors mostly satisfied with their vocations, or are their vocations beleaguering them?
Big sky house of God
Planted in 1884, Steve's ecclesiastical charge sits beside a flat stretch of rural highway in the Gallatin Valley about 20 minutes northwest of Bozeman. The community of disciples of Dry Creek Bible Church, while all white, are as socially diverse as the pigmented wild flowers that carpet the Montana mountain meadows in May. Dry Creek's growth recently pushed the congregation to two Sunday-morning worship services. The church is filled with professionals, young retirees, working-class poor, and a handful of ranchers. Some attenders commute to church from Bozeman, 20 miles away. Others live on small acreages near the church and commute to Bozeman for work.
Some of the recent growth in the church can be attributed to the population spurt of the Bozeman area. In recent years, many Montana ranchers have been bought out by the nouveau riche from the East and West Coasts. Other newcomers to the valley include disenchanted suburbanites from America's metropolises, mostly from the West Coast, looking for the good life.
Last March, when I arrived on a bitter-winded, sunny afternoon, Steve took me to the Garden Cafe in Manhattan, a small town eight miles west of the church. We entered the cafe and scooted into a cracked, vinyl-covered booth. A middle-aged, aproned waitress, her black hair pulled back low and streaked with gray, approached to take our order. "Oh, hi, Pastor," she said.
"How are you doing, Karly?"
"I try to keep a stiff upper lip," she said. "But it makes my smile crooked."
The previous week police had arrested her teenage son for armed robbery. He allegedly held up a convenience store and was now sitting in a Great Falls county jail awaiting the decision whether he would be tried as an adult. The lines in Karly's face betrayed her grief.
After lunch Steve and I walked across the street to Pathway Systems, a high-tech business that, among other things, manufactures machines that clean disks for computer hard drives. Eric, another Dry Creek Bible attender who is in his midthirties, started the company by engineering the machine's technology.
"I can ride with a rancher on a combine in the morning," says Steve, "and then run home to change clothes for lunch with a banker."
If Dry Creek Bible Church is not paradise for pastoral work, it's just over the next ridge.
Wear and tear
Yet even in paradise, Pastor Steve encounters many of the same challenges of church work as his urban and suburban colleagues. In the spring of 1995, after a particularly grueling stretch of pastoral-care crises, Steve began to battle burnout. What makes pastoral burnout so hard to detect are its unremarkable beginnings. Rarely is there one thing a pastor can point to and say, "On that day, I began feeling burned out." Stuff accumulates.
The autumn prior to Steve's bout with burnout, the part-time youth pastor resigned to attend seminary. That left Steve alone to minister to his congregation of 250. Also that fall, two respected church members brazenly abandoned their spouses, so Steve and the church leaders initiated the delicate and lengthy process of church discipline. Both situations concluded, after much agony and many confidential meetings, with both errant men resigning from the church.
"I worried we might be setting ourselves up for a lawsuit," Steve says. "I worried what some of our new Christians thought. I worried about establishing facts. Some people in the church cautioned, 'Hold back'; others warned, 'The church is not moving fast enough.' Our church had conflict in the past because of the way a church discipline case was handled."
If pastoral-care crises came only one at a time, the pressure of church work might not build. "That's where the pressure comes," Steve said. "People in crisis often shut down the rest of their lives to cope with it, but as a pastor, I can't do that. After a grueling meeting about disciplining a respected church member, I had to come back to the office to make phone calls about other situations. At the same time, in addition to your regular work, you have five or six crises going on. That wears on you."
The complexity of pastoral care is certainly one factor in why pastors today feel overloaded. Many people finding their way to the church today come out of broken homes, sexual- and physical-abuse situations, and addictions. The good news is that they come to church. The bad news is that the church—and its leaders—is often ill-equipped to provide care for such raw needs.
Conflict also contributes to burnout. So much of what tires pastors is the incessant conflict that seems endemic to pastoral leadership. One result is job insecurity. A 1995 national study of clergy conducted by LEADERSHIP journal revealed that almost a quarter of respondents said that at least once in their careers they had either been officially terminated or unofficially forced to resign—conflict taken to its logical conclusion.
There appears to be among some laypeople a weariness with and a growing intolerance of pastoral leadership. Former pastor Don McCullough, president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, says, "American people want leaders, but the moment they get them they feel this compulsion to bring them down."
What complicates matters is that while the office of pastor commands less respect, the people whom pastors are trying to serve are demanding more from the church. That places more demands on its leaders. In The New Reformation, parish consultant Lyle Schaller writes, "The automobile, combined with the erosion of institutional loyalties, has made it easy for millions of churchgoers to switch their congregational affiliation or to become concurrent and regular participants in … two or three congregations."
The new loyalty seems to be need-based. Schaller says, "The new criteria are 'Is it relevant to my own personal spiritual journey?' 'Is it high quality?' and 'Does what the church proclaims and what the church does coincide?' "
In addition, the explosive growth in media in recent years has only compounded expectations of both laypeople and pastors. "With the mass media," says McCullough, "members of the church are able to compare their pastor with the best radio and TV preachers throughout the country. And the pastor compares himself with them as well." Neither the preacher nor the preached-to ends up feeling good about the sermon.
What precipitated Steve's exhaustion, however, was largely the excommunication crises and being understaffed. With no time away from pastoral care or from weekly preaching, working six, occasionally seven, days a week, Steve slowly wore down.
"At first I didn't realize I was burned out," Steve says. "It was a period of feeling unsettled, a sort of letting down. I felt disconnected from people."
An entry from his journal on June 6, 1995, reveals the level of noise inside his head:
The past few days have been a time of intense inward struggle. I shared this with Priscilla [his wife] yesterday. At times I feel intense pressure and even fear. … I feel like pastor to all, friends with a few, and close friend to none. We're praying about the development of a closer relationship as a couple with another couple, preferably with one we already know. The financial pressure, ministry pressure, loneliness of ministry, and our need for friendship seem to have brought me to this place. I hate to feel like I do when "nothing" is wrong. There are no major problems or conflicts. Priscilla and I believe our relationship is solid. I looked to summer as a time of restoration, but it seems to be a time of reeling.
"Looking at my life," Steve says, "I had everything I could ask for: family, a supportive church, a job I loved. I was afraid if I couldn't cope with that, what would I do if I really had a problem?"
Steve knew he was in trouble when the hobbies he loves—fly-fishing, camping, hiking—didn't motivate him anymore. "That's when I realized," he says, "that what I was going through was more than just a bad day." One spring afternoon Steve ended up in overdue tears while working out on his NordicTrak exercise machine. He wondered if he'd ever feel normal again.
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