published Saturday, March 16th, 2013

Pastor burnout: Conference hopes to stop vicious circle

Gordon and Gail McDonald help pastors and their wives cope with the pressures of the pulpit.
Gordon and Gail McDonald help pastors and their wives cope with the pressures of the pulpit.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

* What: "A Night With Gail MacDonald" and "What's Holding You Back?"

* When: 6 p.m. Monday for "A Night with Gail MacDonald"; 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday for "What's Holding You Back?"

* Where: Brainerd Crossroads (BX), 4011 Austin St.

* How much: $49 for both events; or $15 for "A Night With Gail MacDonald."

* Reservations: Call Patti Harris at 266-5257 or visit www.holdingback.org; reservations must be made by Monday.

All too often, Gordon MacDonald says, pastors find themselves in a vicious circle.

Called to bring spiritual and psychological energy to a church, he says, they offer an open door -- virtually a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week service.

When that service is used, abused, then used some more, MacDonald says, pastors lose their ability to manage their time well, lose touch with the most important relationships in their life and lose the understanding of the need for self-refreshment.

Ultimately, they have no spiritual and psychological energy to offer a church.

"The nature of most pastors," he says, "is to put everybody else's feelings first. They feel that's their call and their job. Pastors get out of the habit of listening to themselves."

That's what MacDonald hopes to tell pastors and their wives on Monday and Tuesday with "What's Holding You Back?," a conference sponsored The Generosity Trust and Living Free, two

nonprofit organizations with close ties to local pastors and churches.

On Monday night, his wife, Gail, will host "A Night with Gail MacDonald," a dinner event geared for pastors' wives.

Patti Harris, training director at The Generosity Trust, says prayers with several pastors at an event last fall convinced her of the need for an event to help pastors struggling with the pressures and challenges of day-to-day ministry and family.

The prayers, she says, gave her a sense of the "heaviness of pastors and their needs. I also visit pastors daily, and I see that they're often tired and worn out and weary."

MacDonald says pastors often let things go too far, reach burnout and ultimately leave the ministry. Some of that comes from the inability to measure results in a nonprofit organization such as a church, he says.

"In a church, you have very few metrics," he says. "You don't have a bottom line. He or she is never sure they have done enough. So they feel they have to do more and more and more. People get used to more and more and more."

Eventually, the ministry "loses its romance, its idealism."

Churches can be proactive about the problem if the members of their governing bodies understand the need for time off for their pastors, he says.

"They need to take time off to rest, play and laugh," he says. "If [the ruling bodies] don't see that," the pastors "are at the mercy of anybody who wants to take a shot."

But keeping themselves level and energized is also up to the pastors, MacDonald said.

"A pastor has to define his or her core of [private] life," he says. "In your private core, are your commitments to God, to your call and what your character should be? You also have to constantly manage your most personal relationships -- with your spouse, your immediate family, your intimate friends."

Pastors' spouses have a similar responsibility to manage their private and public lives, MacDonald says. If they have a tendency to do everything everybody wants them to, they will be miserable, he says. If they learn to be disciplined, he says, they can enjoy the exciting lives that pastoral families often have.

"The job of a pastor is to discover what is the truly Christian life," MacDonald says, "and model what that Christian life is about. The problem is it's impossible to live a perfect life. You're always pursuing" perfection, but "you have growing room no matter what decade of life you're in."

Harris says MacDonald "blew us away" with his depth and his humility at a Generosity Trust conference last year. He can offer ways for pastors to protect themselves from the stress and pressures of their job as well as their personal conflicts, she says.

A pastor for more than 40 years, he and his wife have experienced the joys and difficulties of being a pastoral couple, she says, and come out the other side.

"Anything any of these pastors may be dealing with, he's dealt with," Harris says.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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