Forced termination, depression top calls to LeaderCare helpline

by Terri Lackey, posted Monday, May 13, 2002 (20 years ago)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--When Barney Self gets a call in the middle of the night, his heart doesn't thump out of his chest. He figures it's a distressed pastor, and he knows he must remain calm.

"When a person actually picks up the phone and calls the 1-888 help line number, he or she has exhausted all the other resources out there," said Self, a licensed family and marriage therapist and LeaderCare counselor for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

LeaderCare, a ministry to ministers and their families, is designed to provide personal development resources as well as crisis prevention, intervention and restoration resources. Among the services it offers is a 911-type helpline, 1-888-789-1911, for ministers and their families.

Many of the calls Self gets are from pastors who have been forcibly terminated.

"But I get calls from pastors' wives, education ministers, deacons from time to time, even support staff people at church who have to deal with autocratic leaders," he said. "I get calls from all manner of church staff people."

And, Self, who is on 24-hour call, said he answers each of them.

"I don't miss a call. When we go out shopping, I take the cell phone with us. I've stood in department stores returning phone calls to hurting pastors."

In the eight-month period from September through April, 383 people have called LifeWay's helpline asking for some kind of mental relief. Of the calls, 65 were from pastors who were forced out of their jobs; 101 were from people suffering from depression; 98 wanted more information about LifeWay's Wounded Ministers Retreat; 62 had marital problems; 22 had addiction issues; and 35 had some other type of conflict within the church.

By far, Self said, pastors who have been forced out of their positions are among the most traumatic cases he hears.

"It's just awful" when a pastor is forced out of his job and "encounters massive amounts of trauma," Self said. "[T]hey don't just lose a job like you or I would. They don't just lose their ministries; they lose their house, their church, their friends. Often their families are uprooted."

Even in the best situations, when they are treated well by state convention officials and find another job in a short amount of time, "they get the reject stamp right on their forehead, and it doesn't wash off easily. There is a negative component to being forcibly terminated."

In the worse circumstances, Self said the move is life-altering "in the negative sense that causes people to go into all manner of traumatic outcomes that includes physical problems as a result of massive amounts of stress. Some people leave the ministry. Some leave by taking their own lives."

Self said pastors are terminated for many reasons, including affairs, embezzlement, mishandling of church resources, mishandling of their own lives that keeps them from functioning effectively as a minister and personality conflicts.

And many deserve to be fired, he acknowledged.

"But even if church members conclude they can't live with their pastor, they still need to be redemptive," Self said. "There are some vindictive churches out there who will pollute the pastor's chances of getting another church by sending messages or letters to the church. There's no place in Scripture for that."

In fact, if a church body is to heal from the wounds of forcing out their pastor, forgiveness and redemption are part of that process, Self said.

"Healing comes from being able to get along, so that calling the next minister becomes a part of the healing. A church has to be a safe place for worship to take place unfettered."

Self said when a pastor calls him, the best he can do "is hear their pain. I hear their trauma and concern, and I respond by validating their pain is real."

He also lets them know they don't deserve the level of trauma they are experiencing. "They may deserve some punishment, but not this level of gut-wrenching trauma they have encountered, especially when there has been an equally inappropriate response by the church body to be vengeful and hurtful."

Self's biggest task, he said, is to get the pastor to forgive himself.

"I think if they forgive themselves, it honors God. When we ask God for forgiveness, we get it. Bang. It's a done deal for him. But for us, it's a process. There is no place for condemnation. God doesn't do it."

A minister's wife, Self noted, does not escape the situation of forced termination unscathed either.

"We've discovered the wives of ministers are very often wounded more deeply than the ministers," he said, in a large part because the pastor can often talk about his situation with somebody he knows, like other ministers, directors of missions or a state minister relations person.

"But the wife can't talk to anybody. She can't talk to her friends because her friends are still at church; she can't talk to her co-workers because if they are not a part of her church, she doesn't want to throw rocks at her church."

Wives want to protect their husbands and the churches, or maybe she doesn't want to risk losing a severance package, Self said. "What if the word gets back the pastor's wife has drug the church through the briar patch?

"So she's stuck. She can't talk to her husband because he's flat-out overwhelmed already and she sees him about ready to crash and burn. So she puts a cork in the bottle and life shakes it vigorously."

Self suggests couples like this take advantage of LifeWay's Wounded Ministers Retreats, which are designed to assist hurting and discouraged ministers and spouses in a safe and confidential environment.

Depression is also a huge problem among ministers and church staff people, Self noted. Because about 30 percent of the calls he receives are from people who are clinically depressed, Self must convince them depression is not a manmade malady, but a clinical illness.

"People associate depression as spiritual and moral failure. And while it might be driven by a sinful state, it often has nothing to do with sin at all," Self said. In fact, he said, it is often caused by severe stress that results in a breakdown of production of serotonin in the brain.

But because very religious people cannot admit to depression, they don't believe in medication for it, he said.

"They see medication treatment as being the world's answer to a spiritual problem."

And while it is "the number one malady" among church staffers, he said, "they often don't have a clue they are depressed. So it is my job to tell them, then give them options for treatment that would minimize their trauma as quickly as possible."

Some signs of depression, Self said, include:

1. Patterns of disrupted sleep. "Either wanting to sleep all the time or not getting a good night's sleep."

2. Weight loss or gain of 10 pounds within a month. "People use food to deal with depression and they gain weight or they look at food and they aren't hungry."

3. Inability to concentrate. "You read a chapter of book, but if somebody gave you a test, you couldn't say why you just read."

4. Crying spells. "These symptoms aren't gender-specific. In fact, this can be worse for men who have John Wayne mentalities and think they should be able to handle it."

5. Lethargy. "You know you have something to do, but you just can't get it done."

6. Hopelessness. "You feel doomed."

7. Pervasive sadness. "This is when you feel really, overwhelmingly sad, down, negative and morose."

8. Inability to enjoy usual activities, including hobbies, fun activities and intimacy with a spouse.

"When any or a combination of these signs crop up, a person needs to be in a conversation with his physician first. And then a combination of therapy and medication works best," Self said.

When seeking out help from a therapist, Self suggested using two key questions.

1. Is what I am dealing with within the scope of your practice? "Psychologists and therapists have an ethical mandate to tell you whether they have experience counseling people with specific types of problems, such as drug and alcohol or sexual abuse."

2. How do you integrate psychology and theology? "What you want to hear is some response that says Scripture is the final answer. The best psychology book I've ever read is Scripture, and I've read enough psychology books to fill up your office. Everything should be filtered through Scripture."

(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at Photo title: LEADERCARE COUNSELOR.

Download Story