Helping the Helpers More Counseling Available to Stressed Clergy

Article excerpt

THE REV. Bob Allen traveled to the edge four years ago when his 24-year-old daughter got diagnosed with breast cancer.

The pastor of Florissant Valley Christian Church in Florissant knew he had to be the strong one for everybody, including his congregation. But his brave front gave way late some nights, as he drove home alone or awakened in the middle of the night.

It got worse before it got better: Allen's daughter died in February. But the pastor found help in a support group at a private counseling agency that specializes in treating problems of ministers.

Who ministers to the ministers? More people than ever, and not enough, experts say. About a dozen nondenominational agencies in the St. Louis area counsel clergy. Not long ago there were few.

One of the oldest, Care and Counseling in Creve Coeur, has expanded to eight centers in the area. The interfaith agency treats about 300 ministers and church professionals a year for burnout, depression, alcoholism and improper sexual behavior.

Roman Catholic priests, nuns and brothers receive psychological counseling at two centers operated by or affiliated with the church.

The St. Louis Rabbinical Association operates an informal network of rabbis trained as counselors who give advice to fellow rabbis on a crisis hot line or refer them to professionals.

The Assemblies of God, one of the largest evangelical Christian denominations, recently established a 24-hour telephone hot line for troubled clergy to talk about stress. The callers are assured confidentiality, because many Assemblies of God ministers fear they will lose their jobs if they admit they need counseling. Sign From Minister

The pressures on ministers were underscored last summer, when the Rev. Timothy Brewer committed suicide. The popular pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Clayton had just returned to the pulpit after losing a leg in an accident. He left a note saying there were few places that a depressed inister can go for help without ruining his ministry.

The Rev. Dale Kuhn, a 15-year veteran on the Care and Counseling staff and a Lutheran minister, said parishioners often hold their pastors up to an impossible godlike standard.

The family of a busy, preoccupied pastor can easily feel neglected and depressed and may need therapy as much as the pastor, Kuhn said.

"The pastor feels his call is from God also and that the congregation must come first," he said. "I say the family must come first because the minister who cannot take care of his own family cannot serve others well."

Clergy spouses and children often live in a fishbowl.

"Clergy families can't be normal families," Kuhn said. "The wives must be on all sorts of church committees and submerge their personalities. The children can't be normal kids and step out of line every once in a while. This creates a lot of stress for all. …