Memory eternal: Healer for the healers

Memory eternal: Healer for the healers March 9, 2009

Some of the seminarians in the Bible Belt chapel were shaken when Dr. Louis McBurney described — in gentle, but clear terms — the hurdles and pitfalls that awaited them in their first churches.

“I talked about ministers’ problems and how, sometimes, professional counseling was what was needed,” said the witty physician, whose counseling work was built on his evangelical faith, as well as psychiatric credentials from the Mayo Clinic. “When I was through, the seminary president strode to the microphone to deliver the benediction. He said, ‘Lord, we’re glad that you have called us to be your servants and that all we really need is Jeeee-sussss. Amen.’

“There is still a whole lot of resistance out there to ministers getting help.”

McBurney shared that story in the mid-1980s, a decade after moving to Colorado with his wife, Melissa, to open a private and for years secret facility dedicated to helping ministers save their marriages and careers. I visited the Marble Retreat Center as a journalist, entering with the understanding that patients could remain anonymous and that I wouldn’t publish its exact location. It was crucial, you see, for troubled clergy to be able to tell their flocks that they were spending two weeks taking a break in Colorado — period.

The lodge, in those years, was packed with symbolic details, like the toy owl named “Sigmund.” There was always a fire burning in the stone fireplace in the 12-by-15 foot den that patients simply called “the room upstairs,” even on summer days. The flames consumed dozens of tear-soaked tissues during group-therapy sessions.

McBurney was a true pioneer, serving as a healer for men and women who — as spiritual leaders — struggled to find a haven in which they could face their own sins. The 70-year-old therapist died recently of complications from head injuries suffered in a household accident. He was semi-retired and his work continues at the lodge in the Crystal River Valley, which has worked with 3,600 patients in 36 years. Today, there are nearly 30 centers that do similar therapy for clergy, part of a national network (Caregiversforum.org) that the McBurneys helped create.

“The world has changed and we can be thankful for that,” said Dr. Steve Cappa, who now leads the center with his wife, Patti. “It’s hard for us to explain the kind of religious stigma that surrounded discussions of mental illness when Louis and Melissa began their work, especially if you were talking about trying to help troubled ministers.”

The challenges clergy face are easy to describe, yet hard to master.

* Lay leaders often judge a pastor’s success by two statistics — attendance and the annual budget. Yet powerful, rich members often make the strategic decisions. As a minister once told McBurney: “There’s nothing wrong with my church that wouldn’t be solved by a few well-placed funerals.”

* Perfectionism often leads to isolation and workaholism, with many clergy working between 80 and 90 hours a week.

* Clergy families live in glass houses, facing constant scrutiny about personal issues that other parents and children can keep private.

* Ministers may spend up to half their office hours counseling, which can be risky since most ministers are men and most active church members are women. If a woman bares her soul, and her pastor responds by sharing his own personal pain, the result can be “as destructive and decisive as reaching for a zipper,” McBurney said.

* While most clergy sincerely believe they are “called by God,” they also know they are human and, thus, wrestle with their own fears and doubts. Many ministers have dreams in which they reach their pulpits and discover they are naked.

To be perfectly frank about it, said McBurney, it shouldn’t be hard for traditional believers to understand that Satan tempts ministers in unique and powerful ways.

Yet, in the end, sin is sin and most ministers know it.

“Pastors are used to telling people about right and wrong,” he said. “Knowing what to do is not their problem. They feel a special sense of guilt because they know what God wants them to do, but they can’t do it. …

“It’s hard for ministers to confess their sins, because they’re not supposed to sin. They also struggle to believe that God will forgive them, because they have so much trouble forgiving themselves.”

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