Clergy Anger & the Urgency of a True Spiritual Life

September 15th, 2013

As I coach pastors, one of the most pervasive issues is clergy anger. Anger, of course, is just one half of the vicious cycle of anger-depression. Clergy are more likely to admit to depression, because admitting anger makes them feel too guilty. Yet admitting depression ... without admitting the root cause of repressed anger ... is a form of dishonesty with self and God and sidetracks clergy into fruitless therapeutic jargon or superficial "fixes". Eventually, failure to acknowledge and address chronic, repressed anger debilitates clergy and they are no longer effective leaders.

For example, clergy often excuse their depression as fatigue or frustration. Their "remedy" is to be more diligent about time off, or to take a sabbatical. Clergy often rant about fickle churchgoers, or blame culture undermining programs. Their "remedy" is to be more caustic in the pulpit, or take cold comfort in explaining failure as some confirmation of faithfulness.

Yet the real cause of clergy depression today is anger—repressed anger—and it is not anger at workloads or lazy volunteers. The proof of this is that even when they do take time off, or even when volunteers do show up for work, or even when programs are successful... clergy are still depressed. Further proof is that heavy workloads and lazy volunteers have always been true in the church, and you can read clergy complaints about it over hundreds of years ... and yet those past clergy who probably labored harder and experienced more frustration that we do were happier and felt more fulfillment than clergy today.

The Root Cause of Clergy Anger

The reason many clergy are depressed is that they are angry. And the reason that they are angry is that they are consistently victimized by dysfunctional bullies who wield power inside the church. Victimization is about emotional, physical, and moral abuse. In the current collapse of Christendom (when many healthy Christian members have died, retired, or given up), the vacuum has been filled by dysfunctional and fundamentally self-centered individuals who intimidate, manipulate, and denigrate in order to shape the church around their personal aesthetic tastes, political viewpoints, amoral biases, and petty ambitions.

Clergy are particularly vulnerable in these decades of decline, because the financial security and health of their families are hanging by a thread; and their reputation in the world is already smudged and prejudiced; the cross-sector colleagues who once defended them are gone; and the denominational bodies that once protected them are understaffed and in disarray. So it is really quite easy to victimize clergy from within the congregation.

Of course we know that the real harm of victimization is not the mental, emotional, physical, or moral abuse itself. The real harm is that abusive, intimidating church insiders do what every bully does: they rob the pastor of his or her self-esteem. Often the pastor doesn't even know they have been robbed! If they do, and complain, people refuse to believe it, do not understand it, or lack the courage to defend the pastor against bullies!

Most pastors are inherently "nice people". Abusers take advantage of them, and they take it. They may even think that this is a sign of humility and faithfulness to the Lord. Yet in fact, these abusers are consistently, chronically, and systematically stripping the clergy of every ounce of self-esteem they once had when they first responded to God's call. Such victimization is exactly the same, and with the same result, as systematic spousal abuse, child abuse, racial profiling, and other forms of assault. And like these other forms of assault, it usually goes unnoticed, unreported, and unacknowledged.

Church boards pretend it doesn't happen and denominational bodies are timid and tepid in their support. They fear to jeopardize financial support of the church. More profoundly, they fear that if the veneer of pretended "harmony" were broken, people might leave the church. Still more profoundly, they fear to draw the attention of the bullies themselves for fear that they, too, might be beaten up.

So clergy do what so many victims do. They repress it. They deny it. They keep their anger and rage bottled up inside. They get more and more depressed. If a good friend told them that they seemed really angry, they probably would deny it. Just as a wife, beaten by her husband, uses makeup to hide the bruises; so also the clergy, beaten by one or two intimidating, denigrating members of the church, use vestments, pious words, and workaholism to hide their "shame". And this is the great cruelty of all victimization: that the victim is the one who is forced to feel shame!

Many clergy today are becoming aware of the abiding anger or rage that is within them. It troubles them deeply. They often feel that this constant anger (visible as depression) is unique to them, without realizing that this in fact is a huge contemporary problem that besets many, many clergy.

The Remedy of Spiritual Life

It is certainly true that church boards need to step up, take courage, and defend their pastors against such victimization. So also, denominations need to defend their clergy, rather than abet their victimization by protecting a sham of church "harmony" that is not real. Society is increasingly aware, and social services, school boards, health care centers, and the police are stepping up to defend and protect children and adults, women and men, from such abuse. Churches need to do the same for clergy, or they will see more and more clergy quitting the church, resorting to disability pensions, and even encouraging younger generations not to follow a calling into the church for their own safety.

The real remedy for clergy anger, however, must go deeper than that. A woman, child, immigrant, or any other vulnerable person who has been victimized will appreciate sensitivity and support that defends their rights, but the anguish, hurt, and loss of self-esteem is not so easy to repair. Their anger can continue to overshadow their lives. So also, clergy anger looms over their lives long after the abuse is over. Abusers cast a long shadow, and the memory is carried by clergy from church to church, and appointment to appointment, and can spoil their lives, and gradually reduce their own effectiveness as God's instruments.

It is remarkable how many clergy I have mentored at some point ask: How can I get over my anger? Sometimes they cannot even remember exactly who they are angry at, or what their anger is about, because the people and circumstances trail far into their past careers in different churches and ministries. It is accumulated anger that feeds on chronically low self-esteem.

The solution is the Spiritual Life. The more diligently and deeply a pastor delves into the Spiritual Life, the less the anger becomes, and the more self-esteem returns. Similarly, there is a direct connection between the lack of Spiritual Life, the perpetuation of low self-esteem, and the increase of anger.

What exactly does Spiritual Life do for the pastor who wishes to overcome chronic anger and low self-esteem?

First, the Spiritual Life encourages emotional detachment. The more the Christian turns attention away from the world and toward God alone, the more the Christian lets go of emotional entanglements that strangle his or her life.

Do you remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoons that included the little Martian invader? A favorite joke in the cartoon was to first project a huge, imposing shadow of the horrible Martian with his military helmet and space gun ... and then pan backwards to reveal that the actual Martian was just a little pipsqueak with a popgun. That is what Spiritual Life does for the Christian. Compared to God, and in the light of God's grace, the shadow that has been cast over the clergy's soul is reduced, shrunk down to size, and put in perspective. Now the clergy can look back at the bullies and denigrators who robbed them of self-esteem and not even give them power to elicit anger anymore. In God's companionship, those bullies are rendered into pipsqueaks with popguns.

Second, the Spiritual Life fills you with a new and different pride. This is not human pride, a false pride that clergy sometimes try to create for themselves with advanced degrees, pompous words, or the trappings of institutional success. This is pride in being loved by God. It is the pride that comes of being nothing, and by the grace of God being given everything. Your self-esteem rises because you are God's. Accepted by God, you can accept yourself.

Do you remember the old song? There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole; there's power enough in heaven, to cure the sin-sick soul. Modern Christendom critics tend to dismiss the song, misinterpreting it to be just a dogmatic or moralistic verse. Yet its real roots in African-American slavery days before the Civil War suggest a deeper intention. This is about chronic loss of self-esteem through slavery, and in this context it is slavery to clergy abusers whose shadows continue to dominate the emotions of clergy long after the "liberation" of any court of the church.

The Spiritual Life is not a magic pill that will remove clergy anger after a short treatment. It is not even a psychotherapy that restores health in a prescribed regimen. I'm afraid that the harm of victimization will take a lifetime to overcome. Once robbed, self-esteem is difficult to rebuild. The Spiritual Life is a lifetime commitment. But gradually, yes, the chronic anger will lessen and self-esteem will be restored. Then clergy who have been beaten up can again become healthy, happy, hopeful instruments of God's realm.

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