On Sunday, the congregation at Myers Park Baptist Church heard about the Three Kings, sang The First Noel, shared the bread of communion, and prayed for those absent members in need of healing.
Including their pastor.
The Rev. Steve Shoemaker, a high-profile Charlotte preacher who has led the 2,200-member church for 13 years, recently entered a 30-day treatment center in Maryland.
In a Dec. 28 letter to his flock, Shoemaker mentioned years of struggling with depression and anxiety as well as his recent self-medication with alcohol. Last year, he was divorced from his wife, Cherrie.
Im physically, psychologically and spiritually depleted, he wrote in the letter, and must get help.
Though many of the details of his particular case remain private, Shoemakers decision to take a medical leave appears to shed a spotlight on clergy burnout, which is partly responsible for up to 1,500 pastors per month leaving their jobs.
Among the stresses: long hours, too little time with family, delayed or interrupted vacations, nonstop counseling of people in crisis, and pressure to have the perfect family.
If youre a good pastor, youre never off, said the Rev. Jody Seymour, pastor of Davidson United Methodist Church and author of A Time for Healing: Overcoming the Perils of Ministry. If youre on vacation and somebody dies, you have to come back.
Increasingly, the costs of such stress can lead to drug and alcohol abuse, family breakups, and less passion for their vocation.
The problem is so widespread, theres a website PastorBurnout.com that posts statistics on the problem. Including this one: 45 percent of pastors in one survey said theyve experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from their ministry.
Shoemaker, who is expected to return to Myers Park Baptist in February, spoke to the churchs members again Sunday via a letter he sent from the treatment center to the Rev. Robin Coira, the churchs executive minister.
She read one line of it aloud: I am where I need to be.
Not all congregations support ministers who check out to get well, said Maria Hanlin, executive director of Mecklenburg Ministries: When clergy make human mistakes, too often they are not given the grace they give to other people.
But it was clear before and after Sundays service that members at Myers Park Baptist, a liberal church affiliated with the American Baptist Association, were committed to what Hanlin called pastoring their pastor.
George Campbell, a 20-year member who retired from Bank of America, saluted Shoemaker for the bravery it took to ask for help.
I wish I could put my arms around him now and give him a big hug, Campbell said.
Beth Resler Walters, a 34-year member who read the Gospel about the Three Kings, said she and others in the congregation also recognize how tough it can be to shepherd a growing church with so many members.
This church can be very demanding on a senior minister. It can become a 24/7 job. Even if you love the church, where do you set boundaries? she said. Im glad hes getting this absolute break. I think people here have the heart for Steve that he has for other people. And I hope this (support for Shoemaker) can be a model for other churches, that the care needs to go two ways.
A center offers help
Clergy burnout is not new. And especially in recent years, various groups including denominations, universities and various centers and institutes have tried to come to the rescue.
North Carolina is in the forefront of that move.
Since it opened 10 years ago, the Davidson Centre for the Professions has worked with more than 500 clergy from around the world who needed renewal often after overwhelming stress. (The center started out working with clergy but has expanded to include lawyers and doctors).
The center, in downtown Davidson, offers counseling, life coaching, spiritual direction, fitness assessments and small-group sessions for clergy with a wide variety of challenges: military chaplains coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, ministers who have worked through natural and man-made disasters a minister whose church was swept away by Hurricane Sandy is due to arrive soon and clergy going through everything from the loss of a job to separation from a spouse.
Like those in other helping professions, clergy tend to overwork.
Theres no fine line between who you are and what you do youre always on, youre never not a minister, said the Rev. George Jacobs, a Presbyterian ministry who directs the Davidson center.
Elsewhere in North Carolina, the Duke (University) Clergy Health Initiative offers programs for United Methodist ministers in the state.
Sabbaticals more common
The Rev. Bill Leonard, a former Wake Forest Divinity School dean who filled in for Shoemaker on Sunday, said hes also seen other changes in recent decades: More churches now have sabbatical policies that let clergy catch their breath by going away for three to six months. And seminaries are warning young ministers early on that they need to tend to self-care.
This clergy care, Leonard said, amounts to finding space to be with family, to be with themselves, to cultivate some of their own hobbies and habits as well as looking after other folks.
Davidson United Methodist pastor Seymour, who is active at the Davidson program and has long worked with fellow clergy who need help, said ministers also need to remember to tend to their own spiritual and human needs.
My favorite expression, he said he tells ministers who work so hard for others that they neglect themselves, is: You can get awfully thirsty giving other people water.