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Burnout at the pulpit: Natural disasters take a toll on clergy

Photo by Rachelle Klemme The Rev. John Husband was one of the clergy members attending a long-term recovery dinner at Harvest Thyme Bistro on Dec. 7.

The local pastors joke about holiday traditions like lutefisk, lefse and "A Prairie Home Companion." It is a time to unwind and take a break from tornado relief, which usually happens when they get together. Harvest Thyme Bistro hosted a Long Term Recovery Committee appreciation dinner on Dec. 7. They come from all walks of life, but many of their members are clergy. And if statistics from the 1997 Grand Forks flood repeat themselves, most of the clergy will be gone by summertime.

Several church leaders have already moved on.

The Rev. Del Moen, chairman of the Long Term Recovery Committee, said that clergy have left for a variety of reasons, not just the tornado, and that some turnover is normal.

"If I was going to look at all of the churches in town all at once, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, it seems like there's always at least one pastor that has left and another one allowed to arrive," Moen said.

This year, however, three pastors in Wadena, one in Sebeka and one in New York Mills have left.

Nancy Beers of Lutheran Disaster Relief had talked to clergy about the importance of self-care when dealing with the extra workload that comes with dealing with a disaster.

"She cited the 1997 flood in Grand Forks. Most of the clergy in that community were gone within a year," Moen said.

Moen said he felt near burnout in the process of cleaning up after the tornado during the summer. The physical work was not that hard, and he got to go home to an intact house, but just being around the chaos and mess made him tired more quickly.

"It was easy to get affected," he said.

Moen said that signs of burnout might include feeling numb and unaware of surroundings, not caring any more, having a hard time getting out of bed and having a hard time planning for the future.

"I even hate to talk about that because the stress of the clergy is the same kind of stress that anybody that's been hit by the tornado is suffering from, regardless. They have all their issues they have to deal with," Moen said.

Moen said that part of clergy's job is to help people recover.

"The pastors in town have done a good job in that. They've been very sensitive to people's needs," he said.

The personalities and responsibilities

The Rev. Rob Nelson, formerly of Immanuel Lutheran Church, is one of five pastors who left. He was the chair of the Long Term Recovery Committee from its inception until October, when he turned it over to Moen, and resigned from his church effective Nov. 15.

"I was just overwhelmed and needed a break," he said. "I'm just taking a leisurely pace, enjoying Advent, looking forward to Christmas and spending time with my family."

He is working with the synod for a new call for the new year.

He said he became exhausted from a combination of things -- the size of the church and also the tornado.

"When a disaster happens, you're called to do many things, and you still have your own responsibilities with your own congregation," he said.

"It was just too busy, so I didn't do good self-care, so that's what I'm trying to do now," Nelson said.

Nelson said he had no experience with natural disasters in a church community prior to June 17.

The pastors still in town have a lot on their plate.

Aside from the Long-Term Recovery Committee, Moen has a three point parish: Messiah Lutheran Church in Wadena, Balsamlund Lutheran Church in Aldrich and Elmo Lutheran Church in rural Parkers Prairie. He is a fixture in Wadena, having been here since 1993.

Moen also said that pastors of the large congregations -- like St. Ann's Catholic Church and Immanuel Lutheran Church -- probably had the most stress.

St. Ann's has the largest congregation of the Wadena churches, and many parishioners were affected from having homes totaled to partial damage to business or property affected.

The Rev. Don Wagner decided to be involved in the Long Term Recovery Committee and had the aftermath of two tornadoes to deal with in two parishes: both St. Ann's and St. John the Baptist Church in Bluffton.

"I haven't experienced, in any of my other assignments, a tragedy to this degree," he said. "It wasn't just here, Wadena's tornado. It was also the parishioners from my St. John the Baptist parish in Bluffton that lost entire farmsteads."

Wagner said that, like anyone else in the Wadena area, his life routine was interrupted significantly by the tornado.

"And the counseling has increased," he said.

Christie Meier is an associate in ministry at Immanuel Lutheran Church, where she has been for 18 years, and serves on the Long Term Recovery Committee.

She also ran Camp Noah, which besides another responsibility was a healing process for her.

"A lot of the adult mentors said the same thing too. They just gained so much out of that also," she said.

The Rev. Shirley Nelson, pastor of Wadena United Methodist Church and the secretary of the Long-Term Recovery Committee, has experienced her vocation being busier since the tornado as well.

She is also a trained disaster responder.

June 17 was not Shirley Nelson's first tornado. She lived in Fridley when the tornadoes struck in May 1965, destroying her mother-in-law's home.

"I've had a lot of experience with disaster response," she said. She has also been to Austin, Minn. and southwest Minnesota for flooding, and went to Louisiana twice after Hurricane Katrina.

She said the pastor's role in a natural disaster involves spiritual, emotional and sometimes physical needs.

In the immediate aftermath of the tornado, the Methodist church housed displaced Wadena residents overnight, and people in her congregation had lost homes and had homes damaged.

"People need to tell that story over and over until they can adjust to a 'new normal'," she said.

St. John Lutheran Church in southwest Wadena had a unique experience as the only church building to take heavy damage from the tornado.

The Rev. Stephen Meltzer was not in Wadena very long before the tornado, having been a pastor since June 2009 and ordained and installed March 2010.

The irony is that pastoral burnout was the subject of his dissertation.

He also survived a tornado before entering ministry.

"My wife and I and our family, we also went through a tornado in Big Lake and did lose most of the trees in our yard and roof and car ports and boats and windows and stuff, so we had experienced this before," he said. "Looking back, I am able to see how God used my experience that time, to help me be able to help others this time -- to assure them that when everything is said and done, often times it's better than it was before."

Even so, he said, it is always a shock and does not get any easier seeing how people's lives are affected. He receives communications from the Long-Term Recovery Committee even though he is not one of the active members.

"People's needs are increased during times of tragedy, but it wasn't any more burden on me than it was before," he said.

He said that virtually all parishioners were affected - some had houses totaled or a range of damage, while others were taking in people who were displaced.

The Rev. John Husband of St. Helen's Episcopal Church was on vacation in Canada during the tornado. Because of a relationship with another parish, he first heard about it through a Sussex phone call about Wadena being shown on BBC, and that English parish asked if they could help.

Husband has been involved with Long Term Recovery and other committees, looking forward to green buildings and being involved with the architectural committee for the new community center.

He said that while some clergy have had particular stress, his own role is dealing with the future and rebuilding, so it is less stressful and more healing and rewarding.

He compared the state of Wadena to the Mayo Clinic, which was started after a tornado in the 1890s.

"In every tragedy, grace can come out of it. That's not to minimize the pain or the suffering or the wear and tear, but on the other side of the sphere there's always hope," he said.

Husband said that a spiritual needs committee is in the process of being formed.

Husband said that none of his parishioners had damaged houses or farms. But like the general population, they worked with cleanup in harrowing circumstances.

"Everybody knew somebody who had been devastated," Husband said.

Shock and hero mode, then reality sets in

"Those in Minnesota that we talked to, the clergy always took a lead role," Rob Nelson said. "Tornado, flood, fire, whatever it might be. So the clergy have always been front and center."

Life for St. John Lutheran and Meltzer was busy immediately after the tornado, as the church still had a service the Sunday after the tornado.

"As a nation, we've seen what happens whenever there is a national disaster or tragedy like 9/11," he said. "When something really bad happens ... people need someplace to go to have questions answered, and that's what church is."

"For God's people, the church is an emergency operating center," Meltzer said, adding that the needs include both spiritual community and practical necessities.

Wagner said that one of the main roles of clergy is being a listening ear -- a role that he emphasized is not limited to clergy.

"We first learn to give them permission to talk, to tell their story," he said, adding that allowing people to process their devastation rather than giving pat answers was important.

"I did not experience the devastation of property, my living quarters," he said. "I can't say I know exactly how you're feeling, because I don't."

Meier said that the first part of tornado recovery is a "shock" or "hero" mode, and months later, there is a realization that things will never be the same - "the new normal."

"As we approach this first Christmas ... people can't decorate the tree with the ornaments they always have," she said. "What had been their family traditions are not going to be as they have been. That they have to create something new."

Husband said that the hospital, social workers and Neighborhood Counseling Center have also taken on something of a pastoral load, and neighbors can help each other in pastoral care.

Avoiding burnout

Wagner said that in order to avoid burnout, it is imperative to retain boundaries. He said he takes Mondays off to see family, connect with other priests and take time for recreation like hunting or fishing.

Wagner said before the tornado, theologian Susan Motl talked about keeping one's reservoir full, advice he kept in mind after June 17.

"I went to a summer institute for priests and she spoke about that. Be sure that you continue to refill the reservoir," he said. "Time for family, time for prayer, time to be with your brother priests."

Wagner said that getting support from other priests, the Diocese of St. Cloud and Bishop Kinney has helped him since June 17. The ministerial association gives clergy an opportunity to share with each other as well, he said.

Moen said that Faith Lutheran Church in Staples had helped by having the Rev. Dean Floistad cover his pulpit every other month for one Sunday through May free of charge to the parish so he can get away.

Moen said he learned the value of taking his day off and taking vacations and that the recovery committee was talking about offering an opportunity for the area clergy to get away on a quarterly basis and do something relaxing like fishing or golf.

Meier also said that the tornado aftermath was exhausting and she sometimes needs to pull back and do self-care.

"Which I'm not very good at, but I'm learning," she said. "I also learn to rely on people."

Self-care for her involves the ability to put everything aside momentarily, exercise and listening to music.

Meltzer said that having active laity helped.

"I had a lot of different members that stepped forward," he said.

Refresh yourself

Six months after the tornado, the Wadena area clergy have experience behind them and advice for those who might in the future find themselves in a pastoral role during a catastrophe -- and the risk of burnout.

"The biggest thing is you need to have an active presence when there is a natural disaster, but you also have to practice self-care," Rob Nelson said.

Meltzer said that he would give clergy the same advice he would give to lay people: being refreshed through prayer and devotional life.

Shirley Nelson said that learning to pace oneself, realizing that one doesn't have to fix the whole world, having a quiet time with God and maintaining devotions are important for clergy.

"People are very understanding and know that you're tied up with this," she said.

"If I were to give any advice to somebody in a similar situation," Meier said, "don't look at the big picture quite yet, maybe just look at what you can get done today."