Ministry helps wounded pastors stay in the pulpit

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (RNS)—The 2008 murder of 35-year-old Mashonda Griffin in her home was a blow to her fellow church members—especially when they learned one of the people charged in her death was a former parishioner whom Griffin had helped in the past.

Griffin’s death—an apparent botched robbery that landed the two suspects in prison with life terms—filled her pastor with anguish.

“It pretty much was the biggest thing I faced as a pastor,” James Stokes said of the woman, who had been a member of Stokes’ congregation 16 years.

John Smith (left), regional director of PastorCare Great Lakes, coached James Stokes (right) following the murder of one of Stokes’ church members. (PHOTO/RNS/Octavian Cantilli/The Grand Rapids Press)

Stokes said he would have wallowed in grief longer had it not been for an e-mail he received two days before Griffin’s funeral from John Smith, national and regional director of PastorCare, The National Clergy Support Network, who asked to meet with Stokes.

Smith fast-tracked his level of credibility with Stokes because of a similar tragedy the PastorCare leader faced when, as pastor of a church in Long Island, N.Y., a member of his congregation committed a brutal murder.

Smith infused Stokes with some much-needed solace.

“I was able to talk and release a lot of emotions, release a lot of things I was going through as a result of the murder,” Stokes said. “John was there for me in every sense of the word.”

Helping ministers get through their rough patches has been PastorCare’s mission since Filbert Moore founded the nondenominational ministry in 1995 on the campus of Peace College in Raleigh, N.C. Smith now runs the ministry from his Grand Rapids office.

From the start, the intent has been to provide confidential, Christ-centered ministry nationwide for pastors and their spouses, with the primary plan of helping them stay in ministry.

It’s a mission that regularly requires Smith to make the initial contact with ministers who sometimes are reluctant to reach out because of a compelling desire to keep their problems private, or because they are unsure who they can trust.

“What I’ve learned is many times, pastors are not good at seeking help themselves,” Smith said.

“There’s a fear of how this will be used against them. We always give them a choice of where we will meet.”

The ministry uses the term “coaching” instead of counseling, since its staff members are not licensed therapists. One-on-one sessions and small-group seminars are available.

The bulk of pastors’ problems are related to burnout—packing too many hours in a workweek that cuts into personal time with their spouses and family, Smith said.

Others have experienced some sort of moral failing, while still others wrestle with marital problems.

Perhaps the thorniest heartache ministers face is when they’re ousted from their pastorates, Smith said.

It’s often a double whammy for ministers who not only find themselves without a job, but also cut off from church friends and spiritual confidants.

That’s the quandary David Korsen and his wife, Joanie, found themselves immersed in when they relocated from Bellingham, Wash., in 2004 to serve a Reformed congregation.

On the surface, several visits to the church before accepting the call indicated a good fit, Korsen said.

Initially it was, Korsen said. His first year as pastor saw his new church add 60 people to its roster and another 40 the following year.

But those early victories hit a snag when a group of people Korsen calls “the gang of six” didn’t care for new outreach programs, or his stance that women are equally qualified to be ordained ministers and lay leaders.

“I didn’t quite grasp the church had a history with a certain group of people of power who weren’t real thrilled with some of the new innovations,” Korsen said.

By 2008, for the first time in his life, Korsen found himself unemployed following an evening phone call that ordered him not to set foot on church premises, despite John Smith’s attempts to represent Korsen as his advocate.

“John was at the door the next day at 9 a.m.,” Korsen said. “One of John’s great abilities is to listen and provide a safe place when there’s no safe place for pastors to process.”

Since then, Korsen said he and his wife are on the mend. He works part-time as PastorCare’s national communications director and has rolled up his sleeves to launch a new Reformed congregation in the Kalamazoo area.

“If people would understand the power and value of encouragement, a lot of pastors’ problems would be different,” Smith said.

“Too often they only say something when they have a complaint. They’re too self-focused and too self-absorbed.”



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