Statistics show that 70 percent of pastors report having no close friend,
and more than 30 percent of clergy have marriages in crisis, addictions (mostly sexual), forced terminations, and arrested spiritual development. Russ Veenker (MA[BS], 1982) and his wife, Kandy, had a desire to help such isolated families and individuals and to do so in a unique, breathtaking environment. After Russ finished seminary, he and Kandy founded Mountain Learning Center (MLC), located just outside Yosemite National Park in June Lake, California. At MLC they hoped “to facilitate growth and development in individuals, couples, and families—through counseling in a retreat setting—in their respective journeys following Christ.” In addition to launching MLC, they pioneered counseling services for the surrounding community and helped start a church.
A shocking discovery
Later, during Russ’s doctoral studies, several widely publicized scandals rocked the evangelical Christian world, causing Russ to research clergy health. The statistics he unearthed were not pretty.
“The focus of my doctoral studies and training became the care, nurture, and development of Christian leaders,” Russ said. As a result, MLC refocused their mission statement to include “revitalizing pastors and their spouses.”
In the past eighteen years MLC has developed unique expertise in helping pastors and church planters from around the world.
Bout with burnout
Even with a heart to help burned-out pastors and ministers who struggle, Russ faced his own crisis of burnout ten years into the ministry. “The hours involved in establishing a parachurch missional initiative (fully relying on the support of ministry partners), pastoring and planting a church, and counseling in the community all caught up with me,” Russ said. “I was emotionally and spiritually tired.”
During this time Russ experienced some painful church leadership issues. “The entire situation rocked my soul. Initially the only comfort I could find was in the Word of God.” In the midst of the struggle and stress MLC’s board of directors came alongside Russ. He said that through them “the Spirit spoke words of comfort and loving confrontation” to him about his character, “for I, too, am an idiot saved by grace.” Russ also sought help through counseling and by establishing new boundaries that included a weekly day of rest marked by silence and solitude.
Russ sees narcissism and “mask-wearing” as the greatest problems ministry leaders face. “Pastors hide because they have forgotten from where Jesus saved them—living under the brokenness of self-deception, rebellious self-protection, and thus manipulation of others—and to what He raised them to be—a transformed person serving God and others with incarnational love.”
In their insecurities some pastors have learned to perform for others. Some put on the “pastor mask,” thinking:
This mask feels powerful, significant, and important.
Others look to me for the fix to life’s most perplexing problems.
• I feel needed and fulfilled.
Russ believes when ministry leaders wear masks and fill their needs through the pastoral role, they’re becoming “bankrupt and broken people, attempting to fill their narcissistic egos by using ‘Jesus talk' to impress and control others, while at the same time self-protecting their fragile personhood. Their identity becomes fused to the role of pastor, not Christ.”
Russ has seen pastors restored and rejuvenated when they seek counsel and clearly understand the importance of genuine biblical community—a place where the love and authenticity of Jesus is present in the people with whom pastors interact. Pastors need “safe, unconditional acceptance and participation in true, transparent Christian community,” Russ said. “The development of these kinds of internal and external relationships is critical to ending the natural social isolation that comes with Christian ministry.
Ministry in the twenty-first century is complex, demanding innovative leadership solutions. In the age of consulting and coaching, pastors are seeing the need to find mentors who are multifaceted. Russ applauds this trend, considering such soul surgeons who counsel, coach, and are active resources as important components of ministry survival.
Mary DeMuth (Patrick, ThM, 2004) is the author of a number of books, including Watching the Tree Limbs and Authentic Parenting in a Postmodern Culture. She resides with her family in Rockwall, Texas.