(Editor's Note: The first of two columns by Terry Mattingly on clergy stress. The second column will appear next Friday.)
The powers that be in professional sports know that it's easier to fire embattled coaches than to push powerful athletes out the door.
Pastors know that the same pattern usually holds true when push comes to shove in religious sanctuaries. The sad result is often a vicious cycle of fear, stress, doubt, despair, workaholism, frustration and fatalism.
In his book Counseling Christian Workers, the late Dr. Louis McBurney -- a Mayo Clinic-trained psychiatrist known for helping clergy in times of crisis -- summed it up with one sad, exhausted quotation from an anonymous minister hurt by powerful people in his pews.
"There's nothing wrong with my church," said this pastor, "that wouldn't be solved by a few well-placed funerals."
Rev. Gary Brinn has heard clergy offer variations on that line, with the most common being that, on occasion, "pastors get to bury their problems." It's the kind of blunt talk pastors share when privately talking shop. It's not the kind of thing they would say to their flocks, not even to the angry goats in the pews.
"You would think the one place people would practice some manners and show some understanding would be in church, but too often that just isn't the case," said Brinn, who leads the Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ, on the South Shore of Long Island. "Sometimes you just want to say, 'Have a little kindness, folks.' "
Recently, Brinn went toe-to-toe with one "bushy-bearded rogue" after a late-night Christmas Eve service.
In this case, the once-a-year churchgoer wanted the pastor to know that the service -- which blended Christmas hope with the sobering realities of Hurricane Sandy and the massacre in Newtown, Conn. -- was one of the worst services he had ever attended.
The pastor turned the other cheek.
Later he turned to his computer, pounding out a Patch.com commentary titled "Secrets Your Pastor Can't Share in a Sermon" that went viral.
While many readers posted outraged online comments, said Brinn, in a telephone interview, his email in-basket was soon full of sympathetic letters from clergy.
Among his dark secrets, Brinn noted that clergy -- usually experienced, seminary-educated professionals -- wish their parishioners would remember that:
* Offerings are not tips exchanged for entertaining sermons, "nor are you paying for services rendered. Your stewardship, bringing your tithes and offerings to the community in which you worship, is a spiritual practice that comes right out of Scripture. ... Failure to give appropriately is a spiritual problem."
* Clergy struggle to work 60 hours or less each week. Even on Sundays, he noted, they've "been 'on,' like rock-concert 'on,' all morning. I'm smiling and being social, but I'm actually fried. You know that important thing you needed to tell me as you shook my hand and headed off to brunch? I forgot it, along with the important things eight other people told me. Sorry, I didn't mean to, but you better write it down, send it in an email or leave me a message for when I get back in the office."
* Truth be told, clergy care more about "the regulars. I know I'm not supposed to, but I do. You know, the ones who show up in the pouring rain, there for every fundraiser and Bible study. When a perfect stranger shows up demanding the rites of the church and treating me like I'm an unfortunate prop in their personal movie, it's a problem. I'm having serious theological qualms about this, I'm just not telling you."
* Clergy work for a bishop, a vestry or another source of authority, but they ultimately must confess that "I work for God." Yes, it's hard to please everyone, but an honest preacher also must be able to say, "If I stop challenging you, you'll know that I am either exhausted or scared. Neither is good for you or the church you love."
Brinn said he didn't worry that members of his small congregation would misunderstand this candid shot over the pulpit.
"I really wrote this piece for all of the pastors who don't have the freedom to be this honest in their pulpits," he said. "Way too many pastors try to bury their problems. ... I am convinced that 75 percent of American clergy are terrified of their congregations."
Coming up: Why are many in the clergy so afraid of their flocks?
(Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Contact him at email@example.com or www.tmatt.net.)