On Tuesday an elderly woman came to his church asking for a meal, a drunk needed medical attention, and a mother begged for clothing for her children. He helped them all. The next day, a girl wanted bus fare to New York, and he refused to give it. "You're a poor excuse for a man of God!," she screamed at the minister, leaving him feeling guilty and frustrated.

Recently another family left his already sparse congregation, and the minister, now in his 50s, has taken it personally. Lately he's heard grumbles from the congregation that perhaps his sermons and political activities are too controversial.

He looked for a new church with no results, then, he says, he took to relying on four, then seven, now 12 gin-and-tonics a night to relax.

This local clergyman, who requested anonymity, no longer sees the ministry as a prestigious profession, and sometimes he wishes he were a watchmaker or craftsman "where I'd create honest work, honest products [that] would stand and live forever."

He has a severe case of what psychologists call "burnout," a term coined in recent years to describe a physical, emotional and spiritual depletion that they say most frequently strikes people in the "helping professions," such as police, nurses, counselors and social workers. But it is clergy who run the greatest risk of burnout, some psychologists say, and they agree clergy burnout is on the rise.

"I would guess at least one in four clergy is burned out," said the Rev. Roy Oswald, a behavioral scientist and authority on clergy burnout. Oswald, who is with the Alban Institute, believes that another 25 percent of clergy are under great stress and may be on their way to burnout.

Clergy are most susceptible to burnout, said several counselors, mainly because their profession defies a job description.

"They're expected to be pastor, prophet, marriage counselor, youth counselor and financier," said the Rev. Paul Norton, director of a local counseling center for Catholic clergy. "If he tries to meet those expectations, obviously he's going to get hurt."

"They never know if they've done a good job or when they've done enough," said Oswald. "Day after day they're involved firsthand in people's tragedies. . . They can't help but get emotionally involved . . . and that wears you out."

The area clergyman who agreed to discuss the burnout problem anonymously echoed Oswald's statements and added, "There's so much poverty around us. . . I feel at conflict with myself all the time over it."

"I live a schizo existence," said the clergyman. "My neighbors have no idea what I go through all day. I come home and they want to talk about their cars and gardens. I just want to go to sleep. . . .

"Then you get the people who think of you as a Father Mulcahy [of M*A*S*H]. I think clergy are considered to be almost like buffoons. People come up to you and say, 'Hey reverend, make sure it doesn't rain on Saturday for our picnic!"

Dilillusionment is also a major factor, according to the counselors. "Some go into the ministry for deeply religious reasons and find they're managing very large corporations made up of volunteers," said Oswald.

Low salaries have a "demoralizing effect on them, too," he added, "sometimes making them feel professionally inferior to other professionals."

Furthermore, clergy often work with insoluble problems, and can't always see the results of their work. When they don't feel productive, there is a loss of self-image, the counselors said.

Compounding those difficulties is the fact that clergy are used to being the problem solvers, so when the roles are reversed they tend to have difficulty seeking professional help.

"The pride barrier is a real one," said the Rev. Kenneth Burke, a local Baptist minister. "Once given church responsibility, a minister is very unlikely to admit that he's having troubles. In that sense, maybe we're part of the problem . . . because we don't open up to each other."

Burke, a 1958 graduate of a southern Baptist seminary, said he believes his class had an extremely high burnout rate, with several members committing suicide, and others giving up the ministry to sell used cars of pump gas. His class president gave up his collar to lay bricks. Burke said.

Burnout for clergy and laity alike can show up in various ways. Lethargy, withdrawal from the public, a feeling that one is at the end of his resources, radical change in sleeping or eating habits, excessive drinking "to deaded pain," ineffectiveness on the job, cynicism and sarcasm are common signs, according to counselors.

Five years ago, in recognition of the increasing strains on Catholic clergy, the archdiocese of Washington opened a counseling center specifically for clergy. The Archdiocesan Consultation Center for Religious and Clergy, headed by Norton, began counseling a handful of religious. It quickly caught on, nearly doubling its clientele each year. Now, as many as 120 nuns, priests, and brothers and a few lay workers receive counseling at the center each week for a small fee.

This is one of the most organized institutional responses to the problem, but a variety of other options are available to priests, ministers and rabbis who frequently can seek help through their superiors, private counselors and pastoral counseling centers located throughout Washington and the suburbs, according to spokesmen there.

On the national level, one New Jersey rabbi became so alarmed at the rising rate of divorce, suicide, dropout, heart attacks and ulcers among rabbis that he is trying to establish a counseling network.

In explaining the need for such a program, Rabbi Alexander Shapiro, a national officer of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, points to his own experiences, saying, "Today I buried a 36-year-old woman and called on a terminally ill man and spent time with his wife. Clergy get so involved in the lives of people to whom they minister, they can't help but feel stress. Physicians get involved in people's lives too, but when a patient dies, their work is finished. We are left with the pieces, counseling the widows, helping put families back together."

Burnout is a gradual process, according to counselors. At the earliest stage, a good vacation may cure the problem. Advanced burnout, however, is much more serious and should be treated professionally, according to counselors, who said total cure probably means rethinking one's priorities and minimizing stressful conditions.

Counselors recommend taking a regular day off, taking vacations, sabbaticals, meditating, pursuing courses in nonrelated subjects, and regular vigorous exercise.

Most important of all, perhaps, is a constant support system -- family, colleagues, the congregation itself -- "to tell you you're on the right track, and people to remind you to take time for yourself," Oswald said.

Clergy burnout is a problem not only for the priest, minister or rabbi, but for the congregations as well. When those congregations interpret burnout as laziness and put more pressure on the clergyman -- which is often the case, said Oswald -- the problem worsens.

Norton recommends that the clergyman be open with his superiors and parish about his emotional state. "There should be good open dialogue . . . and both sides need to struggle" to overcome the problem.

Local clergy have come up with various ways to cope.

The Rev. Frank Poole, a Presbyterian minister in Rockville, finds relief from stress mainly by talking to his wife about his stresses and problems, playing racquetball and handball two or three times a month and vacationing in their cottage in Maine four times a year. This fall he will start a nine-month sabbatical.

Poole, a minister for 15 years, said he began setting aside time for himself after experiencing some burnout seven or eight years into his ministry. "I felt, boy, there's nothing to draw on anymore, the battery isn't charging up. My first reaction was to push harder. It wasn't until I really began vacationing and relaxing that I discovered the problem," he said.

"After eight years as a rabbi I'm just coming to the conclusion that I need to develop a program of physical exercise as an outlet for stress," said Rabbi Reuben Landman.

"For me burnout comes in terms of tunning out of creative ideas for sermons and study groups," said Landman. So he recently began setting aside time each week for personal religious study. "Not for any other purpose than to study for its own sake," he said.

"I read murder mysteries, play golf, and work out at a gym all the time," said the Rev. Stephan Klinglehofer. "You talk about therapy! When strains get worse, one think I'm going to do is very intentionally insist on time of quiet and peace even if it means going to a convent.

"I think a lot of times we're not living our own gospel. We put outselves in the indispensable-person position. Even Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days to meditate. Do we think we have better coping abilities than Jesus?"