This blog was originally published on pjsmyth.com
Earlier this week, a well-known American pastor took his life (official cause of death still pending).. I knew him a little, some of my friends knew him well, and so many have received so much from his ministry. My sincere condolences to his dear family and friends.
I profess no insight into what drove him to apparent suicide. Whether or not the unique pressures of pastoral ministry were a factor, I don’t know. But I know this: pastoral ministry does have some unique stressors. And I know this: as news of this tragedy circulates, pastors, their wives and children, their leadership teams, and thoughtful congregants, are going to gulp; they are going to wonder if their pastor is okay. Pastors may wonder if they are okay. Wives may wonder if their husband has a secret darkness nudging him towards the edge. I hope this short offering will help steady us as we prayerfully contemplate these things. (I actually wrote it last week to post next week, but hope it will help those in pain now). Before I offer some suggestions on how to live safe as a pastor, let me start by outlining a few of the unique pressures of being a pastor.
The pressure of strange life rhythms
We work during the week, and then due to the emotional gear-up for Sunday, we often don’t get a decent emotional break over the weekend. Sunday meetings for a church are pretty unique, I think unlike any other regular event for other organizations. They are the only time we get to interface with all our people. They are a very big deal. Sunday is match day, and Sunday anticipation, delivery and recovery is a uniquely draining experience. Even if you are “off” on Friday and Saturday, you are not really off, especially if you are playing a key role in Sunday’s meeting.
If you are preaching, the experience is exaggerated. Even if you finished your prep on Thursday (I can hear you laugh!), then Friday and Saturday are compromised as you psych-up for Sunday. The blend of adrenaline, anointing, nerves, anticipation of criticism, and profound sense of spiritual responsibility is a unique cocktail that can make it hard to be emotionally present with others on Friday and Saturday. And Sunday is a write-off. You are up early and “on,” and by the time you get home around lunchtime, you are emotionally spent; and how easily the afternoon can be jaundiced if you feel you didn’t preach well!
Even if you get a day off during the week, it is not like a normal Saturday that others have with family and friends. A midweek day-off is a strange, anti-social phenomena that we make work, but it is not the same as a slow or social Saturday when the rest of the world is also going slow and socializing.
Years and years of this strange rhythm of life can take its toll.
The pressure on the family
A pastor’s family carries a huge responsibility in the church. Practically, if the church is smallish, the pastor’s family is often the de facto set-up-and-pack-down crew, and the greeting team, and follow-up team, and often the wife is Worship Leader or Kid’s Ministry leader. If the church is large, the scrutiny on the family can be intense. Whether a small or large church, the family often has to do without Dad (and sometimes Mom) on weeknights and weekends, because the people they pastor are at work during normal work hours. Emotionally, they sometimes observe their Dad/husband being exploited, and discouraged, and this can make their own walk with Jesus more challenging and confusing. And, the Bible expects certain things from pastor’s/elder’s children (1 Tim. 3:4-5, Titus. 1:6)!
The 360-degree pressure on the pastor
All jobs have their pressures. But pastors can feel pressure from above, within and without. By “above,” I am thinking of verses that remind us that those who teach will be “judged more strictly” (Jam. 3:1), and that all who keep watch of God’s people “must give an account” (Heb. 13:17). Like the governors of the cities of Judah, we should consider that we judge not for man but the Lord (2 Chr. 19:7-7). We have our ministry by the mercy of God (2 Cor. 4:1). If these verses are considered in the correct light by a mature pastor, the result is a wonderful blend of energy and caution. But if the soul is downcast, the application of these wonderful verses can feel heavy. Whilst our loving Father neither accuses us or burdens us (Matt. 11:28-30), the Enemy is skilled at distorting these verses from grace-filled into guilt-laden for the already downcast soul.
The pressure from “within” is something everyone battles in every job. Will I succeed? Where do I find lasting satisfaction? Where is the line between healthy labor and unhealthy striving? Everyone, pastors included, needs to lean deeply into Jesus to find identity and soul-rest in him to combat ungodly pressures from within.
And then there is the pressure from “without,” from others – leadership team, congregants, and social media commentators. We have the pressure of knowing that if we fall into serious sin, many around us will be massively stumbled. At a lesser level, we know that if we are spiritually jaded, our preaching, leadership and caring will be jaded. If the pressure gets too much, we have the stress of knowing we can’t just change job because our job is shepherding, and shepherds don’t cut and run or the sheep get damaged (Jn. 10:10-15). But if shepherds implode on the job, sheep also get damaged. Spiritual leadership is a very weighty responsibility.
In unhealthy environments, leadership teams and congregations can expect too much of their leaders. When they do, they will either fawn on them and place them on a pedestal, or vilify them and be cruel. Both extremes are abusive, and if a pastor lives under this weight for a prolonged period, damage can be done.
How then can we live safe?
Pastors, our inner life with Jesus is so very important. Don’t run on fumes for long. If the only water coming out of your “hose” is the water that was filling it from the last time you had the tap on, stop. Stop and drink from Jesus.
Pastors, we must fire off distress flares before we need to. Do not wait until you are too tired, or disillusioned, or “trapped” to call for help. If you don’t know how to call for help, you could send this article to your team as a conversation starter. Or call a pastor friend. Talk to your wife. Just don’t do nothing. Talking can help so much. No shame in needing help.
Pastors, we must have healthy, life-giving leadership teams in our churches. If your elders’ meeting (or equivalent) is not usually the meeting you most look forward to, then STOP and call for help. Time will make things worse, not better.
Pastors, we must be part of a meaningful denomination or movement of churches. By nature, I am fairly resilient, but Ashleigh and I have been through several medium-to-large storms in life and ministry that we would NEVER have survived if not for our meaningful partnerships in Advance and Newfrontiers.
Leadership teams, make sure your staff pastors are paid well and given generous time off and vacation. Make sure they are emotionally okay. Make sure that they and their families are helped, not hindered by the church. Of course, they need to carry their own load, but let those who are taught share good things with those who teach (Gal. 6:5-6).
And all of us, eyes on Jesus. Resist institutional and legalistic “so called” Christianity like the plague. Celebrate Jesus’ love for you. Hide in him. Rest in him. Honor one another. Look out for one another. Hate sin. Keep in step with the spirit.