Recent news has reminded me that many people are struggling. Instead of laughter and conversations, a large number of folks find survival difficult. Some of those who do laugh during dialogue are holding deep hurts within. The humor is only a mask seeking to hide the pain.
And, a large number of people in that condition are our pastors. Clergy listen and study and talk and plan. They seek to keep many people happy. They hope to look happy themselves while possibly carrying the wounds of others deep inside themselves. This isn’t good.
My new book, Pause for Pastors, will be out in a few weeks. Every pastor, family member of a pastor, church staff member, and student planning to pursue ministry needs to read the stories we’ve collected. We do not offer a new trick toward having a large church. We invite readers to actually live in peace. We propose that our clergy should seek help. We hope to encourage pastors to take better care of their own lives.
But I also wanted to receive suggestions from Dr. Blake Rackley, a psychologist and a dear friend. Blake and I have talked often about the wounds and the pressure of our leaders. I asked Blake (Psy.D. – Associate Professor of Psychology, Licensed Psychologist) to offer his advice for today’s blog. He titles his story Pastors and Suicide:
Depression and suicide are not respecters of persons. They transcend gender, race, ethnicity, and religion. It is not uncommon within the church, yet it is always surprising when it happens.
As a psychologist, I can quote you statistics, symptoms, and warning signs. I can give you the run down on their thoughts, plans, means, and intent. What I can’t give you are all the reasons why someone ends their life.
Think for a moment about your pastor. Imagine the stress that he is under to tend his flock. He is a shepherd in a metaphorical sense. Real shepherds do not have listen to their sheep complain about the service (the music is too loud; I don’t like the music; that person really doesn’t need to be on stage; I don’t like that you teach; I would rather you preach; the piano needs to be on the other side; why didn’t you visit me in the hospital; your kids are typical PK’s…they should know better!)
Pastors live in a glass bowl where everyone is looking in on them and their family. They are expected to always have “the joy of the Lord!” They are expected to always be encouraging, listening, giving, and sacrificial. They are expected to be an example of Christ’s love, of Christian morals, to never mess up, to always say the right thing, to pray all the time, to never sin! In truth, pastors are not expected to be pastors. They are expected to be Christ!
I don’t know about you, but I mess up every day! I sin constantly. I have enough grace for myself to say, “Well, no one is perfect!” Can pastors say that? Can a pastor tell his congregation that he struggles with lust and pornography? Can a pastor lose his temper and “cuss” at someone? In essence…can a pastor fail, and we still consider him/her a pastor? Most pastors do not feel that they can go to anyone for fear of what may be said in their congregation. So, pastors silently suffer because they are afraid of the consequences of telling others what is really going on with them. They do not tell their spouses for fear of what it will do to their family. They do not tell professionals because they feel like they fully rely only on God!
Examine for a moment your own expectations of your pastor. He may have one hundred people or one thousand or more people in his congregation. He feels a constant push to serve, to give, and live without sinning. He is expected by so many people to reach out to the hurting, to feed the hungry, to lead people, to get people saved, to work night and day without failure. He should love without bound. He should disciple people in the church. He should have “personal” contact with everyone in his congregation.
Hear me out….pastors are under a lot of pressure. Most people can tell you what it feels like to have an expectation from a couple of people, i.e. a boss, a few co-workers, a spouse, and children. Can you honestly say that you know what it feels like to have the expectation of hundreds or even thousands of people on your shoulders, not including your spouse and children? It is the only profession where people—hundreds of people—feel that you owe them something, whether that be your time, your wisdom, your listening ear, the resources available to you. AND…those same people still feel like that they can complain about you, spread rumors about you, demand more of you, and expect that their requests be met.
Being a pastor is not a cushioned job. They don’t spend their days lounged back reading their favorite book (the Bible), drinking lemonade and mediating on what to preach/teach next. They are constantly serving.
Guess what happens when someone has the pressure of high expectations/demands and low positive regard/encouragement/return on their service? Exactly! You may call it being burned out, but we as psychologist see it as depression. For some it becomes an unbearable load…the consistent expectation to grow the congregation, to constantly serve, to give and give and give without ever getting back.
Hear me out. Pastors are no different than anyone in their congregation. The feel pain like you do. They hurt like you do. They cry like you do. They sin like you do! They struggle with anger, pornography, mistrust, alcohol, drugs, depression, anxiety, infidelity, same-sex attraction, sickness, etc. just like most of the people in the congregation do. But, they live with these with hardly anyone to share them with. It is not enough that they must bear their own burdens, but they live with the burden of hundreds to thousands.
Thank you, Dr. Rackley, for you honesty. I pray we all take this topic seriously and I hope we follow this advice. And, I remind all pastors to seek help from the right people. Refuse to fight your struggles alone.
Along the way,
Pause: I am suggesting that we find a few people to talk to about our true selves. (Pause for Pastors: Finding Still Waters in the Storm of Ministry)