I was tempted to post this as an anonymous guest blogger, but I figured I’d put it out there under my own name. I was inspired by the comment made by Eddie on Saturday night on the “Golden Age of NAMB” post. You can find it. It cut me to the heart, for two reasons. First, a brother in Christ is in pain, hurting, in despair. Second, it brought back some memories of where I was last fall, when I felt everything Eddie said.
I’ve never really contemplated suicide, but I’ve gone through times when I would have welcomed death. I wish that feeling came from a place of noble passion like Paul’s statement, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” My wish for death came from a very different place. It has come from a place of loneliness, dissatisfaction, pain, hurt and disappointment.
And from the fact that I had no one to talk to about it, that by and large I have had to bear this burden alone.
You see, I’m SuperDave the Wonder Pastor. Pretty much every relationship I have is one that demands more of me than it gives back to me. As a pastor, I’m required to love the unlovely, return good for evil, deal with other people’s problems even when I feel like crying. I don’t want to sound like I’m whining. A lot of this is just basic Christianity. Loving your enemy. Returning good for evil. Rejoicing always.
And most of the time, I consider myself fortunate to have a job that matters. I get to stand in front of God’s people and proclaim God’s word. I get to proclaim the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ and help people grow in faith. I get people coming up to me and telling me how much my message helped them. I see victories and changes and receive blessings.
But then, the dark moments come – and often they blindside me. I get worn out. Conflict arises in the church. Someone stabs me in the back. And I want to cry, and to cry out. I lay in bed at night wishing for sleep but my mind is racing with anger, with despair, with the desire to run away and hide.
See, when you are SuperDave the Wonder Pastor, you cannot admit your weakness to your people. People seem to have a real need to honor their spiritual leaders – perhaps in an unhealthy way, but it is a real need nonetheless. People don’t always realize how much pressure there is when you have to always be “on”, to never let your guard down or to show your flaws. It’s not that I try to fool my people into thinking that I am better than they are, or that I have superior spiritual DNA. Actually, I work pretty hard to let them know that this is not true. I try to be real, to tell stories of my failures and sins (not too specific, but honest). But no matter how much I try to convince people that I am just Dave, I still find myself donning the superhero suit and becoming SuperDave the Wonder Pastor.
That is a lot of pressure.
I can handle it when I keep my spiritual passion strong. When I say that Jesus is my strength, that is not a cliche. Not at all. My Savior enables me to deal with the pressure. My relationship with him is the one in which I receive, am strengthened and blessed. With the resources of God’s grace, I plod along most of the time.
But then the bottom falls out. Where do I turn? I can’t talk to people in my church because I need to maintain my pastoral veneer. In Cedar Rapids, I had some very close pastor friends I could talk things over with and pray with, but I’ve not found that here quite yet. Sometimes, I can talk things over with my wife and that really helps. But sometimes, that doesn’t work either. And what about those situations in which the pastor and his wife are not getting along, when there is stress and tension in the marriage? Then, things really get extreme.
I believe three things, my pastor friends.
1) Almost all of us who are in ministry know this feeling of darkness and despair firsthand. SuperDave the Wonder Pastor has feet of clay and a heart that betrays the noble purposes of God. When you are in a responsible position, a visible and venerable place, there will come a time when your strength will flag, your courage will fail and you will find yourself laying in a corner in a fetal position begging God to take you home.
2) Most of us never talk about this to anyone. It is a secret pain.
3) We need to be a resource to one another when this happens. Pastors are in a unique position to help pastors.
Here are some perspectives I have on the problem and on the solution.
1) When I’m in despair, I don’t need a sermon.
I know what I need to know. I’ve preached it. I don’t need you to preach it to me. Job’s friends were the greatest men who ever lived right up until the point at which they opened their mouths and started pouring the fertilizer of their platitudes on Job.
Up until that moment, they had done exactly what they needed to do. They communicated two messages by sitting by him. I am here for you. I’m not going away. You, my friend, will not be alone in this time.
When a friend is hurting, they usually don’t need your advice. They just need you to be there and to care.
2) Reject Pastoral Oneupsmanship.
When I pastored in Virginia, we had regular associational pastors meetings that rotated from church to church. Every church had a statistics board to the side of the pulpit which reported attendance and offerings for the week – the SBC-approved statistical tote board! One Monday, when they were coming to my church, I changed 129 (our attendance) to 912. I changed the offering numbers around. Then I sat back and watched. No one said a word. Finally, when the meeting was over, I said, “Wow, how did those numbers get switched?” and I put them back. We had a good laugh and several admitted that they had seen the board and wondered about it.
I witnessed a blog argument a few years back in which one well-known blogger (and large church pastor) discredited another’s position because he was only the pastor of a small church. We are so competitive.
Years ago, when I was an associate pastor, I attended an associational meeting with the other associate pastor from our church. Some good things were happening at FBC, and Dan shared one of them. He wasn’t trying to be obnoxious, but the man across the table (and pastor of the host church) topped what Dan said. “We baptized five people.” “We baptized eight.” “We have a couple of young men going into the ministry.” “We have 5.” Whatever Dan said, the other pastor topped. I could see his frustration growing as this conversation went on.
Finally, Dan looked across the table at him and said, “Last Sunday night, we had some lady mud-wrestlers perform in our worship service.” The other pastor’s mouth just hung open. He had no way to top that one.
When we engage in pastoral bragging, we tend to create an environment in which it is almost impossible for the pastor who is in despair to share his heart.
Be very careful about tooting your own horn. You may be drowning out your brother’s cry for help.
3) Nurture your marriage.
Your wife can and should be your greatest source of strength. Honestly, I don’t know how Paul and other single servants of God did it. But the very stress and pressure that puts us in despair also sometimes puts a strain on our marriages. Being a pastor is a tough job. Being a pastor’s wife may sometimes be even more difficult.
Hariette posted an article some months ago about how to bless your pastor’s wife. I was shocked at the responses of a couple of women who commented on that post, saying that pastor’s wives are no different than anyone else and should stop whining. Wow. That is some industrial strength ignorance. My wife is under scrutiny in a way most other church women simply are not. It is a constant pressure on her and a burden she has to bear.
Pastors, we need to invest in our marriages. John Piper wisely took a few months off recently to reconnect with his wife and to stave off problems. Most of us wait until the problem is serious. A pastor with problems on the home front is destined for a date with despair.
4) Nurture some friendships outside the church.
You need some close friends that are not in your church, men you can go to and talk honestly with. Other pastors. Christian friends. People you can trust and be open and honest with.
I think that many pastors are by nature loners. I know I am. But the most horrible part of these times of darkness is that sense that we are all alone, that there is no one to talk to, no one who will listen. The greatest despair comes from that feeling of isolation.
5) Strengthen yourself in the Lord
It is not a cliche. The ultimate healer is not counseling or friends or a vacation. The ultimate help is Christ.
In 1 Samuel 30, David returned from battle to find his village ransacked and his family and those of his “mighty men” kidnapped. Everyone was devastated and they did the only thing they knew how to do. They turned on David, blamed him and were considering killing him. Verse 6 says, “David found strength in the Lord.”
In 1994, I was under great stress in a ministry that seemed to be falling apart. I couldn’t handle it one day, so I took a Bible and went walking. Two hours later, I returned to the church. Nothing had changed except my attitude. I had strengthened myself in the Lord and I was ready to meet the challenge.
The Lord is my strength, my shield and my fortress.
A Final Word
SBC Voices is a place to discuss theology, politics and denominational affairs. But we can also be a community. Eddie’s words of despair moved me. Right now, things are kind of stressful at my church. What’s new? I’m in a better place than I was last fall, but things are still hard. I felt Eddie’s pain because I had been there.
Others expressed the same thing.
I am no expert counselor, but I have two ears and I am willing to listen. When you reach this place of darkness in your own life and ministry, reach out. Talk to me. Or to someone else here. None of us here are superheroes.
We are brothers.