I stood outside our state office and chatted with him – nothing serious, just lighthearted banter. It never occurred to me when we parted that it was the last time I would ever see him. A while later, for reasons that still baffle us, this pastor-friend of mine, who never seemed to be bothered by much of anything, decided to end his life instead of letting one of us help him.
If he’d called me, I’d have gotten in the car and driven the 3 hours to help him. I would not have needed to, because there were a half-dozen pastors within an hour’s drive who’d have been there with bells on to talk to him. But he never asked. He never divulged his pain or admitted his feelings.
And now he’s gone.
That is a story that is repeated too often. But the story goes far beyond the tragedy of those few men who end their ministry through suicide. Many labor week to week in silent pain, burdened by the weight of their ministry, crushed by unrealistic expectations and failed hopes, trying to duct tape a difficult marriage together, drowning in a Marianas Trench of debt, or withering under the constant fire of criticism. I don’t want to play the “my job is harder than your job” game. Every job has its challenges and I will not argue that the pastoral role is the hardest. But it is hard. It wears on you.
And I know a lot of hurting pastors. I know pastors who have been fired from their jobs for the weakest of reasons. That leaves a deep wound. I know pastors who struggle with depression – lots of them. You wouldn’t believe how many. Actually, those who struggle with the black dog (a term from Winston Churchill I learned from Marty Duren) stand in the lineage of some great men. Luther. Spurgeon. Some of the great names of church history heard the howling of the black dog.
Oh, and Dave Miller. Not often, but it’s happened. I’m not talking about the Monday morning blues. I’m talking about the times when the black dog is howling so loudly you can’t hear logic, you can’t sleep, you can’t feel love, you can’t enjoy life.
I’ve never been at that point where I became suicidal or completely non-functional. I’ve never needed treatment or medication, but I’ve come close a couple of times. I remember, a little more than 25 years ago, driving down a highway in Virginia thinking that all I had to do was steer my car into the median and the struggle would be over. I never seriously considered doing it, but it was a passing thought. I did read the Richmond paper trying to find something else to do if I threw off this preaching gig.
I was blessed about three years ago that I have a great group of deacons. I met with them and told them I was toast – mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I was done. They told me to go away and come back in a few weeks. That three week vacation – for the most part by myself, my wife was working and couldn’t go with me – served as a reboot for me.
But I know that sense of despair, that desire to run away and hide, those days when the sun is shining brightly everywhere but my soul. And I’m telling you, you always-chipper, got-it-all-together guys, there are a lot of us out here. Some of it may have to do with our personalities, some with the churches we serve, some with circumstances, and some with spiritual responses. But if you get preachers talking beyond the braggadocio, beyond the hype, the ego-boost and competition, you will find that there are a lot of men out there who are “dying in a heap.”
My heart goes out to men like that. I want to help them. When I got word that my friend had ended his life, I felt two things. I felt a horrendous sense of failure. Why hadn’t I noticed that something was wrong? Why hadn’t I been a better friend? That is normal, but also silly. People who were much closer to him than I never noticed anything. But I felt something else. I felt an anger that men in ministry had to feel their pain in silence and in solitary shame. Why can we not share one another’s burdens? Why do men suffering in ministry never feel free to share their pain? I determined I wanted to be a helper to hurting pastors. If we cannot bear one another’s burdens how do we expect to be able to build fellowship in our churches?
But, frankly, we are pretty bad at it.
Why We Often Don’t Don’t Help Hurting Pastors
- We are so busy in our own lives we don’t really have time for one another.
- There are a lot of Lone Rangers in the ministry, and very few Tontos. We tend to go it alone, even when we are hurting deeply.
- Hurting pastors often face condemnation. “A pastor shouldn’t feel that way.” Read some of the comments in the “Anonymous” post from Friday. People can skip over empathy and straight to judgment. We try to be the Holy Spirit instead of helping the hurting pastor find the healing power of the Spirit.
Through the years, I stopped sharing my heart and baring my soul within the church. When I was a young whippersnapper, I was much more open about my faults and failings, and much more specific. But I found that people would use my “vulnerability” as a weapon against me. So, over time I became much less specific. I talk about my sinfulness and spiritual struggles, but I seldom give any details. But it would seem that within a fellowship of fellow-pastors one ought to be able to be both vulnerable and safe. Unfortunately, that is often not true.
- Hurting pastors often receive trite advice.
It’s true when I am sick. If I admit that I’ve got a cold or a sore throat, every person in the church who believes in some kind of weird cure comes to me. “You need to use essential oils.” “Try echinacea.” “Probiotics will change your life.” Everyone thinks they’ve got a cure. It’s the same when a pastor is hurting. “Here’s a simple biblical principle that will change everything, pastor!” Depression and discouragement are seldom so simple that they can be fixed with cliches, a simple verse or two, or a formulaic approach.
How Can We Help?
Having just said that there are often not easy solutions, now let me attempt to suggest some solutions.
1. Be like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.
It is sad that our study of Job is often limited to the dramatic story in chapters 1 and 2, and the epilogue in chapter 42. The real story is the interaction between Job and his three friends. These men came to Job when he was in his pain and they did the most amazing things – they did everything you should do in helping a hurting friend!
- They went to him and they grieved with him.
They showed empathy for Job. “I am sorry that you are hurting.” Job 2:12 says that they went to him and wept and tore their robes. Please hear this, my faithful fellows in Christ’s service. Our duty to hurting pastors is not to FIX them but to let them know we FEEL for them. We bear their burdens. We are one body and when one part hurts, we all all hurt.
- They sat with him.
“We are here for you, our friend.” One of the biggest problems in ministry is loneliness. Isolation. I’m on an island, all by myself. No one understands. No one cares. But we need to communicate this message to our fellow-pastors. “I’m here for you, brother.” I’m going nowhere.
- They stayed with him.
They didn’t just drop by and say, “How’s it going?” then move on. They stayed there, sitting in silence, surrounding their shattered friend, for seven days, for 168 hours. They came and they stayed. We need to be there for one another, but we also need to STAY there for one another, even when it’s hard, when the response isn’t great, when the hurting pastor doesn’t seem to be helped. Stick it out. Don’t give up.
- They didn’t speak.
They didn’t give Job wise snippets of their theological wisdom. They didn’t offer cliches or sermons or quick fixes. They didn’t even speak. It is your presence that communicates best to a hurting person, even a hurting pastor.
2. Don’t be like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.
Job’s friends were destined to go down in history as three of the greatest men who ever lived, right up until that tragic moment when they opened their mouths. I’ve cringed through the years at some of the things that Christian people have said as “words of comfort” at funerals. Why do we feel we have to say something? That’s usually when we mess things up.
God is a great healer. He can lift up the fallen, set his feet on solid rock, and reestablish his life on the path God has for him. God does that. He has sent the Spirit to live in us as the Comforter, to help us, to heal us, to renew us. We are God’s EMTs. He sends us to the hurting to keep them breathing, to staunch the bleeding, to pick up the pieces. The body of Christ is the hospital in which the healing of God takes place.
In other words, our duty is to be there as agents of love while God’s Spirit effects the healing.
There are two primary messages that a hurting person needs from you.
- God loves you and hasn’t abandoned you. Keep hoping in him.
You don’t have to explain everything. Please. Pretty please. With sugar on it! Please don’t think you understand everything or can explain all of God’s dealings. That’s how Job’s friends got in trouble. They had simple formulas as to how God worked and they tried to cram Job’s complicated life into their simple formulas.
All they needed to do was remind him that God still loved him and was at work in his life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said some variation of this message to a hurting person. “I don’t understand why God is doing what he is doing. But I know that God loves you and you can trust him. He is at work to glorify himself and to bring spiritual good in your life. You can trust him even when you can’t see what he’s doing or understand why.”
- I care about you and I’m going to be here for you.
This needs to be communicated both by words and by actions. Time and again. Relentlessly. Love. Love. More love. Unwanted love. Unreturned love. Annoying love. Persistent love. Make sure this hurting man knows – I’m here for you and I’m going nowhere.
3. There is a Holy Spirit. You AREN’T Him!
I already mentioned this, but I want to highlight it here. Someone has said that the two most important lessons in life are, “There is a God. You aren’t him.” I’d say the same thing when you are dealing with a hurting person – especially a hurting pastor.
You are not the Holy Spirit. It’s not your job to fix the man. It’s not your job to correct every wrong idea he has. It’s not your job to convict him of sin. It’s not your job to correct his theology or explain the world to him. You do not know his motives or the inner workings of his heart.
It’s your job to help him stay in touch with the God who can fix him, convict him of sin, correct his thinking, and help him understand life. Don’t try to be God, just be a bridge to God. When you try to be God, you will likely do what Job’s friends did to Job – they drove him to anger, even to blasphemy. In their attempts to be his Holy Spirit, they actually drove him the other way.
4. Rebuke is an outgrowth of relationship.
I feel very free to give rebuke and correction to my kids, even now that they are all grown up. I try to hold back a little more now, but I still tell them exactly what I think.
But if I tried that same thing with a stranger, it might not be as effective. Biblical rebuke and correction is a product of and an outgrowth of authority and relationship. I might say something to a very close ministry friend that I might not say to someone else.
There are a couple of questions that should be asked before we start passing out our rebuke and correction.
- Do I have spiritual authority or responsibility in this situation?
- Do I have a close relationship with this person?
If these are not in effect, then we must tread lightly. There are times when a rebuke might be appropriate, authority and relationship are always key factors.
5. Practical Words.
Let me finish this with some simple, practical words.
- Don’t pretend you are a doctor.
I’ve been depressed, but I was able to work my way out of it with spiritual disciplines, physical rest, and time. Others need the help of doctors. I don’t really know the fine line. But there is such a thing as mental illness – physical and chemical dysfunction in the brain – that needs to be treated like you would a sinus infection or a broken leg. Don’t neglect the help of doctors.
- Never ignore a self-destructive comment.
Most self-destructive or suicidal comments are not serious, but none should be ignored. If a man talks about killing himself, or ending it all, or something like that – your situation just went nuclear. Do not play games. Get that man to a doctor! Talk to his wife. Make sure someone knows that he is talking scary.
- Lone Ranger time is over.
We need each other. If you are not in a ministerial fellowship of some sort, get in one. Locally. Perhaps something online (harder, but possible). In Paul’s ministry, he always took people with him. Jesus, except when he was with the Father, always had disciples around him.
As I look back on my ministry, I think this is one of my biggest failings. I’ve done much of my ministry well (I’ve biffed a few things!) but I’ve done way too much on my own. I should have taken someone with me. I should have mentored more. Shared more. Opened up more – not to everyone but to a small group of men I trusted.
- Consider the ER
When someone has a bad accident, the ER simply tries to keep them alive and fix the major wounds. As those begin to heal, they work on the smaller stuff, on rehab, on retraining for life. When someone is in full depression it is not the time to unload your theological wisdom on them. Help them through the crisis. Maybe later, as they are in the healing process, you can discuss some of those things.
- Give God time.
God is not a microwave. He takes his time to do his work. He gave Abraham an absurd promise (your barren 65-year-old wife will have a baby) then waited 25 years. He’s not in a hurry. Give God time to work. Just keep being faithful. Pray. Serve. Love. Be a friend. Watch God work over time.
Well, that’s a lot to digest for now. What say you?