Our church has recently started up live services and I am glad. Sunday, we celebrated the Lord’s Supper together for the first time since late February, a great moment. Things are not horrible, but something doesn’t feel right either.
I had a conversation with several friends last week about ministry during a pandemic and it helped me put some thoughts into words. It feels like I am living in a make-believe world, marking time until the world goes back to normal, and wondering if it ever will. Attendance at church has been decent, maybe 60% of normal, but offerings are slowly dwindling as the COVID-19 nightmare stretches from days to weeks to months. I feel drawn, worn down, used up, and burned out. I do not think I am not alone.
- This is a time of family stress. My parents are both on hospice and are nearing the final days of their race on earth. Dad joked when I was in Ft. Pierce a couple of weeks ago that they are seeing who can get to heaven first. The lead changes daily. At our prayer meeting (Zoom) on Wednesday, I was amazed at how many of our people have been burdened, grieving, or struggling. It is a heavy time for everyone.
- I’ve been neglecting Voices and I feel bad about that. Someone accused me (I can’t even remember who now) of running SBC Voices with an iron fist. The guys had a good laugh about that. William posts regularly (thank the Lord) and the other guys are posting far more than I do. A lot is going on in the SBC and while I get the credit or take the blame for almost everything written here, the fact is I have written one real article since the beginning of May. It’s a good thing I don’t get paid. The rest of the guys are pretty much running things here. They do a fine job, but I feel guilty when I ignore things here.
- Ministry stuff is weighing on me. How about you, pastor friend? I saw a tweet yesterday that I wished I could disagree with, from a Presbyterian pastor. He said something to the effect, “Ministry is getting harder and less rewarding.” I know, some of you have nothing but good times every Sunday and you have to fight to keep from bursting with joy every day, but I find ministering in this pandemic is hard. I can’t find my notes from my seminary class (back in the late 70s/early 80s) on “Ministry in a Pandemic.”
Plus, they want me to wear a mask and I hate that. Asthmatic fat guys and masks don’t mix well.
I have gone through several seasons of discouragement in my 40 years of full-time ministry, two were probably depression, and lasted several months. I know burnout firsthand. A time or two, a doctor might have suggested medication for me, if I’d been honest about how I felt. I’ve never reached the point of suicidal ideation, but there were times when thinking about heaven seemed a little sweeter, know what I mean?
Being a pastor is a great privilege and I am thankful to God for his calling, but it is also a burden. Our stress isn’t greater than anyone else’s, but it is unique. We are an odd bunch. So often, pastors are, as a friend of mine used to say, “dying in a heap,” but if we gather in a group we will regale one another with stories of the great things God is doing at our churches. We are reluctant to admit that our churches are swirling the bowl, that our families are struggling, or that we are discouraged.
his all came into focus for me when I was cleaning out a junk room in my first ministry. I came on a box of old church newsletters and was browsing through them. The first three of the weekly missives from the pastor told about the Sunday services. Revival was imminent. Heaven had come down on Sunday and glory had filled every soul. The last newsletter contained his resignation. I knew all about the chaos leading up to his resignation. Heaven was not coming down and glory was filling no souls at that church! In the midst of pain and hurt, he was maintaining a dishonest swagger, to impress others. “Nothing to see here.”
Permit me to mention a few observations about pastoral ministry, why it’s hard, and why we often fall apart doing it. I have been doing this for 4 decades now, and I find these to be realities for me and I think for MOST of us.
1. Pastoral Ministry carries unique and constant pressure.
There are some great joys and advantages to pastoral ministry, but there are some unique pressures we face as well. I would mention two.
First, we know in our minds that we work for the Lord and that his pleasure is what matters most, but our hearts do not usually say amen to that. It is easy to become enslaved to the opinions of others.
I was having some conflict with some of the deacons in my first pastorate and I complained, “Next you guys are going to pick at how I mow my lawn.” One of them replied that how the pastor maintained his lawn was a matter of public testimony and was, in fact, church business. Members feel free to have opinions on how we dress, how we raise our children, on pretty much any aspect of our lives. Becoming a servant of human opinions instead of a servant of God is a temptation.
The most stressful part of ministry is the relentless pressure we face. No matter how much we do, there is always more to do. In 40 years of ministry, I’ve never completed my to-do list, never laid my head down on my pillow without thinking, “I should have…”, and never satisfied everyone.
If I walk with Christ and remember that his pleasure is all that matters, I can handle it, but, well, I don’t always do that.
2. Pastors live with conditional acceptance.
I have had very close friends through the years, men I considered brothers, who have turned on me when I, in some way, disappointed them (sometimes my own failures, sometimes their perceptions). The reality is that most of my relationships are largely one-way. I have to give much more than I receive. If I fail, if I mess up, if I let down, people may well turn on me.
If you have friends who will stick with you through thick and thin, who will love you when you are not at your best, you have a treasure. Those kinds of friends can be rare in ministry.
Too often, people put us on a pedestal, and as soon as we step off that pedestal, they turn away. Does that sound cynical? After 40 years of ministry, realism can sound that way. I love the people I minister but I also realize that their expectations of me are high.
3. Spiritual Distancing can be a pastor problem.
Too often, we can go through the motions of ministry while not walking closely with the savior. I have uninterruptible power supplies on my computers. When there’s a dip in power, the battery keeps them running. Years of ministry and (hopefully) spiritual character may give me a bit of a power supply to bank on when I’m not plugged into the source, but if that goes on very long the power supply drains and I’m on empty.
We have to give so much that we cannot afford to live without seeking Christ faithfully, without being built up in him. I wish I was always careful in that.
4. Wearing masks isn’t something new for pastors.
I bought a new pair of glasses and they told me they were fully covered, no matter what. I slipped on some ice, fell, and broke them. I had a concussion, stitches, a bad headache, and broken glasses. I went into the store to order new glasses and the lady told me, “Sir, that kind of breakage isn’t covered.” I was not happy. I asked to see someone and sat down, talking to my wife (loudly) about what a bunch of con-artists these folks were, ignoring her attempts to shush me. Finally, the lady behind the counter said, sweetly, “They can see you now, REVEREND Miller.” Caught!
I’ve been in line at the grocery store in grubby clothes when someone recognizes me from the halftime devotionals I do at Upward basketball. Wherever I go and whatever I do in Sioux City, someone knows me. The ideal would be to just “be myself” all the time, and I try to be real, just not too real.
We have to wear masks, at least a little. We have to be “on” and that is a lot of pressure.
5. We are Lone Rangers, without Tonto.
Most pastors I know have a tendency to be loners. We are often happiest sequestered in our offices poring over books doing word studies in preparation for Sunday’s message. I am an outgoing, extroverted introvert. I enjoy being with people but I also love solitude.
This causes all kinds of problems for us. Often, we do not share our lives fully with our families, especially with our wives. When we shut our wives out, we are truly alone! Loneliness and isolation, that sense that we are all alone in the world, that no one really cares, that is the final step on the path to despair.
I realize that we are different people and some of you have very different experiences. This is mine.
There are, perhaps, four questions we need to ask ourselves. I don’t want this to happen to me, but I also don’t want to hear about it happening to you, to another person.
- Are you walking close to the Savior, staying plugged into Christ as your source of power?
- Do you have someone you could call, someone you WOULD call if you were on the brink? We all need friends.
- Are you willing to help others in need? Are you willing to let down your guard with other pastors, to stop the posturing and bragging and facade stuff, so that we can help one another?
- Do you have a biblical attitude toward ministry? It is hard. It is war. If you think it is a 9 to 5 job, look for something else. God calls us to battle against the forces of darkness. It will never be easy.
I don’t really have a bucket list, but if I did, one thing that would be on it would be this. I would like to steer a friend away from hurting himself like this and back to a productive ministry in Christ. I would like my times of discouragement and burnout to be a source of encouragement to others.
Men, we really need to be in this together.