That’s perhaps not the headline you wanted to read is it? However, this is the challenging reality. At some point your pastor/vicar/elders have thought
“I could just walk out the building after the service finishes, in fact, I could do it right now. I could shut the Bible, walk out and never come back here.”
Worryingly, they may even at that point have added “or to any church again.”
Last week, I shared my mini survey results about the other costs of COVID and I picked up in our podcast on three questions that looked at spiritual and emotional health. I observed that these were linked and I also added in that pastors/church leaders are not immune from struggling both in terms of their mental health and how they feel in terms of connection to the church family.
There are two reasons why I say this with a significant level of confidence. First because I have a good gut feeling based on my twitter followers that there would have been pastors and leaders answering the questions. Secondly because this fits with things I’ve heard a lot over the past few years. As well as hearing from others that have come close to walking out on ministry or have in fact stepped out, I’m also aware of those who perhaps clung on painfully through challenging times whilst pastoring but are really suffering emotionally in retirement.
This should perhaps be a red light for us. So I wanted to get us thinking about what we can do. Here are some thoughts.
First of all I’d encourage you to get informed. Two books I’d encourage you to read whether you are a pastor or a congregation member are:
The pastor with a thorn in his side (edited by Steve Kneale) which tells the stories of seven pastors who have faced depression. I contributed one chapter to the book.
When darkness seems my closest friend by Mark Meynall.
Secondly, start to be equipped as a church and as a church leadership team in order to think differently and in a more healthy way about leadership and church. I would particularly encourage church leadership teams to read either A dangerous calling or Lead by Paul David Tripp together.
Thirdly, let’s begin to open up a conversation from there about what church life, ministry and leadership could be like. The Tripp books might help with that. Other things I’d encourage you to consider is whether your own church functions first and foremost as family or institution. Is there a sense of being together for Christ, of body ministry, of mutual care and love? Is the pastor first and foremost an employee or is he part of the family. If he wasn’t there anymore what would you miss the most -his work or his presence and fellowship with you? Would you say that the relationship between pastor and congregation is one way, is he the one who just gives in terms of time, teaching, kindness, listening, advice, support? Or is there a mutual relationship where he and his family also receive.
This of course means that those of us who are pastors should also be asking ourselves these questions. Are we able to receive? Do we consider the church our family or just our job? Are we teachable? What kind of culture, attitudes and relationships are we encouraging?
It also means asking those tough questions about where the pastor’s personality, approach and need for sanctification as well as the culture of the church itself, the posture of other leaders and the environment around might contribute to the risk here. Let’s face it, if your pastor is in the middle of a war zone with grumbling congregants, warring factions and competing alphas then he is likely to struggle. This will of course be exacerbated by the temptation he faces to respond in unhelpful and sinful ways to such pressures either by trying to be the peacemaker who holds it all together or by force of personality to enforce a position.
Fourthly, I would encourage you to be prepared for the moment when your pastor hits that wall. You may not want to have this conversation, but I think you should -with him and together as a church.
- Are you and him able to identify and spot the early warning signs? If so, do you have a plan of action for what to do when they begin to emerge. Ideally you want to prevent the point where everything collapses?
- Are you and him isolated or does your church have friends outside who can support?
- Is everything in place so that he and his family can have time off and time away if needed?
- Will he and his family feel loved and cared for when hard times hit? Or will they feel judged?
- What will be your priority and his in the tough times, will actions be motivated by the need to protect reputations (his, the church, other leaders) or by love for one another and a desire to glorify God?
Fifthly, it is the Gospel that we need for such situations. A reminder that we have a great high priest who is not unable to sympathise with us -tempted in every way but without sin.