Low-Grade Sense of Ministerial Failure
Mondays are a tough day for pastors. Last week Leith Anderson spoke at our denominational convention and quipped that he never took Mondays off, because he believed he should be payed for the days that he feels suicidal.
I’ve heard jokes like this before. I don’t mind low-energy Mondays. It’s natural for Mondays to be slow after the busyness of Sundays. What concerns me more is the ongoing sense of failure that pastors struggle with, not just on Mondays but on every day of the week.
A recent USA Today article focused on the problem:
Being a pastor — a high-profile, high-stress job with nearly impossible expectations for success — can send one down the road to depression, according to pastoral counselors.
“We set the bar so high that most pastors can’t achieve that,” said H.B. London, vice president for pastoral ministries at Focus on the Family, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. “And because most pastors are people-pleasers, they get frustrated and feel they can’t live up to that.”
On Twitter, somebody linked to this sobering suicide note. “In the history of this great church, my office has been held by many fine and godly men. I am deeply ashamed to know that I am the first one to fail it so miserably.” Very sad.
Still later in the weekend, someone linked to this post:
Outwardly, everything seemed fine. I was successful as a minister. Everything was going well. There was no sign of anything seriously wrong. But inwardly, I was struggling with this incredible, suffocating weight of despair. It started a few years ago as uncontrollable weeping spells out of nowhere, I could be walking along in a shopping mall, driving down the street, or wherever. All of a sudden, this tsunami of despair would wash over me, sweep me off my feet, knock the wind right out of me, until there is nothing left to do but cry.
This may seem extreme to some, but I bet most pastors can relate to what this pastor writes:
“Failure” is a constant companion. People leave the church and I feel like I’ve failed. Visitors come once or twice and are never seen again and I feel like I’ve failed. I deal often with people who are intent on ruining their lives with drugs or alcohol and when they go right ahead and do just that I feel like I’ve failed. I spend time with people who go on to drift away from the faith and I feel like I’ve failed. Our church is no bigger today than it was 10 years ago and I feel like I’ve failed. I pray for sick people without results but if Benny Hinn comes to the city they’ll be real excited about that because, you know, Benny’s got the anointing and his prayers will be effective. FAIL!
I’ll soon enter my 50th year and I carry with me this low-grade sense of ministerial failure. Don’t know what to do about that. Trying to counter it by a recitation of my “successes” would be even more toxic. It’s part of the package. I’ll just have to trust a Saviour whose life on that fateful Friday looked like a failure and know that His strength is made perfect in weakness.
I’m sure most pastors can relate to what this pastor writes. Sadly, not everyone gets to what he says in his last sentence. But most, I’m sure, can relate to his experience.
What to make of all this?
First, we need to be open about this issue. It’s easy to pretend it’s not an issue, and pastors can be slow to admit it’s an issue for them. It’s probably time for elders or the equivalent to have honest talks with their pastors about how they’re doing with this issue. Discouragement is an occupational hazard for ministers. It doesn’t hurt to put some measures in place to help deal with this issue, such as a sabbatical policy. We could all probably fast from attending conferences with “successful” pastors on stage who have done what nobody in the audience will be able to replicate. If we attend these conferences, we at least should expose the subtle messages that are being communicated to those who feel they don’t measure up.
If you’re a pastor who’s struggling with this, you’re not alone. A friend recently told me “Spurgeon, Luther, Brainerd, Cowper, Piper are just a few of the greater lights that I know of who suffer with ‘ministerial depression.'” One of my fellow pastors in Toronto has been really good at helping other pastors who are experiencing depression, because he’s been through it himself. I hope you’ll find someone you can talk to. Please don’t try to deal with it alone. Those of us who are more discouraged than depressed also need to learn to be open about our struggles.
Second, we also need to have some theological discussions. We could all talk about plurality of leadership and the priesthood of all believers, but our models of ministry often emphasize the single charismatic leader who is expected to save the day. Our models of church and pastoral ministry need to become more biblical. We also need to recognize that when it comes to ministry, nobody is competent. Everybody is inadequate. In ministry, as I heard Tim Keller say in an old sermon, “only the inadequate are adequate.”
Finally, pastors (and I include myself here) really need to avoid justification by performance. We’re not saved by how many people attend or how well we preach, and we certainly are not anyone’s savior. As the quote at the top of this blog reads, “You don’t have anything to prove to us or the world. The work is finished at Calvary, and that work has unlimited meaning and value. Keep your focus there” (Jack Miller). We really need to remind ourselves of this on a regular basis.
Tullian quoted this prayer a few weeks ago:
Lord Jesus, though I’m never tempted to look to any other name for my justification, I am very tempted to look to other names and means for my transformation — worst of all, is when I look to me to be my own savior. But only you, Jesus, are able to save completely those who come to God through you, for you are always living to pray for us and to advocate for us (Heb 7:25). You are my righteousness, holiness and redemption, and that’s why I only boast in you today! (1 Cor. 1:30-31)
So I come to you today, Jesus, right now! Save me more fully from my fear of man, my need to be in control, my ticky-tacky pettiness. Save me from trying to be anybody’s savior. I want to get irritated far less often and to be spontaneous much more often. I want to “light up” more quickly when I hear your name, Jesus, and not be downcast, when I don’t hear my name.
That’s a prayer I need to pray more often.
Any other suggestions?