Loneliness, Despair, Fear: So You Wanted to Be a Pastor?

Next summer will mark the 40th anniversary of my first paid ministry job and I consider it an honor to have been called to the service of the Savior, to have drawn my income from ministry for nearly four decades. I wouldn’t do anything else. The privilege of proclaiming God’s word to people, of telling lost people of the hope there is in Christ, of being a part of people’s lives – that is an honor and blessing for which I am eternally grateful.

Ministry has also worn me out. I have known the betrayal of close friends, have experienced lies, false accusations, and gossip from the sheep I was supposed to shepherd, and have been criticized both justly and unjustly. I have experienced times of such deep discouragement that I didn’t know whether I wanted to continue to live, isolation so severe I felt as if I was living on a desert island, and feelings of failure so profound I could feel my 6’4″ frame shrinking rapidly.

Ministry can be both a blessing and a curse.

Social media was abuzz yesterday with news of another pastor who took the wrong offramp for his ministry struggles. I did not know the man and it is not my intent to address that situation. I don’t think people without knowledge addressing such tragedies is particularly helpful. But I had a long conversation with a group of pastor friends this morning and I was amazed at the pain that was shared there – some by me, some by others. I am grateful for a group of friend with whom I can share such things. I am not going to share their stories, but I do want to reflect on some truths about the pastorate, about depression and discouragement, and about our need for some new ways of working together.

1. Our system aggravates loneliness and despair, it does not ameliorate it. 

I am a Baptist by conviction and by heritage, and I love much of what we do, but I think our current system does little help pastors in their struggles with discouragement and much to pour gasoline on the fire.

  • We judge pastors and churches by their numerical success and those churches that are struggling are viewed as defective. Pastors of those churches often feel stress, pressure, and judgment because of this.
  • For several reasons, the local association has been weakened in Baptist life. If you have a strong association that provides fellowship and encouragement, rejoice.
  • Pastors often have competitive attitudes toward one another instead of cooperative.
  • Our convention work often focuses on programs and strategies, which can be helpful and are often successful. But a hurting pastor needs a listening ear, not a box of curriculum or a video series.
  • Social media braggarts constantly regale us with how “pumped” they are to be at their churches, and how many great things happened there Sunday after Sunday. Sure, we want to praise God, but when you are struggling, that can be a dagger in your heart that reminds you of your own failure.

2. We suffer in silence and fear. 

I lost a good friend to suicide a few years back, a pastor here in Iowa. I spoke to many other men who all said, “If I’d known he was hurting I’d have gone over there.” I would have driven 3 hours to his home if I’d known. But our natural tendency is to hold our pain within and tell no one. Then, when we break down, fall apart, or take the ultimate action, everyone is surprised.

3. We feel like failures. 

We had a great Sunday last week. At a gathering Sunday night I had a conversation with a couple of deacons about some challenges we face and I left feeling overwhelmed and in despair. As I went home that night and as I went through Monday, I carried this burden of stress and failure.

Why? Because that’s who I am.

I know it’s a problem and I realize it evidences a lack of trust and all of that. I get it. But it is my nature. I also know from talking to pastors that I am not alone in this. We are a brooding, pessimistic, failure-fearing bunch.

I think that most of us know that we are flawed folks serving a perfect Savior and we live worrying that our flaws will one day come to the fore and undo everything.

4. We gain our identity from ministry, and success, not from our place in Christ. 

This is the heart of it all, isn’t it? I am in Christ, a child of the King, blood-bought, made righteous in him, destined for heaven, secure in Christ, sealed by the Spirit, loved infinitely and eternally – the list could go on a long time. All of these truths are mine in Christ and are just as true when things are clicking at the church as when everything is falling apart.

But too often I derive my identity from being “Pastor Dave.” I have known the joy of being successful Pastor Dave, the one invited to speak at meetings because my church was growing so fast. Now, I’m Pastor Dave from the church that is struggling to find a new identity and can’t seem to gain traction to begin growing again. Strugglin’ Pastor Dave sometimes feels like a massive failure.

Why? Because I am failing to find my identity in Christ. In Christ, I am just as loved and just as worthy when all goes well and when all goes poorly. This is my greatest need and struggle.

How about you? Is your identity in the Savior, or in the work you’ve been assigned? It matters.

5. (Most) Churches can’t handle the truth.

There are exceptions, and if you are in one, give thanks, but one of the things we discussed this morning was the difficulty churches have in dealing with pastors who are struggling with discouragement and depression.

A few years ago, I wrote an anonymous post here about being an unhappy pastor. My point was that I was called to be faithful, not happy, and that I would and should continue to serve my church regardless of whether I felt warm fuzzies. I did express some frustration with the difficulties I was facing pastoring our church. A couple of women in the church found the post, figured out it was me, and got angry about it. How dare I be unhappy? They were upset that I would dare to be unhappy serving their church and thought I should resign. They left the church.

The fact is, most churches have struggles dealing with their pastors’ struggles. This is a conundrum because we shouldn’t pretend we don’t have them, but if we share them in too much detail, the church will often not respond well. If you have cancer, they will come around you, but if you struggle with depression, they will ask why you can’t pray your way out of it.

6. Be real, but be careful. 

Because churches struggle with it, we have to be careful about how we share our struggles. We should be real, transparent, and honest. We must also be careful. In general, I believe a pastor should be open about his sinfulness, but not specific, unless it is absolutely necessary. Make sure people know you are a fellow pilgrim on the path to conformity to Christ, but be careful about over-sharing.

When you are discouraged or depressed, especially if you are having self-destructive thoughts, you might need to worry less about protecting your job as you do about protecting your life and your health. But walk carefully in sharing your soul within the church.

I realize what I am saying is a recognition that things are not as they should be. In most churches, they are not. In a perfectly healthy church, the pastor could share his foibles with his leaders. Reality is reality though. Most of the churches I know aren’t healthy enough yet for this to happen. We live in the vortex created by the ideal and the real, and I think most of us need to be careful, in reality, about how much we share with our churches.

7. You need a circle of friends. 

If your world was falling apart, is there someone you could go to, someone you could talk to? Do you have a circle of friends? Isolation is the enemy of the pastor that keeps him brooding in a soup of negativity until it consumes him.

Many of us in the ministry have a tendency to be loners, and because of that lonely. Loneliness and isolation are epidemic among pastors. We need to fight this.

I recommend finding a group of pastor friends, or others outside the church. If you have people you trust within the church, fine. Glory to God. But for most of us, it helps to have a group of people we can talk to outside the church.

  • They need to be men of wisdom and biblical understanding.
  • They need to be men you can trust who will not betray your confidence.
  • They need to be men who will challenge you when necessary and not those who will applaud your sin.

If you don’t have such friends, ask God for help. Begin reaching out to other pastors, even those of other denominations. Make the effort to fight isolationism. Lone Ranger ministry will eventually get you.

8. Build your marriage. 

Unfortunately, pastors have marital struggles too. It is crucial that we prioritize building healthy happy marriages because your wife needs to be your ally in times of discouragement.

Loving your wife as Christ loved the church means valuing her, listening to her, prioritizing her, and making her a partner in your life and ministry. Don’t ignore this one, guys.

9. We need to build pastoral networks. 

I believe that state conventions would do well to put time, money, and effort into pastoral support networks instead of just programs and strategies. We need to find ways to link pastor to pastor, foster support groups, and bond pastors. I am sure some of this is going on, but more is needed.

10. Stop the hype. 

When you are going on Twitter, Facebook, or somewhere else to talk about how great everything is in your life and in your church, could I request you ask a couple of questions?

  • Is this an accurate reflection of what is going on in my church?
  • Am I truly sharing this to give glory to God, or to impress others?

We need to share our struggles and our weaknesses with one another, not just our successes. I know it isn’t intentional, but when we trumpet our successes (and even inflate them a bit) it can drive a dagger into the heart of a struggling brother.

Glorifying God for the good things he is doing in your church is a good thing, but consider your true motives and consider others.

Let me sum up by reiterating TWO of my points.

1. Find your identity in Christ, not in your ministry or its success. You are who Jesus is making you, not the amalgamation of the numbers you accumulated at your church.

2. Find a circle of friends to share your struggles. Lone Ranger ministry will leave you lonely, depressed, and with no resources for recovery. Sure, it’s easier, but it isn’t the way of the Body of Christ. You need others.

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