Saturday, November 07, 2009

Carrying the burden alone

USA Today has a very troubling article on depression, frustration and even suicide among vocational ministers that it ran last week. Here are a few quotes from the article:

What kind of personal pain would cause a 42-year-old pastor to abandon his family, his calling and even life itself? Members of a Baptist church here are asking that question after their pastor committed suicide in his parked car in September.

Those who counsel pastors say Christian culture, especially Southern evangelicalism, creates the perfect environment for depression. Pastors suffer in silence, unwilling or unable to seek help or even talk about it. Sometimes they leave the ministry. Occasionally the result is the unthinkable.

Experts say clergy suicide is a rare outcome to a common problem.

But Baptists in the Carolinas are soul searching after a spate of suicides and suicide attempts by pastors. In addition to the September suicide of David Treadway, two others in North Carolina attempted suicide, and three in South Carolina succeeded, all in the last four years.

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."

When pastors fail to live up to demands imposed by themselves or others they often "turn their frustration back on themselves," leading to self-doubt and to feelings of failure and hopelessness, said Fred Smoot, executive director of Emory Clergy Care in Duluth, Ga., which provides pastoral care to 1,200 United Methodist ministers in Georgia.

A pastor is like "a 24-hour ER" who is supposed to be available to any congregant at any time, said Steve Scoggin, president of CareNet, a network of 21 pastoral counseling centers in North Carolina. "We create an environment that makes it hard to admit our humanity."

It's a job that breeds isolation and loneliness — the pastorate's "greatest occupational hazards," said Scoggin, who counsels many Baptist and other ministers. "These suicides are born out of a lack of those social supports that can intervene in times of personal crisis."

What causes this is pretty simple. Pastors are exalted in evangelicalism and are simultaneously asked to shoulder the burden of ministry for an entire congregation. They are expected to be there for every other member of the church while at the same time being a perfect father and husband.

It is little wonder that pastors are depressed, frustrated, quitting "the ministry" or even in some extreme cases committing suicide. We have created an impossible culture combining impossibly high expectations for pastors and simultaneously isolating them. The numbers are all over the place, showing huge numbers of frustrated, burned out, depressed pastors. The number of men who leave vocational ministry or are pushed out of their position is staggering and yet no one is willing to address the issue head on. It isn't a matter of paying them more or having more pastor appreciation events. The problem as I see it, and this is no surprise, is the entire system itself of subcontracted ministry. No one seems to want to ask the hard questions of what causes this and why it is seemingly so prevalent. Few people seem willing to raise their hand and ask if this whole system is contra-Biblical, if the reason there are so many unhappy men in vocational ministry and so many apathetic Christians in the laity is that we have abandoned in all but passing reference the idea of the priesthood of all believers.

This is not primarily a monetary issue or even a stress issue. It is first and foremost a spiritual issue. We are called as the Body of Christ to bear one another's burdens and it is the height of arrogance and foolishness to expect that one man can take that upon himself and "minister" to an entire congregation. I hate to sound groovy or emergent or something, but ministry is not a "top down" thing, it is a horizontal thing. If we continue to isolate one or a few men from the rest of the Body, we will continue to see this cycle of burned out pastors. It doesn't have to be this way, it was never intended to be this way and it cannot continue on this way.

Bookmark and Share

No comments: