Thursday, October 29, 2009

Silent No More

A friend shared this USA Today article recently, and it gives voice to a problem that most people acknowledge on a certain level, but few people really understand. The problem is that being a pastor is a stressful, lonely job, and studies show that most pastors a very unhappy.

The article points out that pastors themselves share some measure of blame for this. The types of personalities drawn to local church ministry are generally people pleasers (guilty as charged), but the reality of leadership is not only that you can't make everyone happy, but real leaders often have to do things they know will make others angry because it is for the greater good.

Many pastors also set themselves up for failure by implying (sometimes in not so subtle ways) that they consistently embody the high ideals they encourage their community to live out. When Ted Haggard was forced out of his church in 2007, I wrote a post about how both pastor and congregation play into the myth of the perfect person, the super-hero pastor, and that the pressure will become overwhelming and the consequences will be disastrous.

This isn't just an abstract issue for me. I've been very open about my struggles with depression and anxiety, both in the congregations I've served and here in the blogosphere. And many of the things I've experienced in ministry have made my mental health struggles worse. The very fact that I've shared these struggles has had negative consequences on more than one occasion. So while I've never been suicidal like some of the pastors mentioned in the USA Today article, I understand what it's like to feel lonely, and even on occasion hopeless as a pastor.

One problem is that most pastors don't have very many "safe spaces" where they can be open and honest about their struggles. Pastors generally work more than 40 hours a week, much of that time spent with people in their congregations, but rarely are those people a safe space for a pastor. Sadly, most pastors can't feel safe with other clergy, either. Often times we're too afraid of shattering people's illusions that we're perfect, or we know that someone will see a point of weakness and use it against us.

Sadly, most pastors are either too proud or too scared to seek out professional help, assuming that if they just prayed or read their Bible more everything would be OK. So we become trapped in a self destructive cycle that everyone sees, but no one wants to talk about. But it's only a matter of time before the elephant in the room charges and people get hurt.

(For anyone in the Middle Tennessee area, I recommend the Pastoral Counseling Centers of Tennessee. I've seen the same counselor there for the last six years and the benefit has been immeasurable.)

If you're a pastor, please take a risk and speak up. Name your fears and your struggles. Sure, you run the risk of upsetting someone or giving a dysfunctional person some ammo against you, but you might also be surprised at who else might be suffering in silence, and at how your example may encourage and empower them.

If you have a pastor, step back and take a look at how you and your congregation treat them. Are your expectations unrealistic? Is your pastor setting him or herself up for failure by letting you expect too much of them? Ask yourself this question: do I pray for my pastor? Trust me, they need it.

Naming our struggles won't solve them, of course. There will always be difficult people and situations. But if more people realize that pastors are people too, including (maybe especially) pastors themselves, we'll all be a whole lot better off.

No comments: