The Nature of the Office
The nature of the office of pastor does lend itself to unique challenges. While one performs the duties and responsibilities required of him in pastoral ministry he can begin to experience these hardships that accompany people-work rather than paperwork. In this section of the paper I intend to examine the unique nature of pastoral ministry that causes it to be so susceptible to crises of faith, moral failures, depression and burnout. I will do this by examining four issues that I believe create an environment where pastors can become trapped in their misery and feel that there is no escape. First will be the isolation and loneliness pastors experience in their unique and set aside office. Second will be the high calling that God and His Word has placed upon the pastor and how detrimental it is to attempt to pursue the role in one’s own strength. Third is the image pastors feel that they have to maintain even when that image isn’t a true reflection of their current spiritual condition. This can lead to a separation between the private and public life of the minister causing him to feel disillusioned with himself and begin to make him feel that he is living a lie. And lastly I will attempt to show the spiritual nature of the shepherding ministry by showing that the pastor is often exposed to the struggles and problems of the people of God’s life as well as evil forces of Satan and his kingdom. This exposure can drain the pastor and if he doesn’t refill that emptying with the love of his Savior he will eventually burnout or express that stressed and drained state in sin in his life.
Ministry is a lonely calling, and the current culture of pastoral ministry has added to, rather than taken away from, the isolated nature of parish work. Pastor William H. Armstrong in his book Minister, Heal Thyself, he addresses the issue of loneliness in pastoral ministry. He says, “How alone one feels when standing in the pulpit with scores of eyes looking up, hoping up for some reassuring word about life. How lonely we are in the community, having taken stands that seem so right to so few; lonely carrying confidences that we cannot share; lonely behind the unreal expectations imposed on us; lonely after hours, having chosen not to be too close to anyone in our churches so as not to alienate others.”1 If we don’t guard ourselves against that isolation, an isolation which our enemy and accuser wants us to feel deeply, it can end in deep and dark depression as well as expressions of sin and self-sufficiency.
The call of pastors and elders is also one which the Lord puts high standards upon in His Word. The scripture which comes immediately to mind does a good job of setting the mood and disposition of biblical requirements upon the shepherd. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1).” Right away a pastor who has been called by God to gospel ministry should feel the weight of the responsibility. James warns his readers that not many should strive to teach because teachers will receive a stricter judgment. We as teachers will be judged by our Lord by a more difficult grading scale. But why is this warning given, and why is it exactly that teachers will receive a judgment of greater harshness? James brings this warning in the context of the discussion of taming the tongue, and seeing as teachers use their speaking, their tongues, to teach the things of God. Our Lord said in Matthew 12:36, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,” and the same especially goes for teachers who claim to know the things which they are teaching and have great influence over their listeners.
In his instruction to the young pastor Timothy Paul gave him the advice to, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:16).” Paul seems to communicate that Timothy’s personal piety and the correlation to truth of his teaching is deeply important for the spiritual well being of not only himself but also those whom God has called him to watch over. Second to James’ warning in chapter 3, the most daunting and weighty passage pertaining to the weightiness of pastoral ministry is Hebrews 13:17. The author of the letter to the Hebrews instructs his readers to, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” We as pastors must stand before the Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, and give an account of the souls we have watched over on that great day of reckoning. The reality of this great responsibility can fall down upon the shoulders of a man in ministry until it almost seems unbearable and completely impossible to be faithful in. And without the empowering of the Holy Spirit and the encouragement of our loving Savior Jesus Christ it is impossible. When we attempt to pursue ministry without the God who enables our ministry, disaster is on it’s way.
With the heavy isolation a pastor feels, alongside the great weight of responsibility that God’s Word ascribes to the calling of a minister, apart from God’s enabling grace, can fall into grievous sin, depression and doubt. The problem is not that the pastor is a sinner, the problem that occurs is that the pastor does not feel that he can tell anyone that he is a sinner, that he is doubting or has fallen into depression, and so continues to put on a front that he feels the church expects from him. He attempts to keep up his image even though he is suffering. His outward appearance now no longer reflects his inward condition. He has lost his integrity, he is no longer whole and undivided. His image has become something other than who he is, a falsehood that, if not dealt with in due time, will cause great spiritual and psychological damage. So many pastors find themselves trapped in this dual-life.
Paul David Tripp speaks on this constant battle between the public perception and the private reality in ministry when he says, “There is a way in which all of us have a separation in our lives between our more pristine public ministry persona and the more messy details of our private lives. Aspects of this separation will be with us until the Lord returns.” He is right to say that this separation and inconsistency is inevitable and is part of dealing with the reality of living in a fallen world and struggling against a sinful nature that still wars within us. But he goes on to warn about this separation when it is allowed to persist and is excused instead of constantly fought against. “This separation does not necessarily disqualify you from ministry, but it becomes spiritually debilitating to you and your ministry when you become comfortable with it. It is dangerous when you have learned the craft of making this separation work. It is a pastoral disaster when you have conquered the dark spiritual skill of sectoring your own heart, where it’s as if you are two separate people and the dark side doesn’t haunt you anymore.”2 That is what we must guard against in the ministry.
The final reason pastors find themselves trapped in sin and depression is precisely because of the rigorous and spiritual nature of the position. Pastors are often exposed to the real, daunting and deep seeded issues of their congregants. They face the nitty and gritty of life in ways that many others never have to encounter. Who is there when the diagnosis of cancer is given? Who is consulted when it is discovered that the husband has been cheating on his wife? Who is the subject of discussion when frustrations and complaints are brought against the church? Who is the person that feels him and his family live in a glass bowl and are open to criticism on a daily basis, in the church and in the community?
The pastor, as the soul curate of the people of God, not only is exposed to the brokenness of his parishioners, not only has to deal with the stressful decisions of leadership in an organization, but because he has been called by the Lord to watch over the sheep he is also exposed to deep and troubling attacks from the spiritual forces of darkness. Pastors come under the attack of Satan and his minions and under these attacks can be dragged down into despair. If these experiences of suffering are received without the glorious perspective of God’s providence they can seem unbearable and unfair, leading pastors to comforting addictions and dark nights of the soul. Therefore pastors must not lose sight of the suffering of their Savior if they are to see any redemptive and restorative value to their exposure to pain and suffering. If this suffering is not seen ultimately as coming from the hand of God for their good, they will be tempted to lose hope.
Stay tuned for the next and final installment of this series entitled Solutions & Suggestions where I will give my advice on how to avoid the pitfalls of ministry and stay centered in Christ.
1 – Armstrong, William H. Minister, Heal Thyself. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1985. 11
2 – Tripp. Dangerous Calling. 2015. Crossway. 200