Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News
March 24, 2019
The rewards outweigh the demands
A clinical psychologist made the chilling comment recently that the rate of pastor suicides has increased during his thirty years of practice – and he expects it to keep rising. His observation saddens me but it does not surprise me. Because pastors are people, they struggle with the same problems that sometime cause people to commit suicide.
Another psychologist observed that “Pastors are the single most occupationally frustrated group in America.” And, he continued, “The demands upon pastors are so great that thirty to forty percent of pastors eventually drop out of the ministry.” Having served as a pastor for 68 years, I can confirm that the demands are great, but “pressure to perform” is not a problem peculiar to pastors. The demands upon other professionals are equally great.
Yet another psychologist said, with tongue in cheek I think, that “because of their strong religious beliefs, pastors won’t kill themselves; they just spend their time wishing they were dead.” The truth is, some pastors do kill themselves. And perhaps some do occasionally wish they were dead.
I began my own pastoral work quite aware that the demands of ministry can cause a pastor to cave under the pressure. My student appointment became available in September, not June, the usual time for pastoral assignments. The position was offered me because the pastor who had been given the assignment in June had bailed out. In the middle of an August night, without saying goodbye to anyone, he and his wife loaded up their belongings and left town. While he did not commit suicide, he did quit the ministry and hopefully found a job he could handle.
At 87 I feel not only fortunate but blessed that the demands of the ministry have never caused me to wish I was dead or to consider suicide. In fact, I wish I had another 68 years to serve the Lord as a pastor. The rewards, the blessings, have far outweighed the demands. It may seem funny but I wish I could start over now; I think I have finally learned how to be the kind of pastor people need!
Even funnier is the reality that now, having learned so much about how to do the work of a pastor, I seldom run into a younger pastor who wants to pick my brain. So many of the young pastors seem to think that old warhorses like me are saddled with “old church” ideas that will not work in today’s world. But I have to laugh about that for I am sure I had the same opinion about the old guys when I was young.
I met E. Stanley Jones when he was 75. He was full of life with energy to burn. I was not yet 30 and I admired this old preacher whose zest for life was contagious. I remember hearing him say, “Life is funny, and the older you get, the funnier life gets!” As I have aged, I have discovered what he meant. Once I could run. Now I can hardly walk and am at risk for falling. I have learned to laugh at the law of diminishing returns; so many things I once could do, I can do no longer. But I am determined not to complain but to embrace the problems of aging I am facing as simply the components of the next chapter of a long life. And as Jones said, life does get funnier as you get older. I am so old now that instead of holding a door open for women or older people, women are holding the door open for me!
One idea I would offer today’s pastors is not to feel sorry for themselves because of the pressure they are under. Yes, the demands are great. But they are great also for nurses, doctors, lawyers, engineers, firemen, policemen, teachers, counselors and other professionals. Many people live “in a fish bowl.” Many people are “on call” 24/7. Many people live with the stress of “great demands” upon their time and too little time for their family. Many are constantly scrutinized and evaluated by their employers. Pastors are not the only people who must learn to deal with pressure. We should resist boldly the idea of asking people to pity pastors because of the pressures they face. And we must not pity ourselves; self-pity can become a pathway to suicide.
A pastor can help himself, or herself, by admitting that he or she is not Superman or Superwoman. No pastor can do everything well. No pastor can meet the expectations of every person. No pastor can help everybody. Early in my ministry I learned to say, “I am not God. I will do what I can and be at peace, leaving the rest to God.” Repeatedly, he has rewarded that decision with peace that the world cannot provide.
Pastors should not feel sorry for themselves because they have to deal with difficult people. Again, that is not a problem peculiar to pastors. When tempted to think like that, a pastor should remember that law enforcement officers constantly deal with worse people than ornery church members. Veterinarians have to deal with some mighty strange owners of cats, snakes, birds and dogs.
Like most pastors I had to deal with some difficult people, negative people who sometimes made me want to climb the wall. I compensated this way. I chose to have compassion for the negative person for this reason: he or she had, mistakenly, believed that God had called them to bellyache about something every day – and they were just trying to fulfill God’s calling by being difficult. Thinking that helped me to be at peace about trying to “straighten out” the difficult people. That was God’s job. I avoided some ulcers this way.
When it comes to pressure, pastors can help themselves by not only turning over to God the things they cannot do, but by calling on God to give them the grace to do more than they can do in their own strength. After all, we serve One who said, “Without me, you can do nothing.” It is good to remember that but also to remember what Saint Paul said, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” And surely God will provide us with the strength to do anything he expects us to do.
At the end of the day, the best pastor is but a bridge that helps people get in touch with God. People do walk on bridges so pastors sometimes get walked on. But their great reward is in knowing they helped people get connected to God. To do so, they themselves must stay connected to God, so closely that he can save us from being crushed by whatever pressure we must endure. This connection alone can help us stay alive, and glad to be alive, until he calls us home. + + +