Monday, October 17, 2011

Why some pastors are literally killing themselves

Three weeks ago one of our board members, Bernie Currie,  came to the pulpit to share with our church about Pastor Appreciation.  He is great at doing this.  (We are so blessed!!)  He shared some alarming statistics he has found in his research, including that a recent survey reported that when it came to suicide, clergy ranked #3 as far as professions with the highest suicide rates.  

That doesn’t surprise me.  I talk to people in ministry most every week who are on the brink of leaving their spouse, leaving ministry, or checking out on life altogether.  It’s why I started a ministry for them in 1998, because God has given me special compassion for those in vocational ministry.  
 
Some other related statistics:

70% of pastors don't have a close friend.
1700 pastors leave the ministry for good, every month.
70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
90% of pastors work between 55-75 hours a week.
70% say they have a lower self worth now than when they entered the ministry.
40% of pastors report having a serious conflict with a church member at least once a month.
50% of all ministers starting out will not last five years.
Only one out of every ten ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.
94% of pastors' families feel the pressures of the pastor's ministry.
80% of pastors' spouses wish their spouse would choose a different profession.

Wow is right.

I have witnessed the shocked looks on people's faces when statistics like this are shared.  Last Sunday night my husband  and I went to another church to minister at a close friend's pastor appreciation banquet.  Larry shared all of these statistics with their church.  The looks on their faces were of shock and amazement.  I realize most people are stunned to hear these statistics, but have no idea of all the "why" behind it.  There are many reasons, but I believe one of the most critical is that your average church member does not understand the role of the pastor.  When expectations and roles are not clearly spelled out, relationships have problems.  

We spell it out all the time at Celebration Church.  In fact, when Bernie brought this up a few Sundays ago I thought to myself, "it's a great time for another reminder."  Last Wednesday night I brought a message about this called, "WHAT'S THE DEAL?" and talked very openly to the church about what the deal is behind all these statistics.  They eagerly received what I had to say which was not a surprise to me.  We have been on the same page for a long time now.  We are absolutely committed to pastoral and church health, as a team.


An article by Greg Warner on Religion News Service gives greater insight to the growing problem many pastors and churches are facing.  In addition to much more valuable insight on the subject, Warner says:

"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. ...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."
 Speaking of demands that are imposed, most pastors don't realize the unspoken demands until they get there, despite having very thorough interviews.  Later on after accepting a pastorate they may realize they are just not on the same page with leadership. When we pastored our first abusive church, we were in a severe clash over the issue of roles and expectations.  One of the board members told my husband (and I quote) “Pastor, your job is to babysit the unique needs of this congregation.”  My husband said, “God didn’t call me to be a babysitter.”  We were clearly not on the same page as to what we were called to accomplish together.   

Where do we get the job description for a pastor?  Thankfully the Bible spells it out clearly:

Ephesians 4:11-13.

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers.  Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ.  This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. [Emphasis mine]

The crux of so much of the problem comes in when the people don’t understand that the role of the pastor is not to DO the work of the ministry but to EQUIP GOD’S PEOPLE TO DO HIS WORK.

Only churches that understand and do this will grow to their potential.

Not fully grasping and acting upon this is not only why many pastors have burnouts and breakdowns, but it's also why many churches surge up in attendance and then shrink right back down.  A church that is limited by how much one or two people can do will only grow to the point of what those one or two people can handle no matter how talented they may be.   

There was a board member at a church who meant well but was misguided.  He stood before the congregation one Sunday and said, “Church, it’s time for us to rally together!  We must help our pastor to do HIS WORK.”  The man had the right spirit but the wrong idea.

It's not the pastor's church, nor the pastor's work.
It's God's church and it's God's work.
 
Also we must face the issue of who "the church" really is.
People throw this term around…they will say, “what’s the church doing about this?”
They may say, “Mary Jones is sick.  What is the church doing?” or “there’s some trash piling up outside.  What is the church doing?”

My response when people ask things like this in our church is always, “I don’t know, what ARE you doing?”

When they say, "the church" usually what they are really referring to (in my experience) is the pastoral staff or the "church office"  (as if the office is some kind of entity in itself). The staff is not the church, and the office is not the church.  The people collectively are the church.  We are the church...all of us who are members of the body of Christ.

Another reason pastors are so stressed nowadays is because many people have very high expectations and low investment. In today's consumer culture, people shop around  and want the best of the best, especially for their kids. There’s nothing wrong with that, as we all want what is best for our children.  The question is, are we willing to be part of the solution in providing the best of the best?  Or do we expect the pastor or “the church” (there's the ambiguous "the church" again!) to simply provide it?   People will say, “it’s not my season to be involved in helping.”  But if we took all the programs of the church away because we had no one to lead them they would be the first people to move on and say, “we have to leave...we can’t go somewhere that has nothing for our kids…”  

Do you see the interesting “catch 22” pastors are in?  


This is not their only challenge, but it's one of the biggest.

Most of the same people who say it’s not their season  for involvement seem to find lots of time for TV, movies, and other recreational pursuits.  Just read their Facebook and Twitter statuses and you will see they seem to have ample time for lots of things.

Perhaps you can understand why some pastors are so stressed to the max and even considering suicide.  They are expected to provide not just excellent but AMAZING ministry all the time that competes with the mega church down the street or the ministry on TV. And they are expected to do all this with a sometimes finicky and unstable all volunteer work force.   Understand, no where in the Bible will you find the program ministries of today's church.  That doesn't make these programs wrong.  Programs are valuable because they provide a structure for ministry and are a great means to an end.  But they are modern inventions, not biblical mandates.

Churches that are healthy with healthy pastors and healthy church members and a healthy church as a whole are those who have realized the true responsibility of the pastor which is to equip and train the people to rise up and fulfill the work of the ministry.  Healthy churches are those where every member is a minister.

 Some people say, “well, I can't really be focused on that right now.  I have to focus on what I get paid to do.” Really?  How did chasing the dollar become the most important thing in our world?  Isn’t that what’s sort of gotten our country in a whole lot of trouble in the first place? Perhaps we wouldn't be in this awful mess our nation is in had people not prioritized chasing money over everything else.  
There are times I hear people talk about their priority being what they are or are not compensated to do.  For 12 years of full time ministry I didn’t earn a dime for what I did in the church but accomplished some of the most important ministry I have ever accomplished and have many sons and daughters in the Lord to show for it today.

There is much more to say about this (and I did say much more last Wednesday night) but I'll just close this post by saying this:  
We're all ministers!
It's my season!
It's your season!
Let's do this thing, better yet let's LIVE this thing together AND do it in a healthy way!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

What many don't realize is that pastor's kids also face many of these alarming statistics too. As a pk, I have dealt/deal with almost everything on that list. Being a pk is not easy. Is it any wonder why so many of us rebel and leave the church and never look back? I have a lot of issues and ALL of them stem directly from being a pk. I'm on a soapbox. I could go on for days about this topic. I'll stop now before I say too much.

Deanna Shrodes said...

I understand. I agree with you. I am sorry that you have a lot of issues stemming from being a pk and all that can involve. I will be praying for you, though I don't know who you are, the Lord does and I will be praying that you can find the healing that you need. I don't say that lightly -- when I say I will pray, I will. Blessings and love to you, dear one...