I have always struggled to develop supportive friendships. In ministry this often proved even more elusive. At the time in question I desperately needed people with whom I could spend even more time with greater openness and sensitivity than normal. I had just changed geographic location following the the protracted death of a grandson. Additionally, I was still working through several other issues related to a period of unemployment and a ministry to refugees from the killing fields and rape camps of Bosnia. Nor was any other aspect of my life quiet. When is a life ever really quiet.
Due to the geographic relocation, I lived in the country, usually a respite for me, with no acquaintances or former friends near. Having just returned to pastoral ministry, I was struggling to develop relationships both in the church and the surrounding community. A strange thing happened. People kept telling me they did not come over, etc., because they knew how busy I was taking care of the people who were coming to see me. Ironically, no one was coming at all. Additionally, I had been told before I arrived that the couples in the church really did not want the pastor to visit them. A statement I took at face value.
Point being, I lived in isolation - by my own failures and the non-action of others. So, what few friendships developed I clamped on to too hard, to desperately. That was not healthy either.
Next, during a major illness and surgery I developed a major clinical depression. The body, worn out and assaulted, unleashed on me the chemical imbalances which so often lye behind depression. In retrospect, it took two years for my treatment professionals to even find the right balance of medicines and therapy to bring me back to a functioning lifestyle.
During that major depressive episode I felt like I could do nothing of value and had never done anything of value. Of course, being in a church, there were those who vocalized the same about me which, with a depression, did not help. My wife seemed to be the only one who could help me mentally hold on to the truth when, in those times, my emotions were screaming their lies.
Yes, I often felt I and my family, and the church, would be better off if I were dead. That's a terrible mental place to be.
I cannot remember where I picked up the quote above. But, yes, it did strike a cord. How thankful I am that in my major depression with the isolation that preceded it, and ostracism that came after, I did not seriously contemplate suicide nor commit that final act.
Nor am I alone in these experiences. Mark D. Roberts, a man whose ministry I much admire, writes:
I didn’t know Pastor John well. He attended a pastors’ retreat at Laity Lodge (where I work) a year ago. I shared meals with him and enjoyed his company. John was thoughtful, kind, and insightful. He spoke frankly of the challenges in the church he pastored. They were typical of most churches I know, and John didn’t seem overly distressed. We commiserated and brainstormed. John appreciated the retreat and spoke of returning to Laity Lodge before long.
I didn’t hear from John again, though I sometimes wondered about him. Then I heard the gut-wrenching news of his self-inflicted death. It was shocking and deeply disturbing. Once I learned of his suicide, I was not surprised, however, to hear that he suffered from severe depression. Nothing else would explain his otherwise inexplicable behavior. Sometimes depression so debilitates a person and so corrupts his rationality that he does the unthinkable, even believing that his death will improve the lives of others. (I know this not as a trained therapist, but from providing pastoral counseling to people who had attempted suicide.)
Part of what saddens me is that John took his own life while other pastors had gathered for this year’s retreat at Laity Lodge. How I wish he had been with us rather than alone in his deep depression. I wish that I had done more to encourage him to attend the retreat—more than a letter and a couple of emails. I don’t know that this would have helped John, because the demons with which he wrestled were powerful. But it might have.
John’s situation, of course, is extreme. But it speaks to the loneliness of pastoring. Having served as a parish pastor for over twenty years, and having listened at Laity Lodge to so many pastors describing the challenges of pastoring, I know the aloneness that haunts so many who have been ordained to ministry. No matter how close a pastor might be to folk in the church, no matter how much the pastor loves the congregation and how much they love the pastor, the requirements of the pastorate can be isolating.
I think, for example, of times when I was raked over the coals of complaining and criticism. I could share this with my lay leaders, but they couldn’t really understand how it felt to open your heart to a congregation only to have it trampled upon by the very people you are seeking to love. Or I think of how hard it was for me when I sought to discern whether God was calling me away from Irvine Presbyterian to Laity Lodge. It just didn’t seem wise to share my thought process, even with my dearest friends in the congregation.
Sometimes that feeling of aloneness as a pastor came in the middle of the night, when I awoke with worries about the church. Most of the time, these had to do with personnel or financial issues or a combination of both. I remember sitting in my dark living room, crying out to God and feeling as if even he had abandoned me. I knew better, but I felt so terribly alone...
Loneliness and depression present sometimes unbearable challenges in ministry. Unfortunately, the outcome sometimes leads to suicide, to death.
For comfort, Mark Roberts points to Jesus travail in the Garden of Gethsemane:
I can think of no more powerful image of pastoral loneliness than the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane … as the Good Shepherd, Jesus entered into a loneliness that culminated in the isolation of the cross. That was a part of the ministry to which he was called. And so it is for those of us who seek to feed his sheep even today.If you feel alone as a pastor, you should know that you’re not alone in your loneliness. Thousands of other pastors know what you are feeling. And the Great Pastor understands you in full (Heb. 2:14-18, 13:20)
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I ENCOURAGE YOU TO READ THE LINKED ARTICLES BELOW FOR FURTHER UNDERSTANDING: