I’d like to tell you a piece of my story.
I’m a feely person, high on whatever scale would measure empathy. I’m also called by God to serve His people. For the time being this calling finds expression in pastoral ministry.
Recently things have gone wrong. They didn’t really go wrong recently, they had been going wrong for quite some time. It was more a case of recently the wheels finally fell off in a more severe way than they had before.
I had worked myself into an energy-deprived mess. I couldn’t work without coffee. I couldn’t sleep because of coffee. I didn’t have enough hours in the day to speak with everyone I needed to. I wasn’t getting many of my other tasks done. I even forgot I was supposed to be preparing a wedding… or two. And then one day I couldn't get out of bed. For a month. I stopped the coffee and discovered the extraordinary range of panic attacks and fight/flight moments which coursed through my day when the phone would ring or someone would knock at the door. I then learned about ectopic heartbeats, fatty infiltration of my liver and adrenal fatigue.
Being a pastor is not who I am. I assure you the me who currently finds himself pastoring is more colourful, strange, exhaustive and intricate than your (or my) prevailing definition or boundaries of a pastor. I also suspect this of every pastor.
All that to say that I am driven by a ludicrously strong desire to connect with people. Connect is the word I have found myself using because it means conversation, tears, prayer, worship, study, coffee, monster trucks, 12 gauge shotguns, poetry and more. I cannot put into words the fulfilment of self and purpose which comes from connecting with people.
Stay with me for a moment because I need to talk about the dysfunction here. Remember, the wheels fell off.
If I am not continually abiding in the intimate, personal, invasive, comforting love of Jesus, then my passion to connect with people is where I run for validation, security, identity, grounding and reference.
My drive to connect then subverts what He might do through me. Pastoral ministry becomes shaped by my insecurity (because I’m not secure in Him) rather than His Spirit. Maybe this is striking a chord with you. It might, it might not. Me not abiding in Him then goes from this main root of dysfunction into two kinds of other medicating. Primary medicating and secondary medicating.
Primary medicating is where I pour more and more energy into those connectings which I am using to prop myself up. Rather than trying to equip others so that they might be enabled to move towards Jesus and Him transforming them into His likeness (from glory to glory), I try to rescue them – or worse, transform them myself. I allow their problems to become my problems because it does actually push this button inside of feeling needed and thereby valuable.
Preaching and teaching becomes less about Jesus and more about my emotional security. I don’t say what He needs me to say, instead I mainly want to be liked and affirmed. Instead of bringing rebuke I bring a craving for validation. Instead of leading the way I’m supposed to – towards Jesus’ engagement with the world He died to save – I am functionally feathering my emotional nest, introspectively spiralling and feeling like a fraud. I really hope that all of this is foreign to you, if it's not, then I'm hoping that this might help with some clarity.
It gets worse.
Secondary medicating is where I turn to coffee (stimulants) or junk food (gluttony) or retail therapy (greed) or other sin to try and prop up my energy levels or to try and assuage the disquiet of my soul and to propel me forward in my misadventure.
Secondary medicating is also where I get angry or frustrated with people who get in the way of me trying to medicate. People like my wife who tells me I’m working too hard and not spending enough time with her or the kids or actually with The Lord. People like the deacons, elders or pastoral team when they chat to me about actually taking a day off. People who own the coffee shop who start expressing genuine concern for how much of their child's education I'm sponsoring through my addiction.
Can’t they see I’m doing ministry (whatever that is).
My Dad said something strange, as often happens when I ask for his insight in ministry: ‘don’t just do something, sit there.’
Almost immediately I was reminded of something an octogenarian mentor of mine from my younger years said when I shared my (then) conclusion of needing to simply ‘do more’ to fix this reoccurring problem: ‘sit by the oasis’ he said.
You see, a really unfortunate facet of this issue is that I talk to people about spending time with God all the time – and then I don’t do it. And the same dysfunction which I continually see in the lives of the people I journey with is my dysfunction too. When we do not actually let the simple, raw truth – that Jesus loves us – sink in, continually, daily – when we do not soak in it, when we do not breathe it in continually, when we do not just abide, when we allow ourselves to do things rather than to just sit there – we fall apart. Pastor's fall apart because we don't abide and we end up living lives which function identically to a 'salvation by works' theology, even though we know better and have theologised differently.
If I do not sit by the oasis with Him and let His love for me sink in, I very quickly end up living like a man who is trying to earn it – who can’t earn it – so who tries harder – then falls down exhausted, suffering from self medication… for some strange reason. If you are theologically minded then there's every chance that the most difficult journey for understanding to make is the six inches between your brain and your heart. Being analytical is a tremendous blessing except for when stuff like this happens and I scream 'But I know this already!' and then the Spirit asks 'So why are you living like a man who is trying to earn my love?'
So. Put your analysis down. Accept that all the pieces of falling apart may not make sense. Please accept this simple kernel of truth: that Jesus is a thou and not an it. He loves us. Don't just do something - sit there.
P.S. I’ll include this here as more of a corollary note because it could quite easily become the main thing here, when it’s not, it’s the main thing elsewhere. Our cultural expectations of pastors are damaging. The western church seems to want people with 1950’s time on their hands who are 21st Century technological pioneers. We infer our expectations on them to be entertainers, gurus, rock stars, CEO’s, psychologists, public figures, private monastics and church politicians. Crashing and burning as a pastor is too easy. Much easier than a church community understanding that their expectations can kill a pastor and destroy their family. Even if a pastor stops being a normal human being on their own walk of transformation with Jesus – even if they have all their smeg together – the weight of the church community’s expectations can crush them.