A few days ago, as I was scrolling through online news sites, I came across a tragic story. A California pastor took his own life. He left a grieving wife, 3 young boys, friends and other family members, his congregation, and so many others to suffer the consequences of his tragic decision. (You can read the story here.)
I don’t know what complicating factors played into his thought process that ended in his decision to take his own life. But, the article listed anxiety and depression as a constant problem with him.
If you think this is an isolated incident, that this pastor was part of a small group of ministers that struggle with anxiety and depression, simply Google something like: “pastors who struggle with depression.” I did that just a few moments ago and came up with 530,000 results.
I have observed this phenomena firsthand. I love pastors and love being around them. If I can get them to take their walls down and be transparent, I expect to hear that they are struggling. Really struggling! Sure, they smile and tell members of their congregation and other pastors that things are going well. But in a moment of transparency, they often say that they feel like an empty well that is forced to continue producing more and more water. Without a doubt, they would say that their ministry, while it has its moments of incredible joy, has been a huge burden on them and their family.
As I did some quick research on this problem, I read an article by Thom Rainer, entitled, “Five Reasons Many Pastors Struggle With Depression.” I noticed that his fifth reason was loneliness. In my interactions with other pastors, and as they periodically tell me how their wives are struggling, I think loneliness and isolation should be at the top of the list. It seems to be the root problem of their anxiety and depression. Many of the other stresses of pastoring are simply straws that threaten to break the proverbial camel’s back.
From my exposure to these ministers, it would seem that most of them are actively cultivating their walk with the Lord. But, their relationship with God isn’t enough. If you look back at Genesis 2:18, you will realize that when Adam had God all to himself in unbroken relationship, God still said, “It’s not good that man should be alone.” God created us to have relationship with Him and others. This is why we don’t simply have one great commandment – we have two. We need both – a relationship with God and relationships with others.
Matthew 22:37-40 (NLT) “Jesus replied, ‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.'”
As I have spent much time with pastors, and assessed my own periodic struggles, I have previously compiled a list of reasons why pastors and their wives battle with loneliness and why relationship is so hard for them. As I list these reasons, it is hoped that you will understand their struggle and might even reach out to resolve the problem with some of the solutions I will add at the end of this post.
(In fact, only an hour after I wrote this blog post [and have not yet posted it to social media], a pastor friend in Colorado, unaware that I had written this post, tweeted an article titled: “Why Pastors Are Committing Suicide.” If you read the article, you will notice how the theme of isolation is a major problem with pastors. There are many pastors and their wives who are silently struggling behind the scenes – and this is a much bigger problem than Christians realize. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there seems to be little communication going on about it in our churches and some fail to see hope on the horizon.)
So, here are some reasons why relationship is so hard for pastors and their wives.
- Relationship skills are being forgotten in an age where large front porches with rocking chairs have disappeared and technology has taken over. People just don’t talk and share like they used to. Communication is happening but it tends to be more superficial and less relational (satisfying).
- Let’s start off with the really bad one – maybe the pastor and/or his wife is a conceited jerk. They neither want nor feel the need for relationships. If this is the case, then they need to get out of the ministry. Ministry IS relationship.
- It is possible that the pastor and/or his wife didn’t adequately learn relationship skills in their formative years. They can learn those skills in adulthood but it takes intentionality.
- It is possible that the pastor and/or his wife were hurt in their formative years (physically, emotionally, sexually, etc.). To protect themselves from further hurt, they have built a wall around themselves to protect themselves from being hurt again … but that wall also keeps good people out who are open to relationship. In this case, they need to seek out a good Christian counselor to help them work through those problems.
- It is possible that the pastor and/or his wife have been burned in ministry so they have developed a distrust which inhibits relationship. It has been the observation of many pastors and/or their wives that the person(s) who are the quickest to get into their inner circle when they arrive at a church will almost certainly be among the group that causes them the greatest grief as the years go by.
Transparency is a huge aspect of deep relationship. To enjoy relationship at its best is to fully know and to be fully known. But, much of what keeps the pastor and/or his wife awake at night is stuff that cannot be shared. Pastors and their wives carry the weight of their own families but also the weight of many other families and individuals within their church. They also carry the weight of committee conflicts, staff conflicts, angry church members, betrayal by someone thought to be a friend, frustrations of having responsibility without authority, anxieties over the feeling that they can’t measure up to the congregation’s expectations, and so much more. And the emotional weight of carrying those burdens must be carried alone. Much of this cannot be shared with anyone else.
- Sometimes church members don’t respond to attempts at relationship by the pastor and/or his wife because of the high regard for the position of pastor. The pastor and/or his wife are wrongly put on a pedestal which essentially creates a barrier to relationship.
- Sometimes church members don’t respond to attempts at relationship by the pastor and/or his wife because members of the congregation are needy. They spend much time unloading their troubles onto the pastor and his wife but never feel compelled to put back what they took out. Many pastors I know are expected to listen to every care of every member who wants to talk to them … but it is a rare occasion when someone asks the pastor or his wife, “So, how you are doing?”
Sometimes there is animosity toward the pastor and/or his wife because of a previous bad experience with another pastor. Unfortunately, pastors are often lumped together by some folks and are “dead in the water” before they even have a chance to be known. Unfortunately, these folks rarely keep their animosity to themselves. They gossip and slander which causes even greater trust issues with who the pastor and/or his wife can be transparent with. The pastor and/or his wife typically ask themselves: “Who is actively talking and listening to the conversations that are undermining us?”
- Sometimes there is a resistance to leadership. Simply because of the position the pastor fills, there will be those who do not want to know him or his wife. There will be folks who see it as their job to provide the “checks and balances” for the pastor and relationship with them will be virtually impossible.
Some pastors and their wives move into a community where virtually everyone else has connections. This tends to happen in small towns. In this case, the folks in his church have known each other for years (decades). The pastor and his wife are the outsiders. No matter how hard he and his wife try, they will enjoy relationships only to a certain extent – as they peer over the fence and watch everyone else enjoying deeper relationships.
- The pastor as truth-teller, must confront people in sin. Those folks don’t often respond well. When they are asked why they left the church, they aren’t going to say that they were in sin and caught. They will undermine the pastor. So, the pastor often feels like transparency is dangerous because what he shares may eventually be used against him.
- Some pastors and/or their wives have felt the loneliness and the difficulties of ministry for so long that they resort to simply going through the motions. They put on their pastor’s hat, smile, and say things are going great. But, they have lost the emotional health and energy it takes to reach out in relationship. The protective wall is intact around them.
- Finally, a mild form of paranoia may develop in the minds of the pastor and/or his wife. When they become emotionally overwhelmed and unhealthy, they begin to notice that people who used to say “hi” to them now seem to walk past them without a word. Or conversations seem to stop when the pastor and/or his wife walk up. They can’t help but wonder if something is going on that they don’t know about. So, they build the wall.
Honestly, I could keep going but this is the list of possibilities that I have collected so far.
Sure, some pastors and their wives are doing incredible. But, the point of this article is to reveal that there are reasons why many pastors and their wives (many more than most folks realize) who appear to be relationship saturated will, instead, often find themselves distanced from those they are called to love. And, hidden down deep in the recesses of their heart, they will struggle with a gut-wrenching loneliness and depression that others may never know about.
And if you don’t believe that what I have described is a real phenomena, don’t ask your pastor. He won’t be honest with you about this. Ask someone who is in leadership in your denomination who has access to pastors and what they deal with. Almost certainly, they will validate virtually everything I have mentioned here.
So, what can be done…
1. See your pastor and his wife as a human being, not a superhuman.
They are in their place of service because they love the Lord, His Word, and His people. They care about people and find great satisfaction when those in their congregation bring them into the moments of their lives.
But, they are like wells filled with water. If you take water out … and keep taking water out without replacing the water … eventually, they are going to run dry. And when they are forced to continue doing their job with an empty well, bad things begin to happen.
So, change your perspective of your pastor and his wife. They are human just like you. Don’t expect them to play by different emotional rules than you do.
2. Don’t just take from your pastor and his wife. Actively work to replace what you took.
Develop an awareness of what your pastor and his wife are going through as they fulfill their calling at your church. And then work with others to try to figure out how the church can serve the pastor and his wife as the pastor serves the church. What can you do to “fill them back up” so they never run dry?
And, to fix this problem, we’re talking about relationship solutions. What can the church do to make sure that the pastor and his wife are relationally and emotionally healthy … and stay that way? Be creative.
3. Consider a Pastor Team.
Earlier this year, I formed a Senior Pastor Team. I wanted a group of men and women to keep an eye on me. Their love for me and their love for the church is unquestioned. So, they are in a position to speak truth regardless of what it is because their hearts are in the right place. If they see or hear anything that concerns them about me (how I am leading, how I am behaving, how I am relating, etc.), I have given them the right and authority to speak into it.
I love “checks and balances” in every system and this is a way that I can achieve that as the pastor of Westside. I always want to be the best pastor that I can be and this is a way that I can surround myself with people who help me to be the best that I can be for Westside. (If you want to see the job description I wrote, click here.)
So, is there a relationship problem with pastors and their wives where they are struggling with loneliness and depression? Yes, I believe the data bears this out.
Is it a big problem with a potential majority of pastors and their wives? Possibly.
But, can it be fixed so that churches are led well because their pastor and his wife are assisted in the area of relationship? I believe so.
I certainly know more than a few pastors and their wives who hope so.