The Pastors Workshop
The Loneliness of Pastoring, Part 1
I write this column with a heavy heart. It's been so for the last several weeks. A fine pastor who lived near me took his own life, leaving behind a grieving church and a devastated family.
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.
Some who read this column may conclude that a) John made a deeply selfish decision, and b) the author of the column is neither a good pastor nor a good Christian. Surely, one might think, I did not have to be so alone in my ministry. Surely, I could have made deeper friendships in the church. And surely I should have known that God was with me in the lonely nights.
Mark D. Roberts is Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge, a retreat and renewal ministry in Texas. He blogs at Patheos and writes daily devotionals at www.thehighcalling.org, and he can also be followed through Twitter and Facebook.