what’s wrong with your pastor?

“The antidote to exhaustion is not rest but wholeheartedness.” David Whyte

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The poet David Whyte has become a hero of mine, not least for quotes like these.  Who would have imagined that rest was not the antidote to exhaustion?  Whyte, like all good poets, encourages us to look beneath the surface, not settling for traditional remedies.

But what might this mean for the pastor?  And is it not a violation of a biblical call to Sabbath?

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I want to suggest that wholeheartedness…integrity…might just be a new way through the difficulties we experience as pastors.  No, not rest.  Not a longer vacation.  Not a week at the beach.  But wholeheartedness.

A few stories may help.

I once counseled a man who as a young boy was pudgy.  Add to it that he was from a blue collar family in a white collar town, and he just didn’t fit in.  The words he used described his feelings: “rejected, inadequate, stupid, weak.”  His Dad worked a lot and was verbally abusive.  But this young man found salvation in football in middle school.  It became a place of belonging, and gave him a sense of identity.

And so he did something most of my clients have done.  He put all of his shame and insecurity in a little black bag.  The poet Robert Bly talks about this black bag – the place where we put all of the rejected parts of ourselves.  He put his weakness, his powerlessness, and his shame in the black bag – and he emerged feeling powerful, and even a bit angry.  Perhaps, a lot angry.

Another story.  I counseled a woman who grew up in a very patriarchal home.  Her Dad was a misogynist, a true, blue woman-hater who believed women are weak, emotional, and reactive – at best.  However, in high school she found that she had a voice, becoming Student Body President.  She, like many others, put her feelings in a black bag.  She put her weakness, her powerlessness, her fragility, her vulnerability in the black bag.  Being strong just felt better.

A final story.  I counseled a man whose Dad was a very successful pastor.  It seemed like Dad was positive with everyone, but with his own son it was always disappointment.  He was too shy, too uninterested in reading and studying, too disruptive in Sunday School.  Eventually, because of who he was (the son of a pastor!), he was simply expected to have answers in youth group and expected to take leadership.  And so he did.  He got praised for his leadership…and it felt good.  So, he put his sense of failure, disappointment, and rejection in a black bag and tucked it away.

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What do all three of these stories have in common?

Of course, each found a way through difficulty.  Each channeled a powerful part of themselves which would overcome hardship.  However, each client stuffed large parts of themselves in the black bag.

But one other piece of information is critical:

They all became pastors.

And by the time the had come to see me, that black bag had grown to be a football field long…and each person struggled to carry it.  They were exhausted.  And it was time to open up the black bag and look inside.

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What if David Whyte is right and the “antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness”?

Then the diagnosis for those of us who feel burned out and exhausted in ministry is a divided heart.   And the solution is not merely better boundaries or a break or a good vacation, although all of those are important.  The solution is wholeheartedness …wholeness…an inner peace or shalom.

Or, as we’ll see shortly – integrity.

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There was a youth pastor who was exhausted.  In his exhaustion he became angry and reactive, and at one point went in to his senior pastor’s office and demanded a vacation.  He said, “There are too many people and too many things demanding too much of me.  I need a break.”  The senior pastor agreed.  He told his staff member, “Get some rest.  Let’s talk when you get back.”  The young pastor went away for two weeks and laid on a beach.  When he returned, he sat down with the pastor.  The pastor said, “Are you rested?”  The young pastor said, “I wish.  But the weather was colder than normal and the books I brought were disappointing and the hotel treated me poorly and I kept thinking about the talk I need to give in youth group next week and kept wondering why women always break up with me.”

The senior pastor asked him, “Have you ever considered that your problem is not external to you, but within you?”

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Why is it that we can go on vacation, and not feel rested in the end?

Why is it that the problem of exhaustion is always everyone else’s fault – our hard-charging senior pastor, our demanding parishioners, our needy staff, our difficult relationships.

Maybe the answer lies in our heart?

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In Matthew 5, Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart.”  The Greek word is katharos, which in the LXX translates tom – completeness.  From this, we derive the English word integer…which hints at the all-important concept of integrity.

Jesus is suggesting that there is a basic problem with our hearts – a problem of division, of fragmentation, a loss of shalom.  St. Augustine called this problem disordered desire.

In Romans 7, St. Paul says, “The things I want to do, I do not do.  But the things I do, I do not want to do.”  This is the absence of katharos, of inner integrity, of wholeheartedness.  This is a divided heart.

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Exhaustion, in other words, is at least in part due to a divided life.  Consider the high rates of ministry failure:

– 50% of ministers have considered leaving the ministry in the last months.
– 50% of ministers starting out will not last 5 years.
– 1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.

Let’s return to our opening examples.  And let’s consider how they are illustrations of a divided life, yet how wholeness began to emerge:

That rejected and insecure football player became an angry and powerful Baptist pastor.  He held his Reformed Baptist theology like a weapon, and dominated all of his relationships, including his marriage.  When his wife finally threatened to leave him, he decided to see me.  He liked me because I was a seminary professor and had a Master of Divinity.  (Powerful people like to see ‘experts’.)  He couldn’t figure why his wife thought he was intimidating and mean, but in a few short sessions I was able to see why she’d feel that way.  I felt that way.  So, I shared this with him, albeit carefully, but honestly.  And then I asked him to watch a movie – The Kid.

When he returned the following week, he was noticeably quiet.  I asked him about the movie.  He remembered a key scene in which a pudgy little boy is silenced by his father when he cries.  I asked, “Is there any part of you that feels like that little boy?”  He began to cry, and cry like he hadn’t in years.  That day, we opened the black bag, and started pulling out parts of himself disowned long before.  In time, he became a more tender, vulnerable man and pastor.  All of the emotional energy used to keep the vulnerable little boy inside was no longer needed.  And strangely, he found himself energized – more healthy and more resilient.

Remember the second story – the story of the woman who grew up in a very patriarchal home but succeeded and found a voice as Student Body President?  By the time we met, she had become a very hard, very tough, and (dare I say it?) a very masculine young woman mired in confusion about her gender, among other things.  It turns out that as a seminary student and young pastor, much of her energy was given to living up to the expectations of being “one of the guys.”  It took a short time before I began triggering feelings associated with men – abusive, powerful, contemptuous of women.

However, I did everything I could to create safety.  And strangely, this male seminary professor who reminded her of her father became a safe man. I spoke to the moments when I saw her vulnerability, her inkling of trust in me.  And she actually did begin to trust.  Reaching into her black bag, she pulled out a part of herself that was stuffed long ago – a tender, soft, and feminine woman who did not need to, in turn, disown her strength or lose her voice.  In fact, she has become a strong and beautiful pastor and leader.

Do you recall the final story?  It was about a young man whose Dad was a very successful pastor.  He was a disappointment – too shy, too artistic, too uninterested in reading and studying, and too disruptive in Sunday School.  He came to me as a successful worship pastor for 20 years in ministry after it was discovered that he was looking at pornography on the church computer.  However, it did not take long before he confessed experimenting with other destructive behaviors – cutting, intoxication, and drugs.  He was trying to kill off the many disowned parts of himself, but they wouldn’t go away.

I asked him what he longed for in it, at one point, particularly in his pornography viewing.  Interestingly, he was able to say, “The feeling of being held and loved.”  I said, “Tell me about that part of you that wants to be held and loved.”  And he said, “He’s really, really young…maybe 6 or 7…and it’s Sunday afternoon, and he’s all alone, and Dad is watching football and I hate football.  And I sit next to him.  And he says, ‘Sissies don’t like football.’”

That was the day he put his interests and longings in the black bag, and did all he could to learn about football and ministry.  As we opened the black bag, we learned about all kinds of things.  We learned that, at least in part, the porn was about both a longing for love and also a hatred manifesting in sabotage.  He hated the church, despised working for the institution his Dad represented, and needed to step away from ministry.  And so he did.  We also learned more about him as opened the black bag.  We learned that he loved classical music and poetry and cooking.

And this man who was 15 years my elder at the time I counseled him felt like he was sitting with his Dad telling him about himself for the first time.

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The journey from a divided life to wholeheartedness re-energized 3 people who in their own ways were not really living…but merely surviving…and hurting a lot of people along the way.

They were not thriving in ministry.  People experienced them as the false selves that they were living out of – angry, embittered, passive-aggressive, hostile, demanding, critical, invulnerable, unapproachable.

And in each case, the typical approaches to pastoral soul care – better boundaries, a much-needed vacation, more quiet times – might have put a bandage on the wound, but wouldn’t have cured it.  They needed surgery.

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I once knew of a major men’s ministry that talked a lot about integrity.  Men wore shirts labeled “MEN OF INTEGRITY.”  But the conferences were pep talks.  One guy summed it up in this:  “I tell guys, ‘Hey man…buy your wives flowers, don’t look at porn, and don’t be a sissy – women hate sissies’”.  He laughed, and maybe even grunted.  Manhood at its best, right?

Integrity, in this men’s ministry, was about behavior-modification and motivation-by-sissifiying.  It was not about heart change.  It was not about wholeness.  In fact, many of these behavior modifications only served to further solidify the divisions within.  This was not a place where guys would open their black bags.  These men did not want to see fear, or pain, or vulnerability.  They wanted a warrior – a man whose black bag was shut and sealed for good.

Let me be honest with you, pastors:  That version of pastoral soul care does not require a Messiah to do the major surgery.  Rather, you can fix yourself with techniques.  But when your heart is as fragmented and disordered as mine is and yours is, then we need a God who is big enough and safe enough to open up our secret lives and stories to.

In each story I shared in this essay, the pastors felt re-born.  They felt as if they were keeping large parts of themselves away from the healing light of the Gospel.  They discovered wounds that could not be healed by techniques.  The wounds, of course, required therapy.  But they also required the church.  You see, when you live a divided life, you don’t need Jesus, you don’t need the church, you don’t need community, and you don’t need the Lord’s Supper.  You simply lead an exhausting life of self-preservation.

And then you go on vacation.  And you’re mad as hell at your spouse, your kids, your hotel, your car, your server at the restaurant.  You can’t rest.  You can’t rest because you can’t stop keeping your real fears and insecurities inside, and that takes a lot of energy.

It’s time to re-consider what the real problem is.  It’s time to remember that God gives you the Sabbath not simply to sit on the couch, but to become whole.  God wants you to flourish, to thrive, to experience shalom.

The antidote to exhaustion is not rest, you see.  It’s wholeheartedness.

14 comments

  1. “Then the diagnosis for those of us who feel burned out and exhausted in ministry is a divided heart. And the solution is not merely better boundaries or a break or a good vacation, although all of those are important. The solution is wholeheartedness …wholeness…an inner peace or shalom.”

    That’s largely what catalyzed my decision to leave the faith. My heart was divided and I finally became exhausted. How can one feel free and indebted simultaneously?

    Really enjoyed your thoughts on this.

  2. I don’t get it Charlie. What about living in Jesus and drawing from His strength like the rest of us do. Why do we make the pastor a superman? I’m sorry, I just don’t get it.

  3. I love the post, I just want to wiggle a bit over Whyte’s word choice of “rest”. You did pick up on some of this. Culturally “rest” isn’t really “rest” but distraction, avoidance and suppression. Your “black bag” is included in that. I love what you did with “integrity”. That is right on. Thanks for another thoughtful and helpful post. pvk

  4. Chuck-I don’t get over here to read your thoughts enough. This is a fantastic essay–and I think the thoughts apply to everyone, not only pastors. Resting isn’t really resting if it is distraction, stuffing and ignoring. Sabbath is for the purpose of being whole…love that. That’s why a crucial part of sabbath rest is listening to God–so He can point us to the places that need attention: surrender, therapy, forgiveness–whatever. Thanks for the good thoughts on this.

  5. wow. so much to chew on and absorb. i thoroughly enjoyed this. thanks for your insightful take on wholeness in Christ and how it’s the key to lasting and meaningful ministry.

  6. Chuck, An incredible essay! Thanks for pointing me to the power of the Gospel and reminded me that wholeheartedness and rest is found only in Christ. We all have our black bag! I am deeply moved. Thanks brother.

  7. Chuck, this is a brilliant analysis, and you describe the phenomenon with insight and empathy. I love the way you integrate psychological insights with biblical truth.

  8. One of the most wonderful essays I have ever read. I resonate deeply with a lot of this and realise that I’m long over due for surgery myself.

    Thank you Chuck

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