Bob was born to medical missionary parents in Burundi, Africa. The father of six, he and his pastoral counselor wife, Shari, share a psychiatric practice in Louisville, KY and have long worked in the support and care of missionaries and pastors both here and abroad.
A hundred years from now I’m sure that our descendants will know about the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020-21 just as all of us (or a lot of us, at least) remember tales of the Great Flu Pandemic of 1917-18. And by then, hopefully, the great political, cultural, and religious polarization of these times will be just a very sad remembrance and not a never ending curse. But, what about the horrific epidemic of promising young evangelical pastors who burst onto the scene and rise like meteors only to fall into disaster and suicide? Will this also be recalled as a tragic period of darkness from which the conservative church learned much and recovered? Or, will our reflexive need to not explore, to explain away and to quickly move on all serve to guarantee that a century from now sensational clergy loss will continue to corrode and undo the work of the church?
At least (five) high profile young pastors of whom I’m aware have taken their lives during these past twelve months alone. As painful as this topic is to discuss I believe that we absolutely must force ourselves to do so if we’re ever understand what’s going on here. We shouldn’t be trying to address this crisis until we better understand all the cultural, characterological, spiritual, and biological issues which influence it. After the space shuttle Challenger disaster stunned the world in 1986 all shuttle flights were grounded until the underlying cause (defective “o-rings” in the right side solid rocket booster) could be understood and resolved. Seven astronauts died unnecessarily in that incident. Almost that many young pastors (or maybe more) have died in this past year. And, the many opinions about why don’t add up to any real comprehension which could guide us towards life saving solutions. It just seems unconscionable to continue on as usual amid the carnage.
So, how might we begin the quest to understand and solve this crisis with an inquiry as focused and complete as the one which solved the riddle of the Challenger?
We know that NASA went back and reviewed multiple video tapes and reams of computer data to understand what went wrong to cause the Challenger catastrophe. Similarly, I think we might go back and review data we have on the pastors, the churches they founded, the people who surrounded them, the impacts they had on the culture and the impacts the culture had on them. Is there anything we can learn from their character styles, their gifts, their liabilities?
Here let me make the disclaimer that I’m a Christian physician, someone with a great grief and concern about this issue, and not an investigative reporter or a Lee Strobel. But, I’ve worked with missionaries and pastors for the last thirty plus years. I’ve consulted with and worked beside other pastors and professionals with supportive roles for a number of these young church planting pastors. As such, I offer here observations and viewpoints which are an amalgam of my own direct experiences and those of others doing this same work.
From this view there emerges a number of trends which stand out, especially in retrospection.
The first is that they tend to be both extremely bright and charismatic. This shouldn’t be surprising as we look at the huge successes these young pastors enjoyed right out of the gate. They were often non-conformists whose giftedness permitted them to avoid the usual post-seminary trek up the ecclesiastical ladder. They seem to have had a knack for understanding how to connect with younger people who were suspicious of the traditional church. They launched churches from spaces rented from schools, warehouses and theaters. Trading traditional suits and clerical robes for skinny jeans and untucked shirts, using plugged in musicians in place of choirs, and displaying virtuoso homiletic skills these pastors began rapidly adding new members even as large traditional churches were losing them. Constantly outgrowing existing spaces meant planting new churches and finding new subordinate pastors who could mimic the founder’s formula for success (and stay subordinate). The seminaries and older clergy and theologians had no choice but wonder about this phenomenal new trend even when they had reservations. The Christian media was all over it and even the secular media had to periodically report on these seismic changes rocking the Protestant landscape.
The hugely popular performance based ministries of these young upstarts caused many admirers to refer to them as rock stars. Such a reference now seems poignantly fitting because riding a towering crest of intoxicating success just like secular rock stars leaves little time or inclination for introspection and for dealing with one’s demons and the brokenness with which one entered ministry.
Both professionally and through the reports of others I’m aware of a number of young pastors who decline multiple opportunities to do the hard work of probing their wounds, exploring and finding the words to express previously hidden grief’s and attendant feelings, learning to become truly open and vulnerable, and grappling with primal shame. As a prescribing psychiatrist I’ve sometimes found them eager to embrace a mood diagnosis and a prescribed medication when they’re in the depths of profound depression or paralyzed by an episode of panic which seemed (to them) to have come out of nowhere. But, almost invariably, as soon as the chosen treatment and a new round of external successes had them on their feet again they were ready to abandon not just the medication treating their mood disorder but also any other therapeutic interventions to which they’d agreed to back when they were in the valley of the shadow. And, consistently, these now “healed” pastors never came in to discuss with me in therapeutic partnership the pros and cons of terminating treatment. No, sadly enough, it was usually predictable that they would just one day not show up for a scheduled appointment. Inquiring texts to them would be ignored and I could often detect their dodging a conversation if we ran across each other in public. At least until the next emotional crisis when the whole cycle would be played out again.
A recent eulogy for one of these violently deceased pastors referred to him as an “orphan”. I suspect that an in-depth psychological post-mortem on these now lost to us pastors would reveal that there’s a common theme of parental loss, neglect or absence. I also believe we’d find a universal confusion about what mature masculinity might look like. As a result, through no fault of their own, these young orphaned men had no choice but to show up as culturally pleasing caricatures of masculinity. In my and others’ experiences these guys have tended to be caught between asking for and rejecting older male presence and guidance in their journeys. So, there seems to be this pattern of getting close to but never embracing the deep work required to heal their psychological, spiritual, or masculine selves.
The late Dallas Willard is credited with a quote that seems most applicable here: “God, pleased don’t grant me more power than my character can handle.”
I feel sure that Willard would append to ‘power’ the intoxicating effects of abundant success and adulation. Because, it seems likely that another etiological “o-ring” for these pastors who rose so majestically into the morning sky only to erupt into heart wrenching spirals of smoke and wreckage was the combustible presence of serial successes and the clamor of adoration. I imagine that for a rock star standing in the blast wave of deafening applause it’s extremely difficult to attend to offers of advice and input whether it’s from peers, (true) elders, or the Holy Spirit.
And, ever aware of what sells to a ravenous, ever growing group of followers, the book publishers appear to eagerly court these young pastors for books on almost any topic. The pressure these companies can bring to bear on a hot new writer can’t be over stated. Deadlines have to be met and new books have to be hyped with constantly updated posts on multiple social media platforms. All the while the young pastor, who received no business training in seminary, is now trying to be the CEO for a multimillion dollar multi-site organization and burning too much midnight oil because of the drivenness to every week show up with another home run sermon. I posit that behind the trademark hip, cool, and affable stage presence there too often lies emotional exhaustion and a lurking insecurity hidden not only from us but also from the young pastor himself.
Space flight has always been a deeply inspiring yet complicated and risky undertaking. And so is church planting. As with every other human undertaking, we enhance the chances for future success to the degree to which we first prepare for the planned endeavor; then dissect, come to understand, and thereby learn from the inescapable missteps; and seek out with a willingness to seriously utilize input which catalyzes the growth and safety of the enterprise.
And here’s a final observation from the perspective of this layman and caregiver to wounded pastors. I find myself wondering if our seminaries are placing more emphasis on the Great Commission to go out and preach than they are on the other commission to “Tend my sheep”. Sheep tending, or shepherding, is messy and un-applauded work. In earthly terms, it doesn’t pay well, doesn’t sell many books, and is a poor road to notoriety. In fact, unless the shepherd also gives us a new translation of the Bible as Eugene Peterson did, only a relative few will ever know him/her compared to, say, a rock star. But, after four decades of working with wounded and suffering people I am crystal clear that the world is full of billions of people hungering to be known, to feel the presence of enduring compassion, and to experience the benefits which come only from the hard, unsung work of loving.
This is a broken world into which we’ve each been born and wounded. There’s a very real, gloves off, life-and-death cage fight here between the darkness and the light. And, the darkness is stealing unfed, disillusioned lambs both left and right. We so desperately need shepherds, ordained and not, to not just go out to find lost lambs but to nurse them, not just on the Word, but also with the hard work of continuing presence and non-judgmental loving. And, both my heart and my experience have convinced me that the shepherds can also be in deep need of finding, binding, feeding and, yes, protecting.
In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters the mentoring devil explains to his apprentice that he shouldn’t waste too much time tempting the individual sheep away from the light because if he can score a single shepherd then he’s captured countless sheep in just one stroke. Don’t we have enough evidence already that successful pastors have targets on their backs? Therefore, I challenge us as a church to come around our pastors to form a protective circle of love which provides nurturance spiritually, emotionally and physically. By spiritually I mean ceaseless praying, honest encouragement, and provisions for straight forward and non-shaming accountability by someone respected, trusted and older who is in no fashion dependent on the pastor. Emotionally means that we take for granted that our pastors, like ourselves, arrive with their share of brokenness; that we’re expectant that (and will be supportive of) they’re embarking on a journey of self discovery and healing for as long as it takes (which is usually years). And, by physically I’m not referring to gym memberships, although I’m a huge supporter of such things. No, I mean the awareness that as part of being embodied souls we have biologies which regularly get broken just as our minds and souls can. Genetic proclivities, childhood and adult trauma and loss, and the stresses of everyday living can pull our pastors into handicapping levels of anxiety or mood disorders which can run the spectrum from nagging to paralyzing.
In 2020 we have lots of common grace in the form of excellent pharmaceuticals and other interventions for the alleviation of these kinds of affliction. Sadly, of the many pastors who eagerly quote the depressed and wounded Nouwen from the pulpit, few it turns out are willing to copy his authenticity and themselves accept treatment for these treatable illnesses. It takes a huge capacity for denial to not grasp that pastors who take their own lives are, among other issues, struggling with unmanaged mood disorders.
In summation, to pastors around the world I’d like to be so bold as to offer some proddings and encouragements both professional and paternal:
- Be crystal clear about how you’re measuring success in your calling.
- If you haven’t already, embark on a personal quest to understand how your genetic makeup, gifting, liabilities, traumas, losses, successes, role models, and life experiences have all come together to make you who you are today. Begin to grapple with the issues which hold you back from who God put you here to be.
- Grasp that each and every last one of us is struggling with some kind of addiction. If it’s not alcohol or pornography it may also be work, success, or approval. Also seek to grasp for the sake of others and yourself the mutually sustaining blind-loop of shame and addiction.
- Embrace the challenge to hear and be curious about opinions which differ from your own. Your progress here will be an energy saver for you and others, enhance the quality of everyone’s work product, and make you less lonely as a pastor.
- Practice the art of admitting you’re wrong because being wrong is a recurring and inescapable part of being a human. The ability to honestly own error demonstrates maturity, self confidence, and the absence of narcissism.
- Similarly, practice the relationally restorative art of asking for and giving of forgiveness. We have to assume that our Lord had good reason for making it central in the prayer he gave to his disciples.
- It’s proven that mammals lower than ourselves are able experience anxiety and depression. So do humans like ourselves who are subjected to a much larger array of losses, insults, depravations and challenges. Therefore, determine now to be the first to have true empathy for and to demonstrate sincere compassion for such suffering in your family members, your staff, your parishioners, and yourself.
- Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankel, was the one who so simply stated that despair occurs in the presence of suffering devoid of meaning (D=S-M). Sudden overwhelming or unremitting despair in His creatures who comprehend both their free will and their mortality can go on to decide to end their own lives in suicide. Be committed to the detection and treatment of depression, the alleviation of suffering where possible, the confrontation of despair through the compassionate application of the spiritual, and the willingness to overcome the awkwardness of inquiring about suicidal thoughts and plans.
- Be willing to love and embrace the brokenness in yourself with the same grace and non-judgmental acceptance with which you’re able to show to others in theirs. In fact, your own modeling of this will alleviate more human suffering than you’ll ever believe.
- Practice authenticity and the integrity of true vulnerability, not affected vulnerability more spoken from the pulpit than lived among one’s family and peers. Because, I’m convinced that this capacity is central to our becoming more and more real such that we may one day, a la C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, become real enough to tolerate the overwhelming reality of heaven.