A Pastoral Epidemic of Biblical Proportions (Part 1)

In recent weeks, months, and even years there has been a growing concern for the mental and emotional health of pastors (especially younger pastors) as we have seen far too many of them take their own lives leaving behind ministries, families, and friends behind to wonder why.

Many of these pastors were the senior pastors of large and, at least in the eyes of the world, successful churches. For all one could see on the surface, they were in the prime of their ministry and doing well at it. Why, then, have we seen so many pastors go from the pinnacle of favor to one of the darkest places a human soul can go?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself because a) I’m currently a worship and youth pastor in my church and b) because I’m in the process of being sent out by my local Church and taking my family into the realm of Church planting where I know that this danger becomes even more real and pronounced than perhaps I would ever dream possible now, and finally c) because as a pastor my heart breaks for these men and their families and churches.

There must be an answer.

Maybe it’s more than one answer. Perhaps it’s a combination of several things working together causing these pastors to get caught up in the emotional maelstrom of depression and feel the only way out is to exit stage right on this side of heaven.

Is it also possible that they are in this state of mind because they are so far off course from where God had intended them to be, and that they got there in part because of the misguiding’s of well-meaning pastors and fellow believers?

As I said, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about this and I think I have some insights to share from personal experience and perhaps some dots to connect that will help us all in ensuring the future of many of these young pastors is preserved to fight another day.

What follows isn’t necessarily in any order of importance (one being more important than another), but simply observations from time spent in the field, and the convictions I’m personally feeling regarding the ministry and Church life as a whole.

Also, because of the length that this article will likely become, I’m breaking this up into at least 2 parts, starting with…

The Calling

While there is no order of importance, I do think a lot of the trouble begins at the moment of the calling.

You see, I was raised a preacher’s kid (PK for short), and my grandfather and uncles were pastors as well. So, to say that I was in the thick of ministry life is putting it mildly. I was engulfed in it. And I’m STILL engulfed in it at the age of 36.

I recall very vividly that while growing up I was constantly barraged by church people saying things like “When you grow up, I bet you’re going to be a pastor just like your dad” (replace dad with grandfather or uncle as well).

My auto-response was, “No way! I’ll never serve in the ministry. I’ve seen what it has done to them.”

Funny thing is, I’m now serving in the ministry as a worship/youth pastor and about to move into Church planting within the next couple of years.

But the reality is this, when I received my calling into ministry back in 2001 I remember feeling like my options of ministry were very limited. In other words, I felt I was limited to being either a youth pastor, a music pastor, a senior pastor, or a missionary – with nothing in between or outside of those parameters.

And I’m not the only one who has felt this way. In many discussions with fellow pastor friends of mine, they too have felt the same pressure to conform to this limited scope of ministry. And based on that I can assure most men who feel the call into the ministry feel these are their only options. They then begin to approach this call with this unbiblical presupposition in mind.

Side note: I can also assure you that most Church people think this way as well. One only needs to listen to them when they are asked what their understanding of ministry looks like and a great deal becomes revealed.

The sad reality is, our view of the “Calling” is extremely limited in scope, and unfortunately not entirely biblical.

Yes, the role of the pastor and the missionary is clearly demonstrated in the Bible. But a quick reading of 1 Corinthians shows that the Body of Christ (the Church) has many members, and FAR more gifts than preaching and being a missionary. Why, then, do we limit the call of the ministry to so few giftings?

I feel that this unfortunate view of ministry, and thus limiting the calling of many into the ministry, has done more damage than good. It has forced men and women into a predetermined box that says “If you’re being called, this is all you have to choose from” even if their spiritual giftings look nothing like what’s being given to them as their options.

So, from the very get go, there are men and women running headlong into a “calling” that they may or may not actually be called into or equipped for.

Is it any wonder, then, that they become frustrated, depressed, and disconnected? At some level they probably feel lied to, and at another level feeling like they must’ve misunderstood the calling.

With that in mind, this is what I propose…we MUST stop limiting the calling to 4 areas of ministry, and we MUST do a better job of exploring with these men and women their spiritual gifts, their God-given passions, and what the Bible says about these things.

Then and only then can we help set them up to succeed.

Which leads me to my next area of concern…

The Training

The next stop on the would-be minsters train ride into ministry is receiving some sort of formal training.

For me it was changing my college degree focus from music education to youth ministry. The university I attended was a Christian university, so this was a degree program that was available to me without changing my school.

Other’s aren’t so fortunate, and many of them end up making a massive decision to pull out of their current school to pursue a “ministry degree” at another school. And it doesn’t stop there, because many denominations have the expectation and requirement that they also go to seminary to be further trained into their limited 4 areas of ministry.

Looking back, at some levels, I’m thankful for the training I received. And I value a large portion of what I received. So, please don’t take what I’m saying as some sort of anti-intellectual rant.

I especially valued what I learned for studying the Bible. I learned so much about Bible history, the original languages of the Bible, and the context and culture of the Bible, and from there I was able to begin reading the bible with a different set of eyes than perhaps I was able to before taking those classes.

For that I am very grateful.

At another level, I regret having spent 4 years and tens of thousands of dollars per year on a degree such as youth ministry. While it prepared me to study the Bible better, it did nothing to prepare me for actual ministry. Imagine how much more frustrating it would’ve been for me (and how much more in debt I would be) had I pursued a seminary degree.

If I could go back and do it all over again, I would’ve minored in youth ministry and had a major focus on something like business, or technology, or some other skill set to give me some “tent making skills” like that of Paul in the New Testament who used his tent making skills to provide for himself a living while he fulfilled his calling.

Sadly, not a single person in my life remotely suggested this. Not my father. Not my grandfather. Not my uncles. Not my professors. Not my pastors. No one.

And why do you suppose that is?

I think a lot of the reason is because, once again, this goes back to our misunderstanding of ministry and church life and how we have limited the scope of ministry to a handful of “biblical professions” and thus limiting how one would approach their formal training.

No one stopped me because no one thought what I was doing could’ve possibly been the wrong approach for me. They weren’t evil or nefarious. They just all assumed that my calling was to full time pastoral ministry of some sort, and so I needed to get formal training with that in mind.

I do not believe that I’m the only person who has been “called” who found themselves in a similar situation.

And because of this, I think the area of training for those being “called” is severely lacking. Not so much in content, but in discernment. We lack in our ability to help the newly “called” in discerning how-to best approach training because we lack vision and understanding of what ministry looks like.

Like I said, this all comes back to the call.

I have no issue with the idea of training men and women for ministry…I think it is extremely beneficial in ways…but pastors, professors, and fellow believers…we MUST stop boxing “the called” in and let us do more to help the called to dream and see things through God’s eyes rather than our limited view of ministry. Build around that…not around what we’ve whittled ministry down to.

I think we can begin to address this issue by rethinking what training looks like. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that training should be less formal, and less about the classroom, and more about mentoring out in the field.

Which leads me to my next point which I will cover in Part 2, The Mentoring.

Part 2 will be coming to you very shortly as I address The Mentoring, The Model, and The Unspoken Expectations that are setting up young aspiring ministers to fail, and perhaps even setting them up to experience some of the deepest, darkest, soul wrenching pain a human can endure.

Check back to get the rest of the picture I’m trying to paint here.

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