A few years ago I wrote an article on what pastors should not tell their wives. In it I argued that there is much that it said behind closed doors, in elder meetings (e.g.,consistory or session meetings), that should not be repeated to anyone who is not authorized to hear it. Merely being married to the pastor does not make one’s wife a de facto elder or minister. She is the minister’s wife, which is an important calling in and of itself. I stand by that argument but today I would like to think about the other side of the question: what pastors should tell their wives. This essay is in response to a request from a reader who is responding to the recent death of a ministerial colleague at his own hand. As a minister, this brother carried a lot on his shoulders. His death is a reminder to pray for his family, friends, and congregation who are left behind and grieving his loss.
The Load He Carries
It is a reminder to all of us that our pastors carry burdens of which most of us are unaware. They are spiritual first-responders but they are not usually recognized as such. When there is a tragedy, police officers show up, fire-rescue squads show up, and your pastor shows up. After the police and EMS have moved on to other calls, your pastor is still there and he will be there as long as you need him.
As a broader culture we are becoming aware of the cost of being a first-responder. About 150 law-enforcement officers die in the line of duty annually in the USA. About he same number commit suicide. Ask a fireman or a dispatcher about the first 24 hours after being on for four or five days. Ask a cop who has been on the job for a few years about what goes through their minds, about the close calls, about the friends and fellow officers on their squad that did not make it home after a shift.
Pastors (and ruling elders) carry a lot on their shoulders too. There are two kinds of men in any congregation, those who have served as ruling elders (or pastors) and those who have not. I have been in those meetings when a new elder is introduced to the issues before the elders and pastors. It can be quite a shock. I have sometimes joked that we should have just a finger or two of medicinal brandy at hand just in case. Their eyes get big and their shoulders droop More seriously, tt is a cause for prayer—starkly facing the realities of human sin and its consequences is a cause for prayer. Perhaps consistory/session meetings should stop for prayer more frequently than they do?
One of the burdens that faithful pastors carry is that they cannot share most of those burdens with anyone else (except the Lord). Then there are those things they hear and see that they may not share with the elders. Believe it or not pastors do not always have a perfect relationship with their elders. That relationship ebbs and flows. Sometimes it is a question of personalities. Sometimes it is a question of expectations, e.g., “the pastor should be doing more of x.” Sometimes theological disagreements cause tension. For pastors, the pastorate is a ministry, a form of service to the Lord, to his gospel, and to his church but it is also a job and insofar as that is true, pastors have some of the same problems that any other employee has. In most jobs, however, when pastors, however, have problems at work they run the risk of being accused of being “unspiritual.”
Further, unlike comparable secular jobs, many pastors are underpaid with little material support. “Less straw, more bricks” is a reality for most employees but the “bricks” that pastors are supposed to produce are not always quantifiable and when they are (e.g., buildings, bodies, and budgets). Lots of pastors do a little of everything from cleaning the church, mowing the church lawn, and making the bulletin.
Bearing One Another’s Burdens
There is not a lot of data of clergy suicide. As of 2017 the national suicide rate in the USA is on the rise and pastors are not immune to the temptation of suicide so it stands o reason that we might expect to see a rise in clergy suicides.
How should the visible church respond? In Galatians 6:2, the Apostle Paul exhorts us to “bear one another’s burdens.” This, he says is how we “fulfill the law of Christ.” Paul was not, as some imagine, setting up a new law (as distinct from the moral law, i.e., the Ten Commandments). This is the moral law: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). When we bear one another’s burdens we are loving our neighbor as ourselves. This is a particular challenge in our hyper-individualized culture and in culture in which we communicate with each other electronically rather than face-to-face. A comment that might have been interpreted one way face-to-face, made electronically (e.g., by text) might become a source of great consternation and even worry. “What did he mean by that? Why did he say that?” This is especially true for those of us given to performance-based anxiety.
How can we bear one another’s burdens? The answer is ANGEL:
Being aware that your pastor is a sinful human that God has called to full-time ministry, that he struggles with the same kinds of sins with which you struggle, that on Mondays he may be full of self-recrimination about yesterday (“Why did I say that?”), that he hears and sees things, sometimes really dark things, about which you will never know (if you are fortunate) is the first step.
The Apostle Paul was not ashamed to ask for prayer. To the Thessalonian congregation he wrote simply, “Brothers, pray for us” (1 Thess 5:25; ESV). The pastor to the Hebrew Christian congregation asked for prayer, “Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things” (Heb 13:18; ESV). Pray for your pastor and ruling elders. They are praying for you. I am deeply humbled and grateful to know that saints whose names I will likely never know are praying for me. Sometimes people write to tell and and it floors me every time. Your pastor is in a spiritual struggle and the Evil One would like nothing more than to damage the Kingdom and the Savior by removing another faithful shepherd from the flock.
Your pastor knows that he is a sinner. Of course, if he is impenitent about his sins, e.g., if he is a drunk, lazy or a thief (e.g., a plagiarist; see “lazy”) then he needs to be disciplined by his elders. If they refuse, then they need to be disciplined by their Classis or Presbytery. If they refuse then they need to be corrected by General Assembly or Synod (Matt 18:17). Most of the time, however, what pastors need is grace, unconditional acceptance. They do not tell others that they are struggling, let alone how they struggle for fear that they will disappoint those whom they serve. In this way it is easy to turn the ministry into a covenant of works. Under a covenant of works, sin is not permitted because “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). Under a covenant of grace, the church regards all her members as sinners redeemed by God’s unconditional favor (grace) alone, through resting in, trusting, and leaning on Christ (faith) and in his finished work for his people. When a pastor is confident that he is regarded as a fellow sinner saved by grace alone, through faith alone, he is more likely to share that he is burdened, that he is struggling, even if he cannot always say why or how he is. Where the ethos of a congregation is essentially legal, where one’s standing is a matter not of grace but of law, where the minister is expected to be without sins, he is rather less likely to jeopardize his livelihood and family’s welfare by admitting that he struggles.
It makes a great difference to pastors to know that even though they cannot always share what they are facing they can share that they are facing something challenging—perhaps many things. Because ministry is a spiritual struggle, one of the tools of the Evil One is to isolate the preacher from others (see below), to make him feel as if his sins are too much, that no one cares, that he is no use to the King and to his Kingdom. In short, the Evil One wants to put the preacher on a works footing and then convince him that they has failed to meet the test. The best remedy for this lie is grace and empathy is a concrete expression of grace. “Pastor, I do not know what you are facing, but I can tell that you are facing something. Let me pray for you” are some of the most beautiful and powerful words a shepherd will ever hear.
The pastor needs someone to whom he can turn. It might be a ruling elder, it might a fellow pastor. If you are a ruling elder or a pastor, are you one to whom who your pastor (or a fellow pastor) can turn? Can he trust you? It may not be someone in the congregation but he needs someone to whom he can turn. Perhaps the most overwhelming burden of the ministry is loneliness. Sermon preparation, Bible study prep, and counseling prep are all individual, isolating tasks. Working in a coffee shop can help but sitting with others who are also looking at their computers or phones is not really an antidote to loneliness. Pastors are with people but they do not always work with people toward a common goal. Of course, working on or with a team is not always joyful either. This is a fallen world. Many pastors struggle because they think that they have no one to whom they can turn. If your pastor calls on you, listen. He might not need advice. He might just need to bend your ear.
Pastor, if you are depressed, if you think that no one cares, if you think that you are a failure, that you are not measuring up you are not alone. There is hope and help. If you are thinking of hurting yourself, stop. Call this number:
No one in your congregation will know. The call taker will not judge you.
The gospel is for you too pastor. Jesus died for sinners. He was raised for our justification. Jesus understands. He knows your grief. He knows your sins. He knows your failures. He knows your disappointment. He knows the terrible things you have heard and seen. He knows it all. He loves you anyway.
He always hears you.
Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.
That promise is for you pastor.
What should pastors tell their wives? They should tell them when they are struggling, when they are lonely, when they are hurting. They should tell their wives that they are lonely, that they feel beset on every side, that that are frustrated, and/or depressed. It is not easy to be a pastor’s wife and I do not mean to add to your burdens but perhaps it is helpful to read that you can do something, that you can be a source of awareness, encouragement, acceptance, of prayer, of empathy, of listening.
—R. Scott Clark