(Photo: Courtesy of T.D. Jakes Ministries)
I began writing this piece within hours of learning of the suicide death of Pastor Teddy Parker in Georgia and reflecting on the great burden on all pastors in an attempt to start a much needed dialogue on the unbearable standards of the pastorate and how we cope under that burden. What follows is a two-part series and I invite others to weigh in on the subject.
Editors Note: This is part two in a series on the struggles and challenges of being a minister of God by T.D. Jakes, who has an extensive ministry serving and caring for pastors and church leaders. Jakes reminds pastors in part one that they have (1) feet of clay, and (2) the solitude of leadership is a dangerous drug. In part two, Jakes gives practical advice on how to avoid the traps in (1) and (2).
All indications are that for even the saltiest of men and women of God, the road from secret struggle to secret sin to public failure is precariously short:
Forty percent of pastors have started an extramarital affair since answering the call. Each month, 1500 professionals leave the ministry due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
In his opus, "My Utmost for His Highest," Oswald Chambers wrote: "We are designed with a great capacity for God, but sin, our own individuality, and wrong thinking keep us from getting to Him. God delivers us from sin- we have to deliver ourselves from our individuality."
Proverbs 18:1 says, "A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgment."
It is not good for man to be alone.
Secrets surface in safe and inviting relationships.
Not only are pastors suffering in solitude, but LifeWay discovered that more than half of pastors reported being lonely, while only 22 percent of all pastors said they had meaningful same sex friendships.
Lacking intimate friendships is like owning an iPhone without the charger. It's only a matter of time before it's drained both of power and functionality.
To break the cycle of isolation, our leaders must be shown how to create safe, nurturing relationships with spiritual leaders outside the four walls of their church. Because eagles don't flock, we must seek them out and offer a life line. We must help them to identify those who can come along side like Aaron when his strength is failing or Jonathan, as a comrade in arms built for the battle.
"Pastors needs friends without an agenda," wrote Brian Dodd, a Christian Leadership expert.
Solitude is not necessarily a bad thing. A skilled military commander will often retreat from a campaign in order to advance at another more opportune time.
Drawing aside is critical for deep reflection, contemplation, study, prayer and supplication or Sabbath rest. We must however strike a balance. All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial.' (1 Corinthians 10:23).
"Know how to get away and separate yourself. Don't belong so completely to others that you do not belong to yourself. The fact is that we're all in this together – by ourselves."
3. Peeling the Onion.
Although they have a life expectancy of up to 50 years, most eagles expire early because of environmental hazards and stresses found in nature.
Secret stressors and destructive emotions like unforgiveness, anger, disappointment, fear, hopelessness, loneliness, unresolved grief and/or undiagnosed mental illness are the human equivalent of environmental hazards for the pastor. Like UEDs left unattended, these hidden landmines are likely to explode without warning causing irreparable damage.
Members of the clergy are suffering from obesity, hypertension, and depression at higher than average rates. The use of antidepressants has risen, while life expectancy is in decline. Large numbers of pastors are suffering from burnout, discontent and discouragement to the point of developing chronic physical, psychological and psychiatric conditions.
The Francis A. Schaffer Institute of Church Leadership Development (FASICLD), which picked up its research where the Fuller Institute left off found that ministry is the single most frustrating profession, more so than being a doctor, lawyer, or politician.
"We were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired."
- 2Corinthians 1:8
Alarmingly, nearly half of American evangelicals (48 percent) believe people with serious mental disorders can be cured using prayer and Bible study alone, rather than with medical intervention, according to the LifeWay Research study. Examples of serious mental disorders included major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
This mode of belief is especially prevalent in the African American church where it is acceptable for The Minister of the Gospel to "preach himself through" whatever's stuck in the craw or has got his goad.
Most pastors don't talk about melancholy because it violates their understanding of faith. There is also added societal pressure to dismiss depression as weakness. Seeking treatment is a career ender.
At any point, 18 to 25 percent of pastors are said to suffer from depression or anxiety, preceded by hopelessness, hurt and burnout.
Of those, 70 percent are currently battling depression constantly while another 70 percent admit that they only spend time in the Word preparing a sermon. (There is perhaps a corollary.)
"If you prick us do we not bleed?"
- William Shakespeare
Where is the ER for pastors in peril?
In considering whether my anthropomorphized model of leadership subscribed to instinctual coping mechanisms as a means of release – I asked myself "do eagles cry?"
French Philosopher Voltaire said, "Tears are the silent language of grief."
Grieving is to the soul what in culinary arts is known as an amuse-bouche is to the meal. The appetizer is intended to transition the palate by removing the residue of what has preceded while whetting the appetite for the forthcoming repast.
In my studies I learned that eagles do not cry. But they do weep. And for such a powerful bird, they emit a surprisingly weak call.
I was so moved at hearing of the inaudible call of pastors like Teddy Parker, Jr., the 42-year-old pastor of the Bibb Mount Zion Baptist Church in Macon, Ga. who committed suicide in his driveway one Sunday morning while his family and congregation waited for him to arrive and preach.
There are countless stories across the nation of pastors taking their own lives.
These violent passings are a flashpoint for all of Christendom to take heed to this pressing issue.
Sadly, suicide among pastors is not new.
Suicide is deeply reflected in our cultural values. In the U.S., there are more than 39,000 deaths annually, 79 percent are males. The rate among black men has doubled since 1980, making it a leading cause of death for African Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Middle-aged adults are also at high risk.
Of the total deaths, 23 percent tested positive for antidepressants, and 21 percent for prescription pain killers.
In contrast to those staggering statistics, it is estimated that 734,000 people attempt suicide.
Getting help is the key.
While help will come too late for Pastor Parker and his fallen brethren, it's not too late for the many other pastors burdened by burnout, discouragement and hopelessness or suffering from debilitating psychological or psychiatric disorders.
The Poet Carl Sandburg said, "Life is like an onion; you peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep."
Our pastors are weeping and anguished behind the pulpit.
They're overworked, overburdened, underpaid, underappreciated, and held to unattainably high standards. They're failing in their marriages, falling morally, wrestling for organizational control, or exiting the profession altogether.
There is a warrior's ethos that says "I will never leave a fallen comrade."
We must do the work so that no more soldiers need die on the front lines with a Bible in their hands.
We must begin to peel the onion and examine the enemy within our own ranks.
I am culling a panel of Christian mental health professionals, to seek viable solutions to the epidemic of depression, loneliness and burnout. Romans12:15 says, "Let us weep with those who weep."
This is a clarion call for compassionate leaders to join me on March 6 – 8, 2014 at the International Pastors & Leadership Conference in Orlando for a working session on restoration.
"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."