Pastors in Peril: Bearing the Burdens of Leadership (Pt. 1)

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 one 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).

In writing my new book on leadership called Instinct, I spent a great deal of time studying the behaviors of animals in their natural habitat as a metaphor for how we humans navigate through the various social constructs or "jungles" of life.

In my observations, I found no more enduring symbol of leadership than the eagle.

With the moniker "king of the skies," the eagle is the quintessential representation of a commander in chief. It embodies the qualities of power, strength, distinction and authority.

Its perfect eyesight is eight times that of a human, panoramic in scope and yet perceptive enough to spot a mouse at 400 feet.

His seven-foot wingspan carries him to altitudes exceeding 10,000 ft., at speeds above 30 mph for up to 500 miles per day. He exudes the grace and beauty befitting his elevated status without ever breaking into a sweat.

In religious iconography, the eagle represents the messenger of God, a carrier of prayers, and the searcher of spiritual truths. In this sense, he is the perfect archetype of the pastorate, a model for leadership.

In his domain, the senior pastor holds such palpable sway. He is the paragon of power, the possessor of potency, the potentate of principles.

He shares with the eagle the attribute of perspicacity, a penetrating discernment, and a clarity of vision and intellect that provides a deep understanding and insight into God's Word.

He too wears a host of hats:

Monday through Friday, he is preoccupied with wildly important goals (WIGs), key performance indicators (KPIs) and dashboards.

In his spare time, he marries, buries, counsels and prays. He is overseer, head prelate, chief operator and bottle washer, rescuer of lost sheep, the secret keeper, offering collector, banquet director, head of the deacon board and building fund advisor.

He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

And by Sunday morning, he is crushed under the weight of responsibility.

A blog posting entitled "letter to a hurting pastor" underscores his plight:

 "People expect the clergy to have the grace of a swan, the friendliness of a sparrow, the strength of an eagle and the night hours of an owl, and some people expect such a bird to live on the food of a canary."

Further illustrating the point are a recent survey by LifeWay Research and one the best known reports of its kind, the 1991 Fuller Institute of Church Growth. Although rendered decades apart, together the studies indicate that most clergy are still overworked, underpaid and discouraged, among other maladies.

How does this happen?

In a recent Harvard Business Review article entitled "Don't Let Your Strengths Become Your Weaknesses," authors Robert B. Kaiser and Robert E. Kaplan found that leaders were five times more likely to overdo behaviors related to their areas of natural talent. The more pronounced the natural talent and the stronger the strengths, the graver the risk of going to counterproductive extremes.

When strength becomes weakness

Eagles provide three essential lessons on the efficacy and errancy of leadership:

1. Feet of Clay.

"Feet of clay" is an idiom for hidden flaws which is derived from the Prophet Daniel's interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar's dream about a statue with "legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay" as a warning that the kingdom was in danger of falling to unseen enemies.

For the leader, the unseen enemy is over extended capacity.

Call vs. Capacity

Like the pastor, eagles are designed for carrying loads. His feet called talons possess a powerful grip that enables him to maintain enough force and pressure to crush the bones of a large mammal.

Conversely, his unwillingness to release his prey leads to his own demise.

According to management experts, delegation is one of the most underutilized and underdeveloped management capabilities. Some believe that passing on work will detract from their own importance, while others secretly fear being upstaged by subordinates.

To free up time and help the staff to grow, leaders must hand off work to people with the necessary skills who are motivated to get the job done right.

They must also have a clear alignment between accountability (who is accountable for delivering what,)  responsibility (who is tasked with actions to deliver results) and authority (who controls the resources required to deliver the results,) asserts a leading strategic planning firm.

When accountability, responsibility, and authority become misaligned, organizations are plagued by in action and finger-pointing.

2. Soaring in Solitude.

Unlike crows or geese that swarm in flocks or gather in groups, this majestic bird of prey is fiercely independent, congregating only in winter. Each spring like clockwork he returns to his point of origination out of an instinct called "fidelity."

A pastor may follow a similar pattern of solitude for a number of reasons including the fact that he can find no place of solace when his life is bursting at the seams like a clerical robe made two sizes too small.

All too often, he has no peers with whom to share his human condition without risking the specter of shame, judgment, criticism or the loss of fidelity among his closest constituents.

"Openness is to wholeness as secrets are to sickness."
– Unknown

According to a recent online poll by the Clergy Recovery Network (CRN), a support group for religious professionals, 64 percent of pastors indicated that they had no one with whom they share their secrets.

The study also found that only three out of a group of 76 pastors surveyed used accountability groups to discuss their secret struggles:

"When groups are established to hold pastors accountable, these groups are seldom, if ever able to provide the essential elements of trust, shared struggles, empathy, absolute confidentiality, camaraderie and heart to heart honesty which promote open sharing and actually help clergy in their struggles."

"Too often no matter how we dress up such groups they come off like they are checking on the pastor to be sure he does not have struggles instead of supporting him in his struggles."

What's a pastor to do?

There is a reason why we will never see museum paintings with wounded sheep carrying wounded sheep like those images of Jesus having left the 99 to retrieve the one (Luke 15:4). Unlike the eagle that can carry prey equal to his own weight, rams and ewes were not bred to carry the shepherd's burdens.

Yet, an isolated pastor is like Dead Sea – the world's saltiest body of water which cannot sustain life because it has no outlet streams.

How does a pastor avoid isolation? More tomorrow in Part 2.

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