Thursday, April 17, 2014

Pastor Suicide

Every time I hear about a pastor committing suicide, a chill goes down my spine.  I see the irony--that a spiritual leader under the authority and grace of Christ would choose to end his own life--but I know there is more to it.  Just last Friday a fellow pastor in Guilford County, Robert McKeehan of Community Bible Church in High Point, took his life. I never met him, but I grieve and pray for his family and his fellowship.  I know very little about his ministry or his personal life, but this occasion has caused me to reflect.

Of course people of all walks of life choose to end their own lives.  Yet pastors, we believe, should somehow be exceptions.  I have not looked up any statistics to see if the rate of suicide is any higher or lower among pastors than the general population.  That's almost beside the point.

What would contribute to suicide among the shepherds of the church?

There are some pastors who enter ministry as a self-help endeavor.  Because they are messed up socially, emotionally, spiritually, they enter a profession in which those difficulties are addressed.  Professional growth yields personal growth, and they triumph over the demons of their lives.  I'm certain that happens many times.  Sometimes it doesn't.  We--humans--all have our demons.

Some pastors expect too much of themselves.  We expect perfection in ourselves, while real perfection only comes in Christ.  We take personal failures personally.  We take professional failures personally.  We essentially fail to apply the gospel to our own lives.  We know that God takes the mistakes of others and turns them around for good.  But somehow we can't look in the mirror and say the same thing.

And then, today's church culture expects a lot from pastors.  With a few clicks, parishioners can hear the best sermons from the best pastors around the world.  Local pastors feel the pressure to be just as deep, relevant, personal, missional, humorous, insightful, applicable, delightful.  On some occasions we may actually have a real winner of a sermon.  Next week it will be better.  And even better the next week.  Then we serve the reputation of good preaching instead of serving Jesus.  And eventually it crashes somehow.  Rarely does a  prominent pastor make it through his career without some sort of notable sinful failure.  At least it seems that way.

Pride tells us that we can be just as good as the famous preachers, and so we strive for that.  Of course we want excellence.  We push ourselves.  And parishioners cheer us on.  Sometimes literally.  We harness social media, purely to get out our message--certainly not to fuel our own egos.

Much of this we can accomplish with our own strength and resources.  We know how to market.  We know what sells.  We know that we can explain Jesus.  We know that people need forgiveness.  And so we tell the truth and ask for commitment.  We encourage people to respond, in some cases to the point of manipulation.

What I find lacking here is the power of God.  So much of ministry is done in purely human strength with token prayer.  We pastors know we lack the power, so we use human means to accomplish spiritual ends. Sadly, sometimes it works.  It looks good.  And it feels good.

But God's power reigns supreme in the stories of the New Testament.  Preachers tell about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in a few sentences, and the power of God comes upon the listeners.  People surrender to Christ.  There is no manipulation, no arm twisting, no guilt tripping.

Today when the simple presentation of the good news of Jesus fails to produce results, we pastors assume that we are not trying hard enough, that we are not clever enough, likable enough, relevant enough, techie enough.  We assume that it is all about us.  Wrong.  That perspective is wrong.  It short circuits the power of God.  It causes us to feel like failures and blame God.  Then we use more worldly means to do spiritual work.  We see how contradictory that is, and feel the incongruity in our souls.

Sometimes we quit ministry.  Sometimes we have affairs.  Sometimes we feed addictions.  Sometimes we stay in ministry and rot from within.  Sometimes we end it all.

And then sometimes we allow God to break through as we break down.  We see that it is not all about us.  We believe Jesus when he says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  We come apart under the gracious hand of our severe and tender God.  We let go.  We weep.
 We stop bearing the weight of our dozens or thousands of parishioners.  We let God be God.  We come to him for our self-understanding.  We believe him when he says that he loves us as we are.  We believe that the cross of Jesus is all we need.  We live the life of the resurrection.  We experience release, forgiveness and deep-down joy.  We stop preaching to prove ourselves.  We take time off.  We let chips fall.  We get to know Jesus.  He fills us with his power.  Life becomes good.  We live the gospel.  We don't have to be super-pastors.  We don't want to be super-pastors.

Then the power of God flows.  The kingdom of God grows.  We live what we preach, that it is all about Jesus.  We fall to our knees.