I recently had the opportunity to travel to three major U.S. cities with a film crew. Our sole purpose was to ask anyone who would give us 15 minutes of their time questions about life and meaning, and the feelings they are experiencing in this cultural moment.
Many expressed feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, loneliness, and grief. They found themselves asking the same questions people have been asking since the beginning of time:
· Why do we exist?
· What’s the purpose of my life?
· Why all the suffering?
· What’s next?
Helping people process through these feelings and questions and providing the support needed to enable a person’s journey toward healing and wholeness is one of the many roles of a pastor/shepherd.
Through the years, I’ve realized pastors carry an enormous responsibility for the emotional, physical, and spiritual health of their congregation and community. It’s been especially challenging as the pandemic has increased the number of people seeking answers and needing various forms of care, and pastors trying to find the best way to meet those needs in brand new ways.
Expectations are high. But pastors are human too, and many are experiencing weariness, stress, discouragement—some of the very same feelings they are helping others to work through.
Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest and author, notes,
“The sense of exhaustion and frustration is very real in this time. This is not the way we are intended to do ministry. Human beings are not supposed to live this way. But we need to now in order to love our neighbor well.”
According to a Barna Group study conducted in the summer of 2020, more than 50% of pastors expressed feeling loneliness at some time in a month. Pastors spend multiple hours a week caring for others—many feeling the need to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with their own needs often neglected or put on hold. That same Barna study found that 29% of pastors seriously considered quitting full-time ministry.
This has been a particularly hard two years for our entire world, and pastors have carried an extra burden. Couple that with feeling they have to hide their own pain and struggles, add to it a global pandemic and a polarized nation, and it’s not difficult to understand why more and more pastors are leaving ministry altogether.
It is difficult to carry the illness, disorientation, death, and grief of an entire church community on your shoulders. It is especially exhausting when you are also carrying your own. The result is nothing short of traumatic.
Telling the truth about trauma
In the American Church at large, we tend to shy away from talking about trauma—especially when it comes to our pastors and ministers. We want to see our pastors strong, stable, above reproach, and able to handle anything that comes their way. But the truth is our pastors, like the rest of us, have emotions; they feel pain, they experience grief, sadness, disorientation, and even doubt.
Not allowing those in ministry to show their pain, while continually demanding that they carry ours, is damaging and a sure path to burnout.
Most who find themselves stepping into pastoring do so because of a deep sense of compassion for a hurting world in need of a loving Savior. This same compassion also leads to restless nights and early mornings filled with thoughts and prayers about how to reach the lost, feed the hungry, grow disciples, walk alongside the hurting, bring freedom to the oppressed and marginalized—and let’s not forget, how will this mission get funded? All this concern can turn to stress and anxiety, leaving pastors with a sense that they are never doing enough.
We recognize the sacrifices pastors, ministers, and church leaders make on a daily basis and want to take this opportunity, during National Pastoral Care Week, to acknowledge the cost and challenges of the calling, express our gratitude, and offer this call to lament as a path toward hope and healing.
Lament as the path forward
Lament is truth-telling. It’s dropping the pretension that everything is fine and acknowledging our hurt and pain. It’s acknowledging the world as it is, in all its brokenness. Lament is not pessimism or cynicism, but honesty with ourselves and with one another. It is speaking the truth of our existence—that the world is not as we want it to be, we are not as we want to be, we need help, we need Jesus.
Scripture gives us beautiful examples of what it looks like to lament, to grieve openly and publicly. An entire book and the only one named after an emotion: Lamentations, is devoted to it and 40% of the Psalms are songs of lament.
“Psalms of lament are powerful expressions of the experience of disorientation. They express the pain, grief, dismay, and anger that life is not good. They also refuse to settle for things as they are, and so they assert hope.” —Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms
We are living in a season and time that is hungry for lament. We are disoriented. We are hurt, angry, and full of grief. We need spaces where we can allow our grief and hurt to surface, brave leaders, like the prophet Jeremiah, willing to personally identify with the pain and suffering around them, and a loving community that allows their pastors the vulnerability to do so.
“Listen to the weeping of my people; it can be heard all across the land. I hurt with the hurt of my people. I mourn and am overcome with grief.” – Jeremiah 8:19;21
Lament can help us process our experiences and restore a sense of trust in the sufferer. It is not a guarantee of healing or a bandage for our wounds; the comfort comes in the “closeness” –the way to renewed intimacy with Christ, the Suffering Servant.
God is not complacent about our suffering. He is intimately familiar with it. He was rejected, beaten, and ultimately hung naked before the world, bruised, brutalized, and mocked. What does he do in that moment? He laments. He expresses hurt and pain: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
God is not scandalized by our pain. He is not surprised by it. He is present with us in the midst of our hurt. He doesn’t demand that we hide it from him, or from each other—there is no hierarchy in who can reveal their pain and who must conceal it. He isn’t looking for perfect ministers. He doesn’t invite us into a role that is too heavy for us to carry, too isolated for peace, too overwhelming for hope. He instead invites us into a family of broken, needy, human beings, who are instructed to “weep with those who weep.”
During National Pastoral Care Week, we lift our lament to God. We pray for those carrying the burdens of others. We pray for pastors who are experiencing weariness, discouragement, grief, and loss. We pray “God, Be Near!”
You are not alone, our collective voices cry out—Come, Lord Jesus!
Psalm of Lament 61:1-4
“God, hear my prayer. Listen to my heart’s cry. For no matter where I am, even when I’m far from home, I will cry out to you for a father’s help. When I’m feeble and overwhelmed by life, guide me into your glory, where I am safe and sheltered. Lord, you are a paradise of protection to me. Let me live forever firmly in your wraparound presence!”
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