Safeguarding Ministerial Sanity

Back in 1959 a short book appeared under the title The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. It was the fictional account of a troubled teenager who took up running to deal with his inner troubles and it was later turned into a movie under the same title. I have often wondered if there might be mileage for book for those in ministry under a similar  title: The Loneliness of a lifetime Pastor. There are many aspects of a pastor’s calling that he and he alone must carry. Issues he has to face that few other people can grasp or enter into. Little wonder, then, the casualty-rate among those committed to going the distance in their pastoral calling is high.

Of course, this is by no means peculiar to our age – notwithstanding its distinctive demands and pressures. One only has to read the life-stories of Luther, Calvin, John Newton, Charles Haddon Spurgeon and others to realise how many of our forebears have experienced these inner pressures and, even though they came through them, by their own admission, they were not unscathed.

This in itself should be a salutary reminder that no-one who truly enters into the work of Christian mission, or ministry can come through without what Amy Carmichael called its ‘scars.’ They cannot be avoided and their pain can never be completely ameliorated – at least not in this life.

That is not to say that such men (and women serving in their appropriate callings) do not need support and encouragement. Or that those who are conscious of God’s call to these spheres of kingdom work should not be pre-warned and prepared in advance for these aspects of what God’s work involves. This is one of those areas of life where it really is the case that to be forewarned is to be forearmed. If a newly-ordained pastor or recently-commissioned missionary finds themselves blindsided by attacks of the enemy from within the professing church, from professing brothers and sisters in the faith, they can easily find themselves reeling.

It is not without significance the Bible is not silent on this issue. With characteristic candour, it allows us to glimpse the inner angst of God’s servants.

Paul does not airbrush the darkest experiences of his ministerial labours (2Co 12.7-10). He admits to pleading with deliverance, only for God to answer in a way he would never have chosen for himself. But he comes to realise this in itself was the answer he actually needed. And he felt no shame in admitting it.

Perhaps the most disturbing and yet enlightening glimpse of such candour in the Old Testament is in the experience of Jeremiah. All the more poignant because he has often been nicknamed ‘The Weeping Prophet.’ He was a man who keenly felt the burdens of his calling and was anything but a mere ‘professional.’

At a particularly low point, in Jeremiah 20, after he had been publicly beaten and placed in the stocks by Passhur, the chief officer of the temple, he records a lament composed to express the deep anguish of soul that engulfed him (Je 20.7-18). Clearly it is more than just a knee-jerk reaction to the particularly painful and humiliating experience to which he had just been subjected. It represents the deep sense of pain and perplexity that was co-mingled with the joy and exhilaration of God’s enabling him to proclaim his message.

His heart cry begins in the depths where he dares to allege God has deceived him; yet, almost without drawing a breath, he declares God’s word burns in his bones like a fire that cannot be contained. So, he continues to proclaim it despite the opposition. But then he slides once more into the heartache of rejection. Once more his spirit rises. He declares God to be the ‘dread warrior’ who stands by him (20.11). Indeed, he invites his hearers to join him in praise to God for his faithfulness (20.13). But then his final stanza takes him back into depths that seem deeper than where it all began.

The comfort in this lies in the fact it was neither the end of his prophecy, nor his ministry. In fact, Jeremiah proved himself to be one of God’s great pastors in Old Testament times who ‘went the distance’. His openness in letting others peer into his soul signals to all who are called to be servants of the word that, although it will entail dark times, the God who calls them will also sustain them.

The supreme proof of this is found in the life and ministry of our Lord himself. He too experienced the complete range of reactions to his preaching: from adulation to disdain. Yet, through it all – even during his trial and on the cross – he never ceased to trust his Father’s promise, or to lean on the Spirit’s sustaining power. He went the distance, through the depths of pain and ridicule, and was finally vindicated. He is the guarantor for all who serve him that, despite the pain and perplexity bound up with ministry, he himself gives grace to go the distance – even through the darkness.

Mark Johnston