In my experience, most leaders in the faith guard themselves with gusto which can prevent their church family from understanding the burden that they carry. My goal with this post is not to mindlessly rant. I simply wish to be frank about the emotional weight that all Pastors shoulder.
As a pastor, I encounter a lot of emotion.
These emotions do not originate with me and are in addition to what comes naturally – I am, after all, a living breathing person. This “foreign emotion” is called empathy and most normal people have the ability to feel it. Empathy allows society to function and lets us “put ourselves in their shoes” when connecting with other people. There’s a downside to empathy though which that it can get overwhelming after awhile.
I tend to care about pretty much every person I encounter. I feel “happy” or “sad” based on other people’s attitudes which is often an annoyance to the point where I wish I could stop caring completely – I can get so bogged down with feelings that it can be a struggle to even function. I remember being told by an older friend of mine (who had a couple decades experience in Youth Ministry) that I needed to develop some thick skin so that I wouldn’t burn out. Realizing that I had to protect myself from other people was a harsh wake-up-call.
Everyone can experience “empathy overload” from time to time. But where most others have the ability to bury themselves in their work as a way to escape, I can not. Pastors don’t get to enjoy the luxury of “losing themselves in their work” because when we do we end up coming into even more contact with the emotions of other people. Day in and day out we are surrounded by those who need love and comfort and, to be honest, it can be exhausting.
During my standard work week (Monday-Thursday plus Sunday), I connect with teens and adults via phone calls, face-to-face conversations, text messages, and social media. This doesn’t count special youth events, sporting activities, and the like which tend to happen on my days off. Some of my interactions are with individuals I already have a personal relationship with and some are with those I have never “officially” met. People off the street stop by the church regularly during the week: some just want to talk but some will be higher than a kite. While on their way down, they start having serious existential crisis’ which is not nearly as much fun as hollywood would have you believe. When these individuals drop by, part of me would like to shut myself in the office: to ignore them completely by turning off the lights and locking the door. However, the other part simply cannot sit by and not attempt to help resolve their hurt. These individuals are fellow human beings who need someone to talk to and often decide that a pastor is their best choice.
I consider it an honor and a privilege to work in ministry. Pastors around the world choose to stay in this line of work despite the weight that is put on their shoulders when serving people – I know I am not a special case. I, and others like me, are not in denial about the weight we carry. We know that it is impossible to not be personally affected in some way by the work that we do but we stick with it often at the expense of our health and personal relationships.
Side Note: “The Giver” presents the idea of the emotion of others being a weight on a specific individual in a great way. It’s a classic book – go check it out if you haven’t read it.
– – –
There was a professor at Multnomah University who, as a licensed counselor, also had a private practice. Many of my peers took his classes during their time at MU and would share details about what was talked about in his lectures. This professor shared openly that he was constantly affected by what he encountered when counseling and that one way he dealt with the darkness that he saw every week was to watch violent movies: straight up high body-count, bloody action films. As part of the career path he had chosen he would connect with people every day who needed an empathetic ear and guidance. He willingly took on their emotional baggage day after day after day. But he couldn’t dump the constant build-up of anger, pain, heartbreak, shame, joy, victory, or self-loathing on anyone else (let alone his wife and kids). He would watch violent movies as a way to satisfy his need for vengeance and retribution. While he was fully aware of the often quoted Deuteronomy 32:35 (in which God says he will take revenge), the need to do something when faced with the trauma of others was still there. Seeing the bad guys get destroyed via the big screen was a coping mechanism.
Another professor at MU had been a pastor for many years before moving into academia. He shared with students how he had chosen to incorporate specific 4-letter words as a regular part of his vocabulary – not in a gratuitous way but definitely there. His explanation was that this helped him express all that would weigh him down as a result of his daily efforts to serve others. It was always quite a shock to sheltered freshmen when he threw in an unexpected “F—” during lecture for the first time.
Both of these men had come to the conclusion that while they could willingly take on extra baggage as part of their calling to serve others, they could not ignore the weight it put on them emotionally and spiritually – if they did, it would have a negative effect on not only themselves but also on their loved ones. Both have chosen an outlet that, to some, may seem a bit extreme (be it certain movies or colorful language) but neither are apologetic about what brings them to this point – they are called by God to serve others regardless of the personal toll.
Upon being confronted with the choices of these Godly men at the tender age of 19, I struggled with reconciling their actions with how I was raised – excessively violent movies and any word even bordering the spectrum of swearing was definitely a no-no in my parent’s house. I remember wondering how one could encounter so much pain in order to come to the point where these would be acceptable choices. Were their choices better than the alternative of sharing with family members? What made those choices bad in the first place…were my parents wrong? I wouldn’t ever reach that overload point in ministry…would I? If I did, I totally would be able to handle it…right?
To bring these examples even closer to home, consider my father who has been a minister for my entire life. Before I even started to grasp that being a pastor was more than talking into a microphone on Sunday morning, I knew my dad helped people who were having a bad day. I respect a great number of my former professors and mentors but they all fall short compared to how I see my dad. I lived at home for 18 years and I don’t remember him ever sharing people’s private issues with me or my siblings – he never gossiped. However, I do remember times when something seemed off. In those times he would come home from the office and be quieter than normal: weighed down. There would be more metaphorical lines on his face and it was times like these when he would go out to the garage and work on the car for a few hours or head to the basement and watch tv by himself. Most of the time this was directly after a counseling appointment or maybe a couple days after. I was young at the time I didn’t connect the dots because obviously my dad was Superman and could handle anything without breaking a sweat. Now, as I reflect back on my formative years with the added benefit of being in ministry myself, I have a better understanding of the kryptonite that was pulling him down. During those times when he seemed more closed off, my father was making sure that I wasn’t getting messy while he sifted through all the crap that had been dumped on him.
I can’t begin to express how much respect I have for my father; 28 years and I still want to be just like him, kryptonite and all. He has dealt with more than I will ever know but he has always protected me, my brothers, and my sister from the emotional fallout that he encountered as part of his ministry. I love him for that and so much more. If I can succeed in doing the same for my daughter, I will have won at fatherhood.
– – –
Pastors fill up their “Emotion Tanks” faster than most others and that is not something we should always hide. All the rubbish that gets thrown at us over the course of a week such as spousal abuse, work and school drama, funeral planning, parental arguments, teen angst, and adults acting like children is added on top of the emotions we already have as regular people.
I am more guarded now than I was when I first began my work in ministry but I’ve not completely shut down my ability to empathize either. I don’t think I ever will: feeling, whether it be joy or sadness, is not a bad thing (Inside Out teaches us this!). Some people have only their own emotional baggage to deal with but some, like pastors and counselors, have the weight of other’s as well. People in my line of work don’t take on this challenge for a pat on the back or a special gift during October’s “Pastor Appreciation Month” – we do it because we love you and want to live out the calling God has given us.
In part 2, I will be exploring how we all (no matter the career path) can handle emotional baggage in a healthy way. It will be shared in the coming days.