The Human Debt(s)

Ministers are people invited into the sadness of others. Every imaginable pain one human can feel (or inflict) on another is part of the ministerial experience. Like most public persons,  long term ministers enter into a low-level depression (not depressiveness) after a couple of years. The minister will never fully emerge from this depression. How he or she (actually, not in imagined form) operates within and without the depression will determine everything else about her life; happiness, sadness, joy, pain, grief, death.

There are ministers who act out their depression with bravado. These persons seem to feel they can be (or ought to be) larger than life, by which I mean other than normal. One day, a common funeral service will cause the Bravado-Minister to break down completely, though it may not be a service for a close friend or family member. He will offer some extraordinary reasons for his extravagant grief, such as “I just care so much.” In fact, it is more likely he just never allowed himself a normal grief experience. Then, one day, sadness comes calling and kicks in the door.

You can find hundreds of volumes on the varied effects of repressed grief. I submit that repressed grief for a minister is neither like nor completely unlike that of any other person. The place of the minister in service around a Life Memorial (funeral) is unlike any other. She is intimately involved with most facets of the service. Every word she says, each minor mannerism will be scrutinized, evaluated and often criticized without meaning or praised far beyond reason. What she cannot do is grieve, at least, not at the moment, for the one thing she cannot do is make her grief the focus of the service.

She will, however, pile up emotional IOUs to be paid one day. Like many human debts, all the chits can be called in one day at one time. The results can be devastating for the minister, her congregation and  family. I have heard from ministers I mentor who are dangerously close to throwing away marriages and ministries because their emotions are strained to the limit, much of it on the romance of death-time ministry.

I strongly urge ministers and their families to put aside the Bravado Minister model. The  minister does not have twenty-six hours in the day or thirty-two days in the month. He is not less than, or other than, human. He cannot “tough it out” for years, let alone decades. He may have marvelous coping mechanisms but stress times in ministry can come in waves. A Memorial Service on Saturday does not mean he does not have multiple worship services on Sunday. His cardio-pulmonary stress level can be damaged for life, but the damage will probably take place over a period of steady, repetitive work with extended surges of high stress.

My wife noticed this in me during what anyone would have called the most productive period of our ministry. Our family was well set in a beloved community (our kids still call it home) and I had years of tenure in a growing church. The work did go on day after day, week after week, but the natural needs of a growing congregation overlapped with the Human Debts, particularly the one called Death. There were three to five Memorial Services many weeks, along with the countless repetitive tasks a minister must do to “lead and feed.” She began to suggest I take evenings away from the repetitive tasks after the special tasks. Amazingly, the church still managed to function without my obsessive tendencies.

To back off the Bravado Ministry model requires, I think, the human payment of courage. Courage is, among other things, the ability to see one’s self in real terms and act accordingly. I could use other examples for ministry than the intimate/superficial role of the minister in grief and the cost required. In fact, the Bravado-Minister (Rambo in a Clerical Collar) is a Bravado-Minister quite because he thinks he is something other than merely human. His debts will be the same as those of other humans. The bill will come due.

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.