Month: June 2014

Scott’s Story

(The following story comes from Scott Sauls, Senior Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Nashville, Tennessee. Thank you, Scott. Read more by Scott on his blog.)

Scott-Sauls-Head-Shot-150x150I am one of those ministers who has endured a handful of seasons of anxiety and depression. Most of the time, thankfully, the affliction has been more low-grade than intense. On one occasion, though, it pretty much flattened me physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. I call this particular season my “living nightmare.”

That season, as well as others, occurred while serving in ministry.

How bad was the living nightmare? I could not fall asleep for two weeks straight. Even sleeping pills could not calm the adrenaline and knock me out, which only made things worse. At night I was terrified of the quiet, knowing I was in for another all-night battle with insomnia that I was likely to lose. The sunrise also terrified me, an unwelcome reminder that another day of impossible struggle was ahead of me. I lost nearly thirty-five pounds in two months. I could not concentrate in conversations with people. I found no comfort in God’s promises from Scripture. I was unable to pray anything but “Help” and “Please end this.”

Why would I tell you this part of my story? Because I believe—no, I am certain—that anxiety and depression hits ministers disproportionately. And a minister who suffers with this affliction, especially in isolation, is a person at risk. When I was in seminary, two pastors committed suicide because they could not imagine going on another day having to face their anxiety and depression. Both suffered with the affliction in silence. One wrote in his suicide note that if a minister tells anyone about his depression, he will lose his ministry, because nobody wants to be pastored by a damaged person.

Or do they?

For those of us in ministry who have suffered (or are suffering) from this affliction, I think we need to do everything we can to discover and embrace an applied theology of weakness. Even the Apostle Paul said that it is in weakness that we discover the glory, power, and grace of God. This is how God works. He is upside-down to our sensibilities. Better said, we are upside-down to his.

Anne Lamott recently said that it’s okay to realize that you are very crazy and very damaged because all of the best people are. Suffering has a way of shaping us as people and as ministers. It has a way of equipping us to lead in ways that are helpful and not harmful. A healer who himself has not been wounded is very limited in his ability to heal.

The “very crazy, very damaged” people in Scripture seem to be the ones through whom God did the greatest things. Hannah experienced bitterness of soul over infertility and a broken domestic situation. Elijah felt so beaten down by ministry that he asked God to take his life. David repeatedly asked his own soul why it was so downcast. Even Jesus, the perfectly divine human, expressed that his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow, even to the point of death. Each of these biblical saints, in her/his own way, was empowered by God to change the world—not in spite of the affliction but because of it and through it.

Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, experienced depression for many years of his ministry. William Cowper, the great hymn writer, had debilitating, paralyzing anxiety for most of his adult life. C. S. Lewis lost his wife to a violent form of cancer. Joni Eareckson Tada became paralyzed from the neck down when she was a teenager. All of these and others were God’s chosen instruments for bringing truth, grace, and hope into the world. The best therapists and counselors have themselves been in therapy and counseling. It’s how God works.

So if anxiety and/or depression is your affliction, I am sharing this part of my story to remind you that there is no shame in having this or any other affliction. In fact, our afflictions may be the key to our fruitfulness as ministers. “Damaged” does not mean “ineffective.” It does not mean “done.”

Anxiety and depression can also, ironically, be a conduit of hope—an opportunity for the foolishness of God to be put on display in our lives. Recently a member in our church (where I have been senior pastor for two years now) told me that he thinks I am a great preacher…and he is entirely unimpressed by this. He told me that the moment he decided to trust me, the moment he decided that I was his pastor, was when I shared openly with the church that I have struggled with anxiety and depression and that I have seen counselors for many years.

As ministers, in the end we may discover that our afflictions had greater impact in people’s lives than our preaching or our vision.

Anxiety and depression are also invitations into Sabbath rest. When you are laid flat and there’s nothing you can do except beg for help, Jesus tends to meet you in that place. It is there that Jesus reminds us that Matthew 11 is for ministers too. He invites weary and heavy laden ministers to come to him and find rest, to learn from him, to experience his humility and gentleness of heart…that we, too, might find rest for our souls. For an anxious, depressed person, there is nothing quite like an easy yoke and a light burden under which to process our pain.

Many times when I have encountered this affliction, it has been through or because of something related to ministry. Usually anxiety and depression have come upon me because I have lost my way temporarily—leaving the easy yoke of Jesus and looking to ministry for self-validation, to make a name for myself, to gain applause and acclaim and respect from the crowds. This is a dead end street, but in moments and seasons of weakness my heart has gone there.

Anxiety and depression have been God’s way of reminding me that I don’t have to be awesome. He has not called me to be awesome, or impressive, or a celebrity pastor, or anything of the sort. He has first and foremost called me to be loved, and to be receptive to that love. He has called me to remember that because of Jesus, I already have a name, I will be remembered even after I am long gone, because he is my God and I am his person. He is my Father and I am his son.

Kierkegaard said that the thorn in his foot enabled him to spring higher than anyone with sound feet. The Apostle Paul said something very similar about the thorn in his flesh. The thorn kept him from becoming cocky. It kept him humble. It kept him fit for God and fit for the people whom God had called him to love and serve. There is glory in weakness. There is a power that is made perfect in that place.

Though I would not wish anxiety or depression on anyone, I am strangely thankful for the unique way that this affliction has led me, time and again, back into the rest of God.

“All the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him…”


Tony’s Story

(The following is based on an interview with a former pastor I’ll call Tony. While the story is true, the names of people have been changed.)

“Tony, you’re a liar. You’re going to have to leave the church.”

Pastor Tony heard the words, but they made no sense. It felt like he’d just been tackled by a 300-lb. linebacker—speared, more like it—and hammered into the ground. The eyes of six deacons seated grimly around the conference table stared blankly at their pastor. Tony grabbed a gulp of air and said, “Excuse me?”

images“You have a pattern of deception in your life, Tony,” said the chairman of the deacon board. “You’re a liar. You’ll need to resign.”

Tony Kendall had been at his church for just three years. The congregation had embraced Tony and his wife Emily with enthusiasm. They loved Pastor Tony’s passion in the pulpit and his knack at connecting Scripture with life. He had hit the ground running. He got the staff pulling in the same direction and sparked renewed vision among the people for blessing the city.

But before long, Tony knew there were problems. In fact, the first sign of an approaching storm appeared the first week he was at the church. One of the trustees took Tony out to lunch and told him the deacons and trustees weren’t on speaking terms. Tony was shocked. This had certainly not come up in the interview process. How could the spiritual leaders of the church allow such a thing?

When the deacons asked Tony to start a contemporary worship service, Tony accepted the challenge but warned them it would not be easy. And Tony was right. It was not easy. Beliefs about worship are about as hard to change as a Long Islander’s accent. But as it turned out, the contemporary worship service was the least of Tony’s problems.

Tony butted heads often with Matthew, his assistant pastor. Matt knew he was on the way out, and made plans to start a church elsewhere in the community. But he would not go quietly. Matt had an ally on the deacon board who was also the board chairman. Matt had often run to Steve whenever he didn’t like something Tony had done or said. Now Matt told him the content of his latest conversation with Tony. He had even recorded the conversation and sent Steve a copy. So several weeks later, at the next board meeting, the chairman asked Tony about something he had told Matt.

“Did you say that or not?”

Tony honestly couldn’t remember. The conversation was several weeks old. “No, I don’t think so. I certainly don’t remember it.”

Steve slammed his fists on the conference table. “Tony, you’re a liar!” He pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and played the recorded conversation for all to hear.

“Well, I guess you’re right. I did say that.”

“You’re going to have to leave the church, Tony,” the deacon said. “There’s a pattern of deception in your life. You can either resign now or we’re going to vote to kick you out of the church.”

Tony was speechless. Yes, he was wrong. He didn’t have his facts straight about a conversation with his assistant pastor. But did this rise to the level of an irreparable breach of trust, a sin that merited dismissal?

What Tony knew that the other deacons sitting around the table that night did not, was that Steve had had a long-running dislike for Tony. He didn’t care for Tony’s preaching. He questioned Tony’s motives for ministry. Whenever Tony looked down at Steve from the pulpit, he would scowl back at him. Matt, the assistant pastor, had totally convinced this fellow leader that Tony was a fraud.

Tony knew it was over. He could fight to stay, but Steve held all the cards. Tony slumped in his chair and said hardly a word the rest of the meeting. His brain was pounding with questions. “What will I do? Where will I go? What will I tell Emily and the kids? How will we sell our home? It’s underwater. How can this be happening?”

As he started his car and pulled out of the church parking lot, Tony knew many tears would fall in the Kendall home that night.

Pain by numbers

One of the keys to surviving in ministry is being open about your pain.

During the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (my denomination), which met in Houston this past week, I sent out this tweet:

Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 6.42.40 PM

In no time at all, I got new Twitter followers and a number of retweets and favorites from people I don’t even know. Several pastor friends who had seen my tweet came up and thanked me for it. I’m guessing they just needed someone to tell them they weren’t crazy.

So many ministers of the gospel are carrying the scars of ministry but think they are alone. They are not. According to reputable studies and surveys…

  • 1,500 pastors leave their ministries each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure.
  • 23% of pastors have been fired or pressured to resign at least once in their careers.
  • numbers25% don’t know where to turn when they have a family or personal conflict or issue.
  • 33% felt burned out within their first five years of ministry.
  • 40% of pastors and 47% of spouses are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules, and/or unrealistic expectations.
  • 45% of pastors’ wives say the greatest danger to them and their family is physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual burnout.
  • 45% of pastors say they’ve experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry.
  • 50% feel unable to meet the needs of the job.
  • 52% of pastors say they and their spouses believe that being in pastoral ministry is hazardous to their family’s well-being and health.
  • 56% of pastors’ wives say they have no close friends.
  • 57% of pastors would leave the pastorate if they had some other option.
  • 70% don’t have any close friends.
  • 75% report severe stress causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear, and alienation.
  • 80% of pastors say they have insufficient time with their spouse.
  • 80% believe that pastoral ministry affects their families negatively.
  • 90% feel unqualified or poorly prepared for ministry.
  • 90% work more than 50 hours a week.
  • 94% feel pressured to have a perfect family.
  • “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could” (New York Times, August 1, 2010).

I share this not to create sympathy for pastors nor to give you pastors a reason to boast in your wounds, as though they make you righteous. But we have to admit to ourselves that pastoral ministry is HARD.

The Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-1691) pastored a church in Kidderminster, England, for close to twenty years. He wrote in his journal one day, “…the more I do, the more hatred and trouble I draw upon me.” Marshall Shelley, in his book Leading Your Church through Conflict and Reconciliation, says, “The only pastors who don’t experience regular, character-building periods of conflict, are either bullies who walk all over everyone or cowards afraid to stand up for what God wants to accomplish.”

If there’s one thing I’ve found necessary for my own ministry survival, it is to come out of hiding. Let someone you trust know what you’re going through. Don’t suffer in silence.


Robert’s story

“There is not a churimagesch in America that I would pastor for $5 million. I would manage a Wendy’s before I’d be the senior pastor of a church. I’m a recovering senior pastor, just like a recovering alcoholic. And I’m just not going to take the first drink again. I have zero ambition for the role.”

That is what Pastor Robert (not his real name) told me in a personal interview.

How did this happen?

In the mid-1990s, Pastor Robert was flourishing in his role as an associate pastor of administration. He taught a Sunday School class of 200 people. He was leading several strategic ministry teams and had lots of influence in the church. But, he says, “Something in me itched for the senior pastor role.” So Robert accepted a call to a large, 1200-member church in another state.

Unfortunately, the Pastor Search Committee of this congregation painted a too-rosy picture of the church. In fact they concealed from Robert the church’s firm belief in baptismal succession.

Robert describes his first two years at the church as a “honeymoon.” People were responding to the gospel. The church purchased land for expansion. But then Robert made his first mistake: he invited a guest speaker from a different denomination to preach one Sunday. “Never do that again,” he was told by the church officers. Robert agreed.

But soon Robert made another big mistake: he allowed a couple to join the church who had not, according to fellow leaders, been properly baptized.

Church leaders were incensed.

Robert felt the time had come for a showdown. For too long, unbiblical views of baptism and the Lord’s Supper had been held by power brokers in the church. So Robert called a congregational meeting. He wanted to put it to a vote: Was he correct about the sacraments, or were his fellow church leaders correct?

The day of the congregational meeting, people came out of the woodwork. “It was the blackest Sunday morning of my life,” Robert says. The news media set up cameras outside the church. People who hadn’t attended the church for years showed up to cast their vote. The meeting got out of control. People were shouting at each other. When the votes were counted, Robert’s view prevailed, but by just over 50%.

The church split down the middle. The “losers” left and started a new church. The “winners” stayed, but now the church was half as big as before. The congregation couldn’t sustain their budget. Staff members had to be let go. Robert’s standing in the community had taken a big hit. “Pastor Robert is mean and graceless,” people said.

Robert’s marriage suffered too. He and his wife were hardly speaking. Worse, Robert’s enemies spread rumors about his wife. In Robert’s words, “She was accused of horrible, personal things that couldn’t be true of her–vile things. They said she was visiting ‘unsavory places.'” Someone nailed a dead woodchuck to the front door of their house. “It was a nightmare.”

Fortunately, Robert found his way to another church many miles away where he is now serving as an assistant pastor. But, he says, he’ll never itch for the senior pastor role again. “I love my comparative anonymity. I can go to Wal-Mart in shorts and a T-shirt and nobody knows who I am.”

Watch Out for the Yeast!

Title: “Watch Outyeast for the Yeast!”

Scripture text: Mark 8:14-21

Main point: Sin, left in the heart without repentance, grows bigger and hurts more people.

Preparation: In your “Bag of Wonders” hide a dinner yeast roll, some unleavened bread, and a package of baker’s yeast.

Opening question: Have you ever heard of yeast? (interact with the children’s answers)

Message: Yeast is something your mom or dad or grandmother or the baker in the grocery store uses to bake bread. And the Bible talks about yeast a good bit too. Let me show you what yeast does. (Pull the yeast roll and unleavened bread out of your Bag of Wonders.) Both of these are types of bread. But they are different, aren’t they? What’s the difference between them? (Children will say one is flat and one is big and puffy.) Do you know why this roll is big and puffy? It’s because of this. This is yeast. (Show the package of yeast.) Yeast is actually a fungus. It’s little microorganisms that cause bread dough to rise. When someone wants to bake bread, she mixes a little bit of yeast in with the flour, water, sugar, and salt. Then she takes the dough and puts it in a warm oven for a while. Slowly but surely, the yeast causes air bubbles to form inside the dough. The dough gets bigger and bigger and bigger. That’s what made this dinner roll so big and light and yummy. But this flat piece of bread did not have any yeast in it. So it stayed real flat.

The Bible talks about yeast. Usually when God talks about yeast in the Bible, it’s because he wants us to think about sin. Now just so you know, yeast is not bad. Yeast makes bread taste good. But in the Bible, yeast is often a symbol for sin. That’s because when you let sin stay in the heart, without confessing it to God or other people, it gets bigger and causes greater and greater damage. In Mark 8:14-21, Jesus told his disciples, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees!” He didn’t mean to watch out for the kind of yeast your mom uses to bake bread! He was talking about sins like hypocrisy and false teaching and lying and things like that. When you tell a lie, for example, it often leads to other lies. The more lies you tell, the more likely it is that you or someone else is going to get hurt.

Let me tell you a story about a little boy I’ll call Timothy. His dad took him fishing one Saturday, and Timothy caught a fish. It was a little fish about 6 inches long, but Timothy was proud of himself. On Monday when he wen
t to school, he told one of his friends he caught a fish that was a foot long. Later, he told another friend he caught a barracuda three feet long. Later that week, he told another friend he caught a shark! Still later he told someone he caught a whale! When his father found out what Timothy was telling people, he said, “Timothy, have you been lying? What’s this I hear about you catching a whale?!” Timothy was very sad. He realized he should have confessed his first lie, because his fish story got bigger and bigger as time went on.

Sin is like yeast. It makes problems grow and grow. Watch out for the yeast! Confess your sin as soon as you’re aware of it. Turn away from sin and repent. You know why it’s OK to tell God and other people about your sin? Because Jesus’ love is a lot bigger than your sin! Jesus died on the cross not only for the sins you’ve committed in the past, but the sins you’ll commit today, tomorrow, and in the future. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”

The best advice I was ever given

Years ago, while I was still in seminary, a man who mentored me gave me the best advice I’ve ever received.

He said you minister out of who you are.

At the time, I’m not sure I understood what he meant. Or at least I didn’t grasp the importance of it. But through the years in pastoral ministry, I have come to see the wisdom and value of his words.

On the one hand it’s a statement of fact. You can only fake it so long. You cannot give what you don’t have. So my mentor’s advice means that to be effective in ministry, I must prioritize my own spiritual health. I must, in the words of Proverbs 4:23, keep my heart with all vigilance, “for from it flow the springs of life.”

But on the other hand, my friend’s advice was a word of comfort as well as charge. In ministry, I do not have to be other than who I am. I do not have to be Tim Keller or Rick Warren or Francis Chan or any other pastor. God designed me the way He did for a reason. It’s not that I don’t need further sanctification–God knows I do. And it’s not that sometimes I don’t have to push myself out of my comfort zone and try things that are difficult for me–I do every day! But when all is said or done, I am who I am. I am an ISFJ. I am insecure. I am not good at telling jokes. I need notes in the pulpit. I’m a plodder, not a sprinter. I’m better with people than plans. I get nervous before elder meetings. I have a hard time seeing beyond the next couple of months. I’m a shepherd, not a fundraiser-motivator-debater-theologian-cheerleader-visionary.

And that’s OK. No, it’s very good.

Because I am needed in the battle, just the way I am.

It’s when I try to be someone I’m not, that all the life and energy go right out of me. I get pressured and stressed and worried and angry. And that’s not what God wants for me or His church.

You minister out of who you are. Take that to the bank. You’re a beloved child of God. Sure, you need to grow. There are areas of your life that are in serious need of improvement. Me, too. But in the meantime, the Lord your God is with you. He rejoices over you with gladness, quiets you by His love, and exults over you with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17).

Be who you are, and you’ll be a better pastor. Not only that, you’ll enjoy being a pastor a whole lot more.


Don’t forget, pastor…

imagesWhen you feel the pressure to perform, to succeed, to grow your church…

When fellow leaders tell you they want to see more results…

When the voice inside your head tells you you’re not good enough…

That’s when you must remember:

You’re a minister of the gospel, not the bottom line.

Even Paul said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6).

Just be faithful. Do your part.

Be content to fill a little space, if God be glorified.

Five things the devil tells pastors

In our work awhispers pastors, an evil alliance conspires for our discouragement. The world, the flesh, and the devil try to wear us out, bring us down, chew us up, and take us out of the fight. These are the same enemies every Christian faces, but they operate in us pastors in unique ways.

Take the devil (yes, take him, PLEASE!). He hates what we’re doing. Just as Satan tried to derail Jesus in the wilderness through persuasive words (Matt. 4:1-11), so he suggests things to us pastors that, if believed, will kill our joy and effectiveness in ministry. Jesus said the devil is a really good liar. “He…does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

I’ve identified five things the devil regularly tells me because he hates me and hates my church. Sometimes he uses people to say these things. But usually my own sinful nature gives him all the help he needs. Notice that hidden inside each lie is a small grain of truth.

1) Lie #1: “You’re amazing.”

“You’re indispensable,” the devil says to me. “After all, you have training, gifts, and experience no one else has. Nobody else can get the job done like you can. As for your preaching, why, it’s extraordinary–it just hasn’t been discovered yet. And your spiritual insights–incredible! If only people would pay attention to you, their lives would be so much more fruitful. What’s the matter with them?!”

2) Lie #2: “You’re awful.”

“Listen to yourself,” says Satan in the next breath. “The very fact that you think those elevated thoughts about yourself just goes to prove how proud, arrogant, and self-reliant you are. What kind of pastor–what kind of Christian–would be so boastful? Don’t you know God doesn’t use dirty vessels? You’re such a hypocrite. You might as well hang it up, dude.”

3) Lie #3: “Get busy!”

“I have a suggestion, pastor: Get to work. Stop thinking about yourself all the time. There are souls to be saved, battles won, cities rescued, nations evangelized! Why are you wasting time talking to that Forlorn Freddie when there are so many more important things to do? You haven’t a moment to lose. It’s fine if you want to pray for a little while, but God wants results.”

4)  Lie #4: “Relax.”

“OK, maybe I went a little overboard,” the devil says. “You’re right, you need a break. Hardly anybody Sabbaths anymore–you need a Sabbath. In fact you need a sabbatical. You’re working too hard. Every soldier needs a furlough. Don’t worry about those souls, battles, cities, and nations. You believe in predestination, don’t you? God’s going to do what he’s going to do. You’ve done all you can. Let the chips fall.”

5)  Lie #5: “It’s hopeless.”

“You’re a mess, pastor. And so is your church. Look at the numbers: your church is not growing. In fact, Christianity is declining everywhere you look. Islam is growing like gangbusters, but not Christianity. Looks like you guys are losing ground. The bad guys are winning, pastor. The church looks more and more like the world all the time. You still think the kingdom of God is advancing?? How long are you going to hold on to that foolish idea?!”

These are just a few of the often contradictory messages I hear from our enemy, the devil. What does he tell you, and how have you learned not to listen to him?