Monday, April 15, 2013

The Assault on the Ministry Family, Part III: Weight.

New to the series?  
You might want to start with the introduction and then read the first and second posts before reading today's post.  

It has been encouraging to receive and read your comments, texts, and emails about this series.  My fear has been that perhaps I didn't need to post this series.  That perhaps it wouldn't be relevant, or no one else would relate to these concerns.  It has become apparent that so many of us have been in this boat--but unaware (or had forgotten) we were surrounded by other people in boats just like ours.

A few years ago my husband became a marked man.  On August 25th, our eldest daughter started kindergarten and we were all acutely aware of life passing by so quickly.  We delighted in her milestone and went about our day after proudly walking into the school building with her.  

A few hours later, my husband received a phone call at the church that the infant son of one of our church families had been taken to the emergency room.  He drove to the hospital under the assumption that he was going to hopefully provide moral support for the family while the staff treated the infant.  

He was not expecting a room full of hospital staff members crying as they were removing the cords and wires that had failed to save to the baby's life.  He was not expecting to find a family that had lost their precious baby to SIDS.  He was expecting to leave after everything was ok, to pick up his daughter after her first day of school, enjoy a special dinner, and go about life.  

He came home completely spent that afternoon.  He held his children so much tighter that evening.  We sobbed through the funeral a few days later, and I can't type this story without tears streaming down my face.  He is still not completely able to talk about that day, but the images are forever burned into his memory.  It has forever changed my husband and how he sees life. 

One doesn't plan for these things to happen.   We expect public service members like our police officers and firemen and the military to witness and respond during horrific events.  We understand that it is part of their duty.  But the common church person tends to forget that our ministers also face tragedies almost weekly as part of their jobs.  They expect their ministry staff to prepare lessons, sermons, and songs.  The staff is supposed to be in the office, visit the sick, and take care of routine responsibilities at the church.  Unfortunately, this is scratching the surface of the ministry staff's roles in the church.   

When a family member has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, the minister is called.  When a spouse is found having an affair, the minister is called.  When there is a drug issue, the minister is called.  When someone is rushed to the hospital, the minister is called.  When someone loses their home, the minister is called.  When a teenager is pregnant, the minister is called.  When a spouse is deployed, the minister is called.  When there is a funeral to prepare, the ministry staff is called.  

And these aren't just any people to the minister.  These are often their friends, their deacons, their elders, their volunteers, their golf buddies, their families.  These are people that the minister deeply cares for.  He grieves with the family when they go through a death.  He is heartbroken for the scared teenager or the wife that lost her husband to addiction or an affair.  He is devastated for the husband who's wife has been given a terminal diagnosis.  He runs the gamut of emotions, but is still expected to give an inspiring sermon on Sunday morning and maintain business as usual. 

While I was teaching at a Christian university a few years ago, there was a shooting on the campus.  A student was charged with murder after fatally wounding another student in the dormitory.  These were students I knew.  These were students that sat in the front row of a class I had taught.  The horror and confusion and sadness and emotions fell on the staff and student body.  I saw my colleagues age almost overnight as the stress of the week took its toll on their bodies.  I saw men's hair turn gray and they lost weight from the stress of the event.  The students were faced with news crews, police questioning, exhaustion--and midterms all in the same week.  

A few students were tempted to use the events of the week as a free pass to ignore certain large assignments and tests.  However, the professors gently reminded the students that this was their first taste of life in the ministry.  Their worlds were going to fall apart routinely.  They were going to have disaster.  They were going to mourn.  They were going to become spent--but Sunday morning must still go on.  

In the world outside of church, courtesy is usually given to those experiencing a personal tragedy.  They are given time to travel, they are showered with cards and food and sympathy.  They are usually given grace on deadlines and told to take time to get things under control.  However, a minister is usually not given any sort of free "get out of Sunday" card for performing a funeral.  Or for sitting with a family for hours on Saturday night at the hospital after a horrific accident.  

And please understand that it's not like your ministry staff is looking for the congregation to give them a break or the day off.  They recognize that it is all part of the job and they do these things without looking for a reward or acknowledgement.  The average church member will never know what their minister has done in all of their office (and personal) hours during the week.  The staff considers it an honor to be able to serve a family in their times of need.  They recognize that they are called to minister to the needs of the people--and that ministerial work often occurs outside of the walls of the church building.  

In addition to these big life changes, they also deal with the day in, day out responsibilities of the church.  A family is expecting a baby, a person wants to learn more about Christ, a couple has an upcoming wedding, a retreat is around the corner, the softball team has to practice.  Someone has a complaint, someone has a suggestion, someone needs counseling, someone wants to meet with them.  By themselves they are seemingly harmless events, but when they are continuously piled upon the minister in addition to their responsibilties, it can suffocate them as much as a tragedy. 

It's no surprise that as a result of this, these men and women in the staff families face health issues.  Their bodies can only hold so much stress before it begins to leak out on the surface.  If you look closely, you will see old souls in your ministry staff's eyes.  You will see the lines on their faces, the gray in their hair, the loss or gain of weight.  

The human body requires stress release.  Sometimes the staff is able to find release in positive ways such as eating out with friends, a round of golf, or a vacation.  Others find that they need medication and/or counseling to work through the burdens of the ministry.  And sadly, some fall victim to affairs, mental illness, or addictions in order to numb the pain.  

Ministers have unique jobs.  They deal with the organizational concerns of the church, but they also have jobs saturated in emotions.  They cannot turn off the stories, the needs, or the memories that plague their minds and hearts and prayers.  They desperately need the prayers and support of their congregation members, but are often unable or afraid to ask for help for fear of being viewed as "weak" or unable to adequately perform their ministerial duties.  Satan loves to whisper in their ears that they are not good enough, or that their congregation would never understand that underneath their title, they are just an ordinary humans like everyone else.  

To be continued. . . 

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