In just the first daylight hours of this week, I have sent out several texts that perfectly capture in a microcosm the wide range of emotional connections required in pastoral ministry. The recipients included a younger couple who just bought their first home together, a dear wife aiding her husband’s battle for his life against cancer, a group of faithful deacons willing to launch out by faith, and a couple celebrating yet another anniversary grieving a still-born child. All this is on the heals of a blessed but full Sunday of ministry that tends to feel like trying to drink from a full-throttled fire hose.
Do you observe how quickly the emotional pendulum can swing from one extreme to another in your ministry? While this is a natural part of being an under-shepherd, it can also be an occupational hazard in the sense of producing an inability to truly feel/process authentic emotions. On a typical Monday morning like today, not only is my voice a bit “froggy” but my ability to feel any depth of genuine emotion tends to be feeble at best.
The challenge for pastors is to be a disciple first, seeking God daily and practicing the spiritual disciplines for which he advocates. Yet that is getting harder to do. Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote “The Age of Interruption.” He reflected on spending four days in a Peruvian rain forest: “I have to say, as a wired junkie myself, there was something cleansing about spending four days totally disconnected. It was the best antidote to the disease of our age, what the former Microsoft executive Linda Stone aptly labeled ‘continuous partial attention.’ That is, you are multitasking your way through the day, continuously devoting only partial attention to each act or person you encounter. It is the malady of modernity. We have gone from the Iron Age to the Industrial Age to the Information Age to the Age of Interruption.” Friedman points out that a wired society means that everyone is always “in” and never “out.” That calls for artificially creating “out.” He quips that very soon we might see five-star hotels advertising that every room is guaranteed to come without Internet service.
Here are a few practical weapons that I am learning to use more effectively in the fight against pastoral numbness:
Fight the isolated numbness with EDIFYING COMMUNITY.
Pastors, more times than not, are naturally introverts or become pragmatic introverts after developing layer after layer of scar tissue from ministry wounds and disappointments. Several years ago after yet another building opportunity fell through for our church plant, I received one of the best nuggets of counsel from fellow church planter, “Go spend the rest of the day with your family.” The thing I wanted to do most was to retreat into a proverbial cave and dull the pain of disappointment, but that would have only led to further numbness toward God’s Spirit to be poised for the next step of ministry. By the way, lonely people tend to be sinning people. The appeal of isolationism is that it numbs us to our disappointments, but it also makes us numb to the deadly consequences of sin. Many a pastor has fallen, not because they were an overt devil-worshipper but because they were numb and alone (Herein lies the answer to not all but many of the moral failures/deadly tragedies associated with present-day pastors)!
Practical Point of Community Action: Determine to be faithful to your church’s corporate and small group gatherings-especially the settings where you are not the profiled leader but the humble participant. You cannot fake it in a small group…at least not for very long! As one author put it, “the most important time to be in church is when you don’t feel like it.” Nothing has helped my wife and I more than the weekly gatherings with our small group where we are “just one of the couples.” (You should never grow unfamiliar with not being “over” and instead being “one of.”)
Fight the academic numbness with VERTICAL WORSHIP.
Too many pastors are more moved by their theological training than their doxological singing. The former can involve the mind without the heart; the latter requires both. While there is a science to the ministry, it more than that it. It is also an art; an art that is inspired by an emotional interaction with the glory and wonder of the Lord! Without this worship, ministry becomes all about numbers-attendance numbers, offering numbers, salary numbers, and social media approval numbers. The heart-level numbness that results includes large doses of comparison, reasoning, and overall superficiality that are unsustainable. It is only frequent, faithful worship of the one true God that sanctifies and inspires our heart to reach beyond the cold, hard facts to a God who longs to not just be known but loved.
Practical Point of Worshipful Action: Sing to God in the private spaces of your life and with gusto in the corporate gathering. When is the last time your car interior and possibly even your fellow-drivers overheard you sing a song to the Lord at the top of your lungs or with a tear in your eye? By the time you get up to preach or counsel, your voice ought to be a little hoarse and your heart warmed up from entering fully into the worship of your local church. (Stop looking at your notes, talking to the ushers, letting your mind wander. Enters His gates with praise…otherwise your heart has been left behind!)
Fight the indifferent numbness with AUTHENTIC EMPATHY.
The tendency is to become a cool, clinical specialist where we church leaders are called to be compassionate and Christ-like. After awhile, nothing shocks you and nothing moves you. The seasoned pastor has heard it all and fights the smirk urge when yet another person begins with, “Pastor, you are never going to believe this, but…” By default (when we don’t fight back), we will lose the ability to truly feel and express empathy as we age in life and ministry. Do you catch yourself talking over others, zoning out in the anguishing moment of another, declining appointments only because of how it impacts your schedule/agenda? This could be rightly described as atrophy of the pastor’s very soul! If pastoring is a verb, then to not care is to not pastor…no matter what is your office door or others’ mouths label you.
Practical Point of Empathetic Action: Regularly invest thoughtful time into comforting the felt-need of another hurting person that has not ask for or demanded it. I have found that regularly doing something in ministry that I am not paid to do/ask to do checks my heart health like nothing else! (This gets you out of the reactionary position of a “zombie” and into a healthy place of initiative that requires authentic, actualized emotions.)
Fight the showy numbness with UNINHIBITED PRAYER.
Too often our constant responsibility to “have it all together” in public hollows out our heart. We cannot afford to hold back when talking to God who already knows our heart and despises hypocrisy-hence the bittersweet blessing of prayer. At a recent church-wide prayer meeting, our church experienced a unique moving of God’s Spirit in our midst. How you ask-it involved an emphasis upon God’s truth and genuine expressions of emotions. What started it was the raw, emotional prayers of two members of a family who just lost their husband/father. What followed were sniffles around the room, additional heart-cries to God, and finally my being surprisingly moved to tears as I closed in prayer. In reflection afterwards, I believe my emotional outburst was the unexpected processing of the current but intangible pressures of leading our stretching, growing church as I prayed “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” Obviously God knew I need to be deeply, publicly moved to keep feeling where I am tempted to stop. Heartfelt prayer does not just happen, but it needs to happen, moments where we not only mentally acknowledge but emotionally experience anew and afresh our relationship with Almighty God.
Practical Point of Prayerful Action: Interject more Scripture and other believers into your prayer life. While our prayer closet is a sacred part of our communion with the Lord, it is not enough when we are often our own worst emotional enemy. What happens in prayer around God’s Word and God people is a demonstration, by definitive contrast, of where we are off in a heart that is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it.” (Scripture adds inspired words to our prayers and fellow-saints add a “provoking unto love and good works” example and audience to our prayers.)
To be “more than conquerors through Christ,” we need to start with our emotions. If you have lost the ability to truly feel, you have already lost and will continue to lose so much!
Here is a great example of these steps in Psalm 122:
(A song of degrees-The pilgrim-psalmist, designated in the superscription as David, recalled his delight in going up to Jerusalem, which was the nation’s spiritual and civic center. He then called for everyone to pray for the peace and security of Jerusalem for the sake of the godly and for the sake of God Himself.)
“I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD.
Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together:
Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the LORD.
For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.
Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.
For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee.
Because of the house of the LORD our God I will seek thy good.”
Bill Hull, in his book The Disciple-Making Pastor, writes, “My advice to all pastors is to simply rearrange your life around the practices of Jesus. Look at His life filled with the press of the crowd, the hatred of religious leaders, and the dullness of His disciples. How did He handle it? He prayed, He prayed alone, and He prayed at special times of pressure and decision. He lived a life focused on others, a life that was based on humility and sacrifice powered by love.”
What other battles of pastoral numbness are you facing? How are you learning to win over them?