What kind of personal pain would cause a 42-year-old pastor to abandon his family, his calling and even life itself? Members of a Baptist church in Hickory, North Carolina, are asking that question after their pastor committed suicide in his parked car in September.
Over the past eight years, I had the privilege of serving as program coordinator for the Lilly Endowment’s Transition into Ministry grants program. This work has helped me to see the fruitfulness of attending more closely to those who are in their earliest years of ministry. When the program began back in 2001, “transition into ministry” was little more than the name of a program.
The articles in this issue on funerals set me to thinking about my own experience and the changes I have witnessed in funerals. In my first two congregations I never conducted a funeral in the church itself. Every funeral was held in a funeral home, and every funeral was followed by a graveside interment and committal.
When I began in ministry, I'd enter a hospital room with a bit of trepidation, as if entering a strange and alien land. I wasn't sure what I'd encounter there and how I might respond. I wasn’t used to the sights and sounds and smells—the sight of someone hooked up to a tube, the occasional snoring or groaning of a roommate, the antiseptic smell that sometimes barely conceals the various human smells that infuse the air. I didn’t know the customs of this land either—for instance, whether I should stop praying when a doctor entered the room, or introduce myself to the doctor, or leave the room when the doctor begins the consultation. But now, after 25 years as a pastor, I've been in hundreds of hospital rooms, and they all look familiar.
Early on in our marriage, Karen began to decide that even if she believed in some kind of God, she could not accept basic Christian teachings. The faith claims that Christians make about Jesus—about him being the Son of God—seemed unbelievable to her. The Bible is just another book, she began to conclude, and so we cannot grant it any particular authority. She wondered whether she could continue to attend church. This stirred a bit of panic in me. She was not just my wife. She was the minister’s wife.
"You can be a minister. Just don’t marry one,” I heard myself telling a little girl in my church, and then wondered where that came from. I suspect that I meant it as a compliment to my husband, who was standing nearby. Perhaps I had been short-tempered, as I sometimes am on Sunday mornings, so the comment was my way of saying that I know it is not always easy to be married to a minister.
Like most pastors, I claim that the face-to-face meeting is the best way to do the ministry of the church; also like most pastors, I spend an enormous amount of time reading and composing e-mails. I am driven not so much by my own schedule or preferences as by those of my church members. Many of them use e-mail all day long and expect the church to do the same. If I want to keep up, I have to keep typing.
As boy I had a sunny disposition. For the most part, people around me reflected back to me warm affirmation. Our home was largely free from conflict; I cannot remember a single instance when someone in my family raised a voice in anger. I always had a close circle of friends, and although we would often tease each other, we all knew that it was done with affection. I approached the world with an openness as wide and trusting as the outstretched arms of someone anticipating an embrace. In other words, I was completely unprepared to deal with the criticism that comes with being a pastor.