Written By Jacob Ng, Singapore
Jacob is husband to Yvonne, dad (and playmate) to Jed and Justus, and a pastor of Redemption Hill Church, Singapore. He still wakes up amazed and grateful that God would consider him worthy of all these roles. He strives to make much of God by enjoying and giving thanks for the daily grace of life in the mundane and ordinary.
When news broke on the suicide of Pastor Andrew Stoecklein from Inland Hills Church, California, a concerned friend sent me a message to appreciate my work and to find out how I was doing. It was a nice gesture triggered by a sense of shock that was shared by many others in the world. How could it be that a pastor who seemed to “have it all together,” was so overwhelmed by the pressures of pastoral ministry and personal struggles that he took his own life?
In our age of celebrity culture, we all have a tendency to make much of people who are talented, well-known, and influential. In the church context, Christians are guilty of it too. We respect leaders who are dedicated and gifted, but this respect often develops into unrealistic ideas about them. The truth is, pastors are broken people—weak and fallible just like any other human.
The gospel of grace they preach is the same gospel of grace they need and depend on daily. No matter how long you have been a Christian, all of us—pastors or not—will never outgrow our need for support from the body of Christ until the day we enter into God’s glory.
You may be surprised, but these are four common ways that your pastor is probably struggling more than you would imagine.
1. Pride and self-reliance
If you have ever been put on the pedestal by others before, you know it is not a bad feeling at all! That is, until you are honest enough to realize the person on that pedestal does not exist, but is simply a figment of your imagination.
Many pastors struggle with the expectations of those who look up to them—and strive hard to live up to these expectations. Deep down, they could be driven by a need for approval, or a fear of disappointing others. Unfortunately, it can be hard for pastors to realize that this insecurity is rooted in a form of pride and self-reliance. What started as a sincere desire to serve the church selflessly, can over time become what we rely on to validate our worth. The weight of thinking “it all depends on me” can be utterly crushing.
As church members, it is crucial that we see our pastors simply as those who are called “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” (Ephesians 4:12-13) While it is not wrong for us to honor and respect pastors, we must be clear that their ministry is not to point us to themselves, but to Christ.
2. Marriage and family
The first time someone suggested to my wife that it must be an amazing blessing for her to be married to a pastor, we both laughed. If only they knew how flawed we really are, and how much we struggle with the daily grinds of our marriage like everyone else.
I have had conversations with enough pastors to know that it can be easier to lead a church than to pastor our own families well. I can apply active listening skills well when I am attending to someone in my office, but at the end of the day I struggle to do that properly for my wife. While I am 100 per cent certain in my heart that my wife and children are the dearest to me, my actions have often shown them otherwise. For example, there have been times when I have sacrificed family time for ministry. Even when I am physically present with my family, my mind can be ruminating on a different planet.
Over the past years, I am grateful that my wife has graciously put up with the worst in me that I was not even aware of. We have cried, prayed, confided in others, repented of our sins, and put our faith in Christ again and again as we worked through different difficult issues. We testify to the covenant-keeping love of God that has faithfully held our marriage by grace, and will continue to rely on that.
Instead of assuming that our pastor and his family “have it all together,” perhaps we should take time to offer the pastor encouragements and reminders to prioritize and love his wife well. Perhaps we should take initiative and speak into the lives of the pastor’s children, and point them to Jesus with our words and deeds. Our pastors and their families need our grace, love, support, and practical help as much as any other member in the church.
3. Emotional fatigue
Most preachers preach truths better than they apply them, and “cast all your anxiety on him” (1 Peter 5:7) is a classic example. My anxieties and emotional burdens often feel glued to my palm no matter how hard I try to fling them to God.
At age 37, I still feel physically well and strong. What wears me down is not physical tiredness, but the emotional fatigue that comes from pastoring and preaching. My job description does not reflect things that I often find myself doing—such as struggling with words to comfort those who have suffered unthinkable pains, bearing the burdens of those who are struggling with deep brokenness, composing myself to respond with grace to those who are difficult and hurtful (whether intentionally or not), and beating myself up for the many blunders I have made. On a really challenging day, I could feel so burdened by waves of different emotions and thoughts that I have no idea what to do or pray. When I tell people that God chose the weak and the clueless like me to do His work, I really mean it from the bottom of my heart.
Having said all this, please don’t stop coming to us with your burdens! Loving and caring for the flock well is a load that all good pastors gladly bear. However, do remind us to rest well, and be gracious to us when we are unavailable.
Understand that your pastor does not necessarily have all the answers to the many difficult questions in life. Understand also that he will not meet all your expectations. Sometimes, he may take a day or two to reply your email or text. In moments when you see your pastor struggling to keep up, your best gift to him could simply be the benefit of the doubt—that he is really trying his best, and not that he does not care.
4. Mental health conditions
According to Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health, about 5.8 per cent of adults in Singapore have suffered from Major Depressive Disorder at some point in life. Churches in Singapore (and around the world) seem under-equipped to understand and help those with serious mental health conditions. I am not suggesting that the church is responsible to provide treatment or cure. However, we do need to have a basic understanding of this important matter in order to be able to recognize symptoms of common conditions and provide guidance on where to seek appropriate professional help.
I know of hyper-spiritual churches that would quickly attribute these symptoms to demonic forces, and super-conservative churches that would distance themselves completely from clinical psychology, psychiatry, and the use of medicine. This gap, combined with my earlier three points, could be the reason some pastors may be suffering silently from mental health struggles, like depression and anxiety disorders, that could go unnoticed by their churches for years. By the time these mental health struggles eventually surface, it is usually because of something major or tragic. I pray that our churches will grow in understanding and applying good gospel theology to these complex matters of life in this broken world.
At our church, we partner with a Christian counseling ministry and regularly invite our leaders and members to attend their online courses. The ministry offers us a great wealth of theologically robust and practical resources to help us meet some of our counseling-related needs. If your church has access to such resources as well, I would encourage you to equip yourself and learn more about how we can best support each other through the different challenges we face in life.
If I sound like I am complaining about church or my job as a pastor, that is the furthest thing from the truth. I love my job as a pastor. I feel privileged that God has called me to the vocation of proclaiming the greatest news ever—the news of a Redeemer who came to rescue me from myself and restore the brokenness of this world. That is really the deepest and most lasting cure to all our struggles.
To love and care for our pastors well, we must not assume we have fully understood how much sin has affected all of us. Sin is not just about our actions or behaviors, it also affects our hearts and deepest affections. It is the grand psychosis that blinds even the most spiritually gifted among us.
Hence, pastors need your grace, prayers, and encouragements. They need to be constantly reminded to find rest and hope in Christ alone. They need to be pointed to the Good News they preach again and again.
All of us are part of the same story, and none of us is the protagonist. The hero is someone else—Jesus. Your pastor may preach that story really well, but he must really “get” it in the depth of his heart.