I'm feeling somber this morning after receiving the news that a woman seminarian in this district committed suicide this week, leaving behind a stunned home congregation, a young child, and a host of friends and colleagues who now must make sense of her act. Depression was a factor, as it usually is, but it doesn't answer all the questions her friends and family have. One of my congregants is also a seminarian and friend; my heart aches for him and for the other seminarians who knew her, as well as for her pastor and her family.
Her death underscores a recent article mentioned on several blogs lately about the deteriorating health of the clergy. Much as I love being a minister, I know that it is a dangerous, high-risk profession. Ministry was a factor in my dad's death in 1970; the stresses of being all things to all people and dealing with the innumerable critics who don't seem to understand that a minister bleeds too---the stresses are too much sometimes, and the heart and mind succumb to the anguish that comes from not being able to meet all the needs, not being able to satisfy all the people, not being able to have a family life like others do.
In my dad, the stress manifested itself in heart damage and other disabilities, sapping his strength and his ability to cope until the combined effects of ill health and the demands of ministry caused his body to give out. When I went into the ministry, I was acutely aware of what had happened to him and have taken what precautions seemed important. Yet I worry about my health, my expanding midsection, the twinges of age, and my genetic makeup. I've outlived my father, and my mother lived until she was 84, but there is never any guarantee that there will be a tomorrow, regardless of all the precautions, exercise, diet, and sane living.
A conflict in a congregation is the death knell for many ministers, literally. I think of the toll taken on my equilibrium when I was in the middle of a conflict in a former congregation. Sure, it was mainly growing pains, but I became the lightning rod and it was awful for quite awhile. And the amazing thing for me was that none of my critics seemed to care that they were causing me huge pain for very little reason. Some of them probably still think that they "saved" the church by causing me to leave.
Luckily, I had a great support system personally and professionally and there were lots of congregants who weren't mad at me and could see the damage being done. I survived, the congregation has made a comeback, and the diehard critics eventually left the church. And a number of the critics did see what harm they had done and asked for my forgiveness.
But it all hurt. My blood pressure was up, my comfort food intake was at an alltime high, and the normal pleasures of life were set aside until I could wade through the conflict and get to the other side. I hope I have rebounded from that time in my life, thanks to the nurture and care of the congregations I next served. But I wonder what kind of permanent damage to my health may have occurred.
If you are in a congregation where there is a minister and a conflict, no matter which side you're on, please think about what you are putting your minister through when you are criticizing that person for his/her flaws, lack of certain skills, sermons, administrative ability, etc. Though we may look tough, we bleed, oh, how we bleed.