More than survivors

David Epps's picture

Pope Benedict XVI declared June 2009 to June 2010 to be “The Year of the Priest.” A number of denominations and church-related businesses have set aside each October as “Pastor Appreciation Month.”

The casual observer might wonder, “Why all the fuss? What is so special about being a priest or pastor and how hard could it be?”

The simple truth is that, if a person has been in the pastoral ministry for over five years, he or she is a survivor. As easy as it looks on Sunday, this job is not for the thin-skinned or the faint of heart.

According to W. Mark Elliott in “Confessions of an Insignificant Pastor – What Pastors Wish They Could Tell You,” 80 percent of new pastors will leave the ministry within their first five years of their careers.

Fifteen-hundred pastors leave the ministry each month.

Eighty percent of ministers feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastors.

Eighty percent of pastors’ spouses wish their spouse would choose another profession and feel their ministry spouse is overworked.

Seventy percent of pastors constantly battle with depression.

Fifty percent of ministers would leave the ministry if they had another way of earning an income.

Not only is the external stress intense (especially from disgruntled church members) but the internal pressures are ever-present. Pastors have reported being unable to sleep or relax on off days or vacations because of the situations their people are facing.

One experienced senior minister related, “Frequently, I am awake most of the night with the knowledge that this family is out of work with no income, or that family is dealing with a drug-addicted child who seems headed for destruction. Then there are the couples who are divorcing or the parents who don’t know what to do with their handicapped child. The elderly person with dementia who has no one to look after them occupies my thoughts and every time the phone rings I wonder if that depressed man has finally taken his own life.”

There are the pressures of church finances (as well as concerns over personal finances — church is not a place where most get rich), of maintaining growth and membership, the heartbreak of sickness and death, the phone calls in the middle of the night announcing a fresh, new tragedy, and the struggles of dealing with an all volunteer organization which one pastor compared to “herding porcupines.”

A significant number of men leave the ministry in these early years because the pressure was too much for their wives.

Father Horace McKenna spent his life working with the poor in Washington, D.C. Those who knew him said that he never stopped giving and sacrificing for people broken by racism, poverty, hunger, despair, or life itself. One homeless man, on a job application, listed his address as “the back seat of Father McKenna’s car.”

McKenna once said, “When God lets me into heaven, I think I’ll go off in a corner ... and sit down and cry because the strain will be off. All these needs I have known are now in the hands of Providence ... I don’t have to worry any longer who’s at the door, whose breadbox is empty, whose baby is sick, whose house is shaken and discouraged, and whose children can’t read.”

So, why do they do it, these long-term pastors? Because, in spite of the difficulties, like veteran police officers and career military personnel, they believe in what they do and they believe their sacrifices are worth the results.

“It’s not easy being a parent either,” one pastor said, “but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

They see the possibilities, the changed lives — they see despair turn into hope and they see broken lives healed. They have come to firmly believe that God is the only real solution for most of life’s problems and they believe they are called by God to serve Him and His people. They know that the midnight calls come to them because many people have no one else to call.

These men and women called pastors will be present when the babies are born and they will shepherd the dying as they begin their final journey. They will not always be appreciated but, for the most part, they will always be faithful to their task. Even when these pastors “retire,” they are seldom “retired.” They still preach, marry, bury, counsel, and even serve small churches that can’t afford to pay anyone.

They hung on during their early years, took some licks, toughened up, learned some hard lessons, and became numbered among the 20 percent who “survived.”

But they are not mere survivors. They are veterans — ”soldiers” in the words of St. Paul — who have stood their ground, taken a few bullets (sometimes from “friendly fire”), fought the enemy of their souls, expended every last ounce of energy, and have emerged victorious.

They are more than survivors. They are overcomers.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and may be contacted at frepps@ctkcec.org.]

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