One of the best descriptions I ever heard for the life of a preacher is that it’s like living in a goldfish bowl. Everyone can look in, see what you’re doing, and tap on the glass to try and provoke a response. And there’s no hiding, not much anyway.
I have lived that life for nearly twenty years now. I have practiced marriage in it, raised kids in it, and tried to find peace in it. I have become accustomed to being judged, rightly or wrongly, for everything from how I shop for groceries to my behavior at softball games. Let me tell you, it’s tough. I have been in both good churches, that provide a castle in the bowl for you to hide and shelter in, and in bad churches that offer no privacy screens whatsoever. I have been in churches that have cared for the minister and his family, and ones that treated him like a hired hand that can be disposed of and replaced at any time. I have seen the best and worst the church can offer, and even in the best of situations life in the fishbowl is hard.
Now, I’m not saying ministry is harder than any other job. It’s just hard in a different way. It’s not as physically demanding as farming or carpentry, and it’s not as mentally taxing as medicine or law, but the emotional and spiritual load is as heavy as any profession. So when you add to that the fact that your life is always on display for others to judge and critique, it takes on another dimension of difficulty.
Thus, when I heard of a megachurch minister in California who committed suicide after a long struggle with depression, my initial thought was, “I get it.” Notice how strange that is. My first thought wasn’t “how tragic”, which it is, or “how selfish”, which it isn’t. My first reaction was not one born in shock, but one born in understanding. Depression is not new to the fishbowl. In fact, the fishbowl is the perfect environment for it to grow and spread, like a deadly algae that clouds reality and blocks out the light. So why does depression flourish in such a climate?
- You are cut off in the fishbowl. It’s hard for many ministers to make friends. Life in the bowl can be lonely. No one knows what ministry is like, except other ministers, who are equally cut off by work and family obligations. Chances for networking are rare, and when they do occur, most of it is surface level. Deep friendships don’t thrive in captivity.
- You are open to criticism. Everyone sees you. Those who provide the fishbowl sometimes believe that gives them permission to criticize everything that happens inside of it. Yell at the kids in the parking lot and you’re not a patient minister. A program at church doesn’t meet expectations and you’re a poor planner. People who never attend church judge you based on gossip or conjecture. Every week you pour out your soul in front of a crowd of people to be met with criticisms, or worse, indifference. Your kids are expected to be better than other kids. Your wife is expected to dress, talk, and do things in a certain way. If you home school your kids it’s because you think they’re too good for school. If you send them to public school then you must not be a spiritual family. If you send them to private school you are wasting the church’s paycheck. Yes, everyone is open to criticism, but preachers and their families are open to it from every area of their life and from far more people.
- The fishbowl can seem like a prison. Many preachers don’t know how to do anything else. They have spent their entire adult lives training for and performing ministry. Other skill sets have not been learned along the way, thus when they are in a bad ministry, they feel trapped with no way out. If they don’t preach, how will they feed their family? If they don’t preach, how will the bills get paid? If they get fired, how long will they have to go without a paycheck? Sure, it sounds super-spiritual to say, “the Lord shall provide,” but in the face of reality, ministry can seem to some as much a jail cell as an aquarium.
- The fishbowl encourages hypocrisy. When you are always being watched, you get used to wearing a mask that says, “Everything is okay, and I’m holding it together.” However, many ministers wrestle with self-doubt, negative thoughts, addictions, and even depression. Most churches aren’t going to touch somebody who is bluntly honest about his struggles with a ten-foot pole, so the mask goes on, not for nefarious or manipulative reasons, but for reasons that are justified as self-preservation. The problem is, if the mask never comes off the underlying issues can never be brought to light and treated.
Now, I find myself in a good place for ministry. The tenders of the fishbowl provide times of rest and privacy and allow for grace so this minister and his family can swim. But not every church does that, and even if they do, the pressures to live up to the expectations of others is real. So how can you help?
- Pray. Ministry is spiritual warfare and the greatest weapon in our arsenal is prayer. Pray for your minister. When you’re tempted to criticize him, pray instead. You don’t know what particular pressures he is under nor do you know how you would stand up under them. And pray for his family. Churches often rob good Christian families of husbands and fathers because they think the minister should be at their beck and call. And children and spouses can feel just as lonely, if not more so, in the fishbowl.
- Volunteer. What makes ministry a joy is when others volunteer to make the church a great place to serve. Give your time and talents. This not only alleviates the workload, it gives you a small taste of what your preacher is doing for the sake of the Kingdom.
- Provide chances for rest. Preachers can be workaholics. Make sure they take a day off every week. Give them a couple weeks vacation where no one from church can contact them. Every 5-7 years let them have a sabbatical where they can recharge their batteries.
- Be encouraging. I have a church family that sends cards and notes of encouragement to me throughout the year. It not only lifts my spirits, but it let’s me know I am not alone. They are with me and they are for me. Let your preacher know how much he and his family mean to you.
- Look for signs of depression. This is hard. I can’t tell you how often I have heard in the wake of a suicide, “We never suspected anything.” But if you are in a position to notice signs and symptoms (isolation, negative thoughts and words, lethargy, loss of passion) encourage your leaders to pay for professional counseling for your preacher. We’re human, which means we need help too.
- Love him. Remember, love is a verb. Be patient and kind towards your minister. Don’t celebrate (i.e. point out) all of his shortcomings, but rejoice in his strengths. Help him to bear all things, and believe all things. Serve. Be a listening ear. Treat him like family. And practice grace when he fails to live up to expectations. After all, life in the fishbowl is hard, but love helps make it worth the effort.