The 19th century hymn “My Life Flows on in Endless Song” ends its refrain by asking the question, “How can I keep from singing?”
Certainly there are seasons in life in which we do not feel like singing. There are certain strands of Christianity that seek to avoid acknowledging these seasons, which can strike a dissonance with the realities of life and the church. After all the psalmist did lament, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” (130:1). As a pastor, I often tell the souls I shepherd some variation of “It’s okay to be honest with God, God already knows and God can handle it.” They are in good company—when we consider the scriptures, we see stories of people just like us who struggled in their journey of faith and maybe even sometimes wanted to give up. But, of course, the overarching story of God’s grace revealed in the Bible is that God never gave up on them and God never will give up on us. We are always held in the covenantal love of the Lord Christ Jesus and know that nothing will ever “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). That is grace! Indeed, that sounds like the end of a Sunday morning sermon.
But let’s be honest. We know that there are times when we struggle to sing. What about those times? What about the times in our lives when the musical notes of grace seem muted and our ears struggle to hear them?
Shining a Light on Clergy Struggles
Some clergy today are having a difficult time, and the music of grace seems a bit muted. Much has been written recently about the challenges facing clergy in North America. Alexander Lang’s recent article “Why I Left the Church” lays bare one person’s experience of pastoral ministry and why he chose to leave. Many sympathized with him and the article garnered a lot of attention across social media.
When I read it, I felt a certain heaviness. Lang points out many reasons why pastoral ministry is not easy, including the sense that pastors have “a thousand bosses” and lots of unrealized expectations. Not long after, the Associated Press did an article including Lang entitled “Clergy burnout is a growing concern in polarized churches. A summit offers coping strategies,” which acknowledged mental health issues for pastors. Some of the problem is related to compassion fatigue: pastors encounter stories of pain, loss, grief, and struggle regularly in ways many other vocations do not. In many occupations, authentic and vulnerable sharing of human difficulty is not encouraged but left to be part of “home life.”
I want to validate Lang’s experience and am saddened he felt the need to leave the church. I pray he finds healing in his next season. But I also find myself resisting some of the ways Lang described pastoral ministry. And I wonder about items I did not see addressed in Lang’s article, including the role of spiritual disciplines and the experience of community.
Who was around Lang? In the Reformed tradition we do not minister by ourselves, we minister in community. What encouragement might Lang have drawn from his community? The Apostle Paul writes, “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing” (1. Thess. 5:11). I pray that the last words Paul included are indeed what we are doing as the church. Yes, there is always room for improving how the church practices community. But I wonder where Lang and other pastors leaving their positions experienced God in their ministry. What spiritual support did they have? Where did they find joy in the Lord? There has to be joy somewhere.
I’ve been blessed with some wonderful mentors in my formation journey. Almost all of the people I’m thinking of as I write these words are three to four decades older than me. They all were in parish ministry. They all have vocalized frustrations like Lang. I too have encountered some of these frustrations relatively early in my ministry career. My formation as a minister has in large part been shaped by them. I wouldn’t have been as prepared for pastoral ministry (if ever anyone can be fully prepared) if I relied on seminary alone. My mentors have taught me much, but most of their lessons are implicit. For example, when one of them called me after I returned home from visiting family, this mentor knew that a family member had been diagnosed with an incurable disease. My mentor called just to see how I was and then proceeded to pray with me. Later, I told my wife, who is also a minister, that I aspire to be that kind of pastor. That sort of care is also an implicit lesson that particular mentor taught me.
It is not that these mentors alone save me from walking into the sort of valley in which Lang was (is?) in. I’ve experienced a valley or two. But the community has helped me remember God’s promises and my call by praying, listening, lamenting, and encouraging. I try to do so for others too when they experience the inevitable valleys. (Yet there are also some of Lang’s claims that I don’t get. He claims pastors need to memorize their sermons—I find it hard enough just to write a first draft.)
As to the other struggles Lang gives voice to, I hear them, including the emotional strain of carrying people’s burdens. Yet isn’t that what we are called to do as ministers and pastors? The question we need to ask is how can we do that while also caring well for ourselves and our families. There are a host of self-care practices, including the Clinical Pastoral Education golden lesson: practicing self-differentiation in the face of anxiety. And sadly, sometimes self-care means it’s time to move on to a new ministry.
That Last Verse That Keeps Us Moving Forward
While this needed discussion about clergy well-being is important, we need to have it in the light of a future resurrection to new life. God is resurrecting through all seasons, even this current season of heightened awareness of clergy struggles.
Resurrection is not only a belief; it is also a practice. We can resurrect spaces of mentoring, spaces of encouragement, spaces of self-care, spaces of leaning on one another as a church. We can learn important phrases like, “Pastor, how may I pray for you?” Elders can learn to say, “Pastor, you need to take a week off.” Jesus won’t abandon us when the pastor is gone and will still be Lord when the pastor returns. We can see to it that time spent practicing spiritual disciplines is counted as a part of a clergy person’s work time. We can validate pastors finding joy in their hobbies and see this as essential to their well-being and, by extension, their call to serve the church. We can practice resurrection.
Indeed, we can feel the resonance in our souls and proclaim again and again, “How can I keep from singing?” because we know a savior who in the power of the Holy Spirit never gives up on us, never stops holding us in covenantal love, and never stops proclaiming resurrection joy, explicitly and implicitly.
My life goes on in endless song
Above earth´s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?”
While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I´m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?…
May this echo in our soul, today, and always.
May we keep singing.
May we keep pastoring, I pray.