The Too Accessible Pastor: The Danger of 21st Century Ministry

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Photo courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli
Photo courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli

Written by Jeremy Farley

I have been involved in Christian ministry for over twenty years and have over the course of this time, pastored three separate churches and ministered in hundreds more.  I am a far cry from being a seasoned professional and would hardly claim to be an expert; however, I have been in this thing long enough to make a few observations.

In recent years, a string of high-profile ministry suicides have captivated the nation and left several people asking the same question my wife asked me last week, “Why does it seem that so many pastors are suddenly struggling with their mental health than in previous years?”

Though I have no statistical evidence to promote my case, I can speak from my own experience.

As of now, I have never once contemplated suicide and I certainly don’t have any feelings of depression, so I may not be an ideal candidate to speak on this subject; however, being someone who does have a little ministry experience, I am qualified to provide my opinion… in fact, I’m very good at doing this!

Though I am not depressed, I am constantly stressed and to put it frankly, I often feel pulled.  I love ministry and would never be happy doing anything else, but being a younger pastor in 2019, with a younger congregation means that this shepherd is far more accessible to the sheep than any other pastor from any other era in human history — and I am not alone. Part of pastoring in the modern era means that you are more accessible than ever before.

My heroes of the faith are the old circuit riding preachers who literally pastored dozens of churches days apart from each other and yet they somehow kept their sanity.  Men like Robert Sheffey would conclude a preaching service, dine with his congregation, visit an ailing parishioner, then set out across a mountain ridge all alone, on his horse, never to be contacted again until he circled back through, sometimes weeks later.

Fast-forward to the typical pastor in the autumn of 2019 and the ministry is a far different experience: Prior to even waking from bed, I see that I have received a text message from a person in the church who stands in need of encouragement.

“Good morning, pastor, today is much better… I feel good about the decision I made last week.”

That’s wonderful to hear, you think to yourself as you rise from the bed and prepare the clothes you intend to wear for the day.

As you are about to take a shower, your phone again dings, though this time it is from another Christian and the news isn’t nearly as good.  “Pray for me, preacher. I struggled last night with that same temptation.”

You pause, heartbroken that someone who seems to love God so much is held captive to such a terrible stronghold.  Sitting back down on your bed, you find your fingers clicking away faster than any middle school aged girl in your community could possibly text — delivering what amounts to a four paragraph sermon that contains just the right amount of velvet and iron, and is both encouraging and honest.

By mid day, your phone has dinged no fewer than six times from a combination of people all wishing to share their victory or defeat with you, as well as a couple of folks who simply stand in need of a friend — they’ve sent a collection of random messages that are often hard to respond to correctly.

You have two lunch time meetings scheduled, one where you’ll simply drink a cup of coffee and visit with a longtime friend who has been with you from the beginning and over the past few months you feel like you have neglected this friendship; however, through the entire visit, you’re checking your watch because at 1 p.m. you’re meeting a new church member for lunch at the Cracker Barrell — he and his wife are struggling in their marriage and he’s reaching out to you for help.

Sometime that afternoon, a mysterious number on your telephone begins to ring: You answer to discover that it’s the lady you met at McDonalds the previous day, the one you left an invitation to the church with.

“Hey, preacher… Me and my o’le man is need’n our light bill paid… they’re coming today to cut it off and we got three babies and two dogs in this place — we can’t go without the air conditioner.  What can you do to help us?”

Those calls never end well.  You’re either a worthless, money grabbing preacher who doesn’t care about real people if you don’t give God’s money to a complete stranger who gives every indication that they feel like your church is nothing more than a free ATM.  On the other hand, if you do offer up some cash or even agree to pay the bill, it’s usually the beginning of a one-sided relationship that simply will not end until you grow a backbone and learn to say “No”… then, all the previous money you have given is instantly forgotten and you’re labeled the worthless, money grabbing preacher who doesn’t care about real people… to put it simply, you’re most always going to end up the bad guy with these calls.  You make the decision to simply get it over with and be the bad guy up front — besides, the church is struggling to pay its own bills this month.

After that call is ended and the voice on the other end of the phone has succeeded in making you feel guilty for guarding God’s money, yet you stood firm, the person who texted you first this morning, has sent a follow up text, “Hello… why are you not answering me? It’s been almost seven hours!”

“Sorry, been busy today,” you respond.  The next few minutes are followed by a back and forth interaction about nothing; however, it placates the person on the other end of the phone — and they’re standing in great need of an encouraging friend so you’re happy to do so.

You again check your Facebook messages to discover that the perspective church member whom you’ve been desiring to befriend in recent weeks is wanting to take you and your family to dinner the following evening.  His offer is extraordinarily gracious and you’re thrilled that they’re interested, but you already had plans with your family for the time he suggested. You respond that you can’t and he counters with a second available date, unfortunately, again, it’s not a good time, your daughter has a soccer game that evening.  You again respond that the date doesn’t work, to which he answers, “If you don’t want to meet with me, just come out and say it!”

You swear that’s not the case and offer up a random evening — you’re sure there’s something already scheduled that night, but you’ll make it work… you and your wife always do!

As you close out the work day, you realize that you weren’t able to get nearly as much done as you were hoping and wonder why… never realizing that you probably spent hours texting, messaging, and talking on the phone. You call it ministry and tell yourself that’s what you’re supposed to do.

That evening, as you’re preparing to eat dinner with your wife and children, your phone again dings, it’s a godly and wonderful church member, “Have you talked to Ralph lately? I’m worried about him.”

You respond that you have attempted to contact Ralph, a young man who has been attending your church on and off for over a year, but he won’t answer your calls or text messages.

Later that night, you find out that Ralph is mad because he claims to have texted you several weeks earlier and you never responded; however, for the life of you, you simply cannot recall ever receiving the text he claims to have sent.

His words are hurtful, angering, and heartbreaking.  You counted him as a friend, but because you did not answer him in the timeframe he felt certain you should have responded in — even though you don’t even believe you received the message — that friendship is over; and so is his church membership.

Do I pastor an immature church? Not at all.  I pastor a church that is a cross-section, of grey haired saints, middle aged members and dozens of young people seeking to live for God in the midst of a godless generation.  They’re serious about serving the King of Kings — and they love me and my family dearly and I love them.

I tell them weekly, “If you ever have something going on in your life, please don’t hesitate to call or text me.” I say this to them, because I mean it with all my heart.  I love them and am convinced that I have been placed on this earth specifically for the purpose of bringing them closer to the Lord and helping them in their time of need.

With this being said, I believe I am beginning to uncover an answer to my wife’s question, “What’s going on with the mental health of pastors these days?”

In short, we’re simply too accessible.  The days of riding off into the wilderness on the back of a horse, never to be interrupted until arriving in the next town are long gone — replaced by a rectangular shaped thin box that provides everyone in the congregation with instant access to their pastor, 24/7, as well as an expectation that if said thin box does not respond within an arbitrary time table, they are unloved or unimportant… No person can live under such stress.

Couple this with the reality that every pastor worth their salt is in the midst of a spiritual battle that has the very forces of hell pitted against them and it should come as no surprise that so many of us are struggling in our minds with feelings of stress, pressure, depression and for some, sadly, even thoughts of suicide.

To church members across the nation, I would offer this advice: Your pastor loves you dearly and desires to share in your life’s moments… that’s the whole reason why we’re in the ministry to begin with.  With this being said, you can play a part in protecting your pastor’s mental health: Don’t get mad if your pastor doesn’t respond to your “Good morning!” text message within an hour’s time… you have no idea what other text messages or calls they may be in the middle of at that very moment.

Until you have thirty separate people texting you daily, sharing their life’s every moment with you, don’t be upset if your pastor fails altogether to respond to a text message here and there.  A single shepherd tending to the needs of an entire flock of sheep is a tall order and truth be told, your under-shepherd would love to spend more time with you, or text or call you more, but you’re one of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of sheep they’ve been tasked by God to oversee and care for.

To pastors, I would offer this advice — Don’t be afraid to do what Jesus did quite regularly: Get away from his flock.  Jesus made a habit of going into the mountains, the wilderness, i.e., the places where he was inaccessible.  If Jesus had to guard his mental health and his spiritual standing by cutting the cords of connection from time to time, so do you.

Never be afraid to protect yourself and your own mental health, for in doing so, you are protecting the pastor of the people you love so dearly.

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