Tales of Midlife Ministry
It feels like it happened quickly: first seminary, then marriage and babies, pastoring a church, and the stuff of life in between. I was married in 1981, graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary and became a father in 1982, and was leading a church by 1983. So something always filled the empty spaces of my life—the voices of my children, the highs and lows of ministry, and daily parish life.
Then I blinked, and our three daughters had grown up and left the safety of our home for college and marriage and to make uniquely blessed lives of their own. Things quieted, and I struggled with the new mathematical configuration of my family home, reduced now to two. That's when my physical health began to feel the impact of my expanding waistline and a sometimes uncooperative maturing and aching body.
Middle age. For some, those two simple words can instill fear. All of us have heard stories from friends about someone in the midst of midlife and the shiny new sports car. In an effort to tell stories that truly speak to the needs of pastors, I interviewed a number of faith leaders who were willing to share their midlife stories with me (when referring to them, I use pseudonyms). They shed their invisible, clerical robes and were bold and brave in their confessions. Their stories have value because all of us can learn from their experiences to develop solutions to better manage our own lives and our own ministries.
Jarman: Favor ain't Fair
One pastor spoke of a personal and professional "perfect storm," the confluence of extraordinary events crashing together catapulting him into a crisis shortly after a parent died. This minister, Jarman, had children leaving for college, a wife who had her own work to do, and a significant church project in the making. None of those issues were in the sphere of his ability to govern or relate, so he started to spin out of control.
"I came up in a family that was out of control," he said. "Therefore, my response when I became grown was to take control of everything: my environment, my house, myself, my wife, my kinds. [With the family member's death] my natural response was to take control. But at that point, I had to admit I wasn't in control …. I was functionally depressed. The church was growing, but I was not emotionally or spiritually there. I was preaching every Sunday, but it was angry preaching.
"One time during our men's revival, the preacher was preaching, but it was so hollow for me. Nothing was wrong with his message, but it was hollow for me. I said to myself, 'I don't want to hear this [expletive].' And I walked out and left. The amazing thing is that nobody realized anything was wrong …. My whole world was spiraling …. This was the first time in my adult life I was alone as a man, and the sisters from the congregation were coming out of the woodwork to 'help' me in any way I wanted."
This pastor, a phenomenal preacher, teacher, and theologian, began to drink, something he did not normally do, to soothe what he could not. "It's possible this was an alcoholic season in my life," he said. "I did not go to therapy or talk to a friend. I couldn't call my pastor because I was the favored son. I was Joseph. How does the favorite son go to his pastor and say, 'Favor ain't fair'? I couldn't tell my church because they needed me to be strong. I couldn't tell my officers because that would put my job in jeopardy. I realized then that there are some things worse than dying. One of them is at the moment of death to realize you were never truly loved because you were never really known. That changed me and allowed me to begin to be authentically who I am today."