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Protect Yourself From The "Elijah
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
The sad news was finally revealed on May 31, 1997, by San Francisco Chronicles
religion writer, Dan Lattin.
- "Incapacitated by a series of strokes, Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross sits in a cluttered
corner of her home in the desert, smoking Dunhill cigarettes, watching TV and waiting to
Kuebler-Ross revolutionized the way Americans look at death and dying, but
decades of work with the terminally ill has done little to ease her own transition into
the great beyond
Her mood is feisty, but her German-accented voice is faint and
tinged with bitterness.
- `For 15 hours a day, I sit in this same chair, totally dependent on someone else coming
in here to make me a cup of tea,' she says. `It's neither living nor dying. It's stuck in
- My only regret is that for 40 years I spoke of a good God who helps people, who knows
what you need and how all you have to do is ask for it. Well, that's baloney. I want to
tell the world that it's a bunch of bull. Don't believe a word of it
wait to die.'"
Whats happened to the "Death and Dying" guru?
Im certainly not going to make psychoanalytical pretensions. But part of what has
occurred is, I believe, the same thing that happens to ministers and other professionals.
It's the "Elijah Syndrome."
The Elijah Syndrome
The Elijah Syndrome is an extreme feeling of disappointment, loneliness, and failure
which specifically follows a time of great success. Immediately after having boldly and
publicly stood up against the antagonistic prophets of Baal, Elijah, devoid of
energy, longed for death under the broom tree (I Kings 19:1ff).
The Elijah Syndrome is also be characterized by the failure of reality to live up to
one's unrealistic expectations. Perhaps Elijah felt that the clear-cut victorious
confrontation on Mount Carmel would leave to automatic full-scale Israeli
religious revival. It didnt. Perhaps Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross felt that having studied
death and dying and being the world's expert on the subject that she would be able to
handle anything that would happen
even her own death. She couldnt. Asked for
her overall response to death, she replied, "Im p_ssed!"
What Lessons Does This Have For Ministers?
First, just because we preach it doesnt mean were
stronger than any of our hearers.
- The application of Gods will in our lives and ministry is always difficult.
Sometimes its downright excruciating. If faith is fragile, it is especially fragile
for pastors. The greater the faith, the greater the potential disappointment.
Second, recognize that after every success comes the great
potential for a time of deep discouragement, depression, loneliness and lack of energy.
- When God finally allows the "train" of our prayers and ministry to come in,
the train often stops. Sometimes the momentum does, too. In order to get the train out of
the station takes an enormousand sometimes overwhelmingamount of energy just
to get the "chug-chug-chug" started all over again. This can be an exhausting
experience for the Christian leader as he struggles to redirect, re-energize, and rebuild
the momentum for the next major challenge.
Third, there are times when ministers will experience extreme
disappointment and anger. (Yes, this does include you!)
- Much of this anger, at its root, has an expectation that attaining our set ministry
goals will take care of problems and lead to an era of euphoric contentment. Instead,
attainment of one set of goals raises up a whole new plethora of major unexpected
some of them greater--much greater--than the pastor or congregation have
- Since the challenges of parish ministry never end, pastors are often subject to an
ever-heightened sense of frustration and anger on the wild goose chase of success. Pastors
can see the rainbow. but the closer they get to it the more they realize the
disappointment that 1) there is no pot of gold, and 2) all that's in the rainbow is a
thick cloud of fog.
Fourth, we are all subject to the Elijah Syndrome.
- Since all of us are subject to the "Elijah Syndrome," all of us can
expectas blasphemous as it might seem to some even to suggest itthat we will
go through intense periods of doubt, deep disappointment and disillusionment for
the ministry. During (or in response to) such periods, some
pastors may change churches, others will resign the ministry, while others might resort to
addictive behavior(s), abandonment of family, and/or even suicide.
Dealing With The Elijah Syndrome
First, start building altars.
- One of the things that Gods people continually did in the Old Testament was to
build an altar to mark Gods great work. Noah erected an altar after the flood in the
glow of the rainbow, Joshua erected one on the covenant side of the Jordan, et al. These
altars werent just to serve for the day they were erected; they were also intended
to be landmark reminders of Gods past faithful working.
- Your altar(s) may be something as simple as keeping an "Altar Log" in your
desk drawer, placing reminders in your Bible, recording Gods faithfulness on a
special wall, creating or purchasing a religious reminder, making carving on trees, or
actually creating a place to erect stone markers. Whatever form they take, these altars
are important remembrances to God's peopleespecially in time of weakness,
frustration and doubtthat God had and did, can and will provide. That's His past,
present and future promise.
Second, revisit your altar(s) often.
- Humanly speaking, Elijah had no excuse to doubt God. In I Kings 17 he was fed by ravens
morning and night. At Zarephath, Sidon, he again witnessed Gods amazing
intervention. There God not only supplied food but He also demonstrated His power to raise
the widows son from death. At Carmel, he witnessed Gods most direct and
spectacular intervention to witness His unlimited power.
- Elijahs problem was not that God hadnt repeatedly worked in his
life in an amazing variety of ways. His problem was that in the urgency of the moment, he
forgot Gods goodness. If he would have made and visited his altars to recall God's
goodness on a regular basis, maybe he wouldnt have so susceptible to the Elijah
Syndrome. Maybe if we had our own personal altars, we might have added strength for coping
with ministry pressures, too!
Third, dont dwell on the past, present or future.
- Dwell instead on Gods Word. Instead of calling and insisting that God listen to your
voice, listenas Elijah didto Gods still, small gentle whisper which
says, "What are you doing here?" (I Kings 19:13). Then, in obedience to God's
calling, get up and "go".
Fourth, learn to kick yourself and to pick yourself up.
- David in the Psalms so often reflects the same patterns we feel during our Elijah
Syndrome episodes. In so many, many Psalms (e.g. 54, 55, et al), David "whines"
and pleas to God for God to finally listen to him, hear his plea, to deliver him from his
pain, etc. But, suddenly, in the middle of the Psalm, David seems to suddenly realize he's
whining. It's as if he kicks himself and then switches to a mode of confidence in praising
and trusting God. When in the clutches of the Elijah syndrome, we need to practice making
the "kick" and the "switch".
Fifth, share your experience with a brother.
- The most caring people are those who have gone through Gods trial successfully.
Tap the resources of such people. Whether they are ordained or not is not necessarily
essential. What is essential is to gain support and insight from their experience so that
you will not fall. And, in times when you can't get up by yourself and do the "kick
and switch" (cf. above), such individuals can befriend, support, and uplift you into
the powerful confidence of faith in God.
- Did Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross fall prey to the Elijah Syndrome? Perhaps. One thing
for sure was that for her the Elijah Syndrome also marked the collapse of her coping
mechanisms. Was she such an "expert" that she removed herself from the support
she so desperately needed? Or, worse, did she feel that an expert like her wouldn't be
subject to the emotional distress and grief of death?
- If the Elijah Syndrome could affect Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross, and if it affected Biblical
saints like Elijah and others, it can affect you.
- Remember, youre not as strong as you think. Visit your altars and there remember
the real Divine Source of your Strength...especially in weakness!
Thomas F. Fischer
The San Francisco Chronicle article of 5/31/97, referring to Elizabeth
Kuebler-Ross can be seen in its entirety at
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was revised on:
Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:48 PM