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Protect Yourself From The "Elijah Syndrome"

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 21

The sad news was finally revealed on May 31, 1997, by San Francisco Chronicle’s 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 die…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 the middle.
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…I can’t wait to die.'"

What’s happened to the "Death and Dying" guru?

I’m 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 Ba’al, 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 didn’t. 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 couldn’t. Asked for her overall response to death, she replied, "I’m p_ssed!"

 

What Lessons Does This Have For Ministers?

 

First, just because we preach it doesn’t mean we’re stronger than any of our hearers.

The application of God’s will in our lives and ministry is always difficult. Sometimes it’s 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 enormous—and sometimes overwhelming—amount 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 challenges…some of them greater--much greater--than the pastor or congregation have experienced before.
 
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 expect—as blasphemous as it might seem to some even to suggest it—that 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 God’s people continually did in the Old Testament was to build an altar to mark God’s 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 weren’t just to serve for the day they were erected; they were also intended to be landmark reminders of God’s 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 God’s 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 people—especially in time of weakness, frustration and doubt—that 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 God’s amazing intervention. There God not only supplied food but He also demonstrated His power to raise the widow’s son from death. At Carmel, he witnessed God’s most direct and spectacular intervention to witness His unlimited power.
 
Elijah’s problem was not that God hadn’t repeatedly worked in his life in an amazing variety of ways. His problem was that in the urgency of the moment, he forgot God’s goodness. If he would have made and visited his altars to recall God's goodness on a regular basis, maybe he wouldn’t 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, don’t dwell on the past, present or future.

Dwell instead on God’s Word. Instead of calling and insisting that God listen to your voice, listen—as Elijah did—to God’s 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 God’s 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.
 

Conclusion

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, you’re 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 http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/chronicle/article.cgi?file=MN42913.DTL&directory=/chronicle/archive/1997/05/31

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:48 PM