By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments

In a storm it’s better to be a Willow tree than an Oak. Why? Even though the oak is stronger, during strong winds it’s the Willow which can bend. The Oak, on the other hand, will break.

When at the breaking point, God’s leaders may—frantically—seek ways to keep them from the pain of “breaking” or snapping into mental illness.

As conflict intensifies, God’s leaders begin to feel a sense of deep betrayal, rebellion, loss and failure which, as the crisis intensifies over a protracted time, will inevitably deepen.
The result? These leaders look for compensatory—by dysfunctional—coping mechanisms to keep them from breaking. They flip the coin and find that “heads they lose…tails they lose.”
The first coping mechanism (“heads”) is addiction. An addiction is simply an out-of-control dependence which negatively affects the daily function of a person in some way. Addictions can include things such as work, television, computers, love, sex, chemical dependencies, relationships, power, speed…or a host of a whole lot of other things.
Strangely enough, addictions can also include religious addictions such as addictions to the addict’s perception of “pure” doctrine, “pastoral” authority, or “biblical” practice. Satan is so clever—using crises in such a manner to cause even the doctrinally pure, Scripturally sound, conscientious pastor to go into excessive—and destructive—perversion of his greatest strengths.
Ironically, the greatest potential danger is to those pastors which are most creative, conscientious, dedicated, hard-working and determined. Because of their vigilant and competent leadership, they are accustomed to a lifestyle and leadership style which keeps things humming with a regularity of predictability and control. In crisis—especially prolonged, traumatic crisis—these pastors are especially prone to experiencing the mentally, physically and spiritually horrifying trauma of mental illness. In a frantic move to feel a sense of control, they resort–at great risk–to various addictions and obsessive behaviors.
In the fire and trauma of crisis our greatest strengths so easily become our greatest weaknesses!
Even the most conscientious, faithful and energetic men of God may be sucked into an overwhelming, uncontrollable undertow of addictive behaviors. Ironically, the most destructive of those are abnormal, excessive distortions of their normal activities and attitudes.
As the pastor experiencing the stress find himself less able to withstand the addiction, he may slowly and almost imperceptibly become so out-of-control that even things which could formerly be controlled—anxieties, guilt, relationships, tempers, obsessions—become totally out of control. Mental illness has begun to set in…deep depression and other clinical anxieties are, at this stage, already present and eating away at every aspect of the pastor’s life. Without appropriate intervention, self-destructive behaviors may emerge.
Addiction is the “heads” side of the coin. Compulsion, the “tails” side is just as destructive. Working in tandem, it is not hard to see that nothing but the grace of God can sustain even the strongest pastor in this time of extreme weakness.
Compulsion is an out-of-control behavior which gives the participant the illusion of being in control. In normal circumstances, these behaviors can be healthy and essential to normal day to day living. In crisis, however, these are destructive.
As individuals immerse themselves in addictive thoughts and behaviors, they greater—sometimes almost unstoppable—sense of being out of control. Activities such as walking, jogging, eating, computers and attitudes such as effective planning and organization, investment, relationships, spending, become the basis for unhealthy compulsions.
Surprisingly, some of compulsive behaviors can be quite innocuous; others are quite damaging. Whatever the obsession or group of obsessions, the key signal for obsessive behavior that it’s behavior that’s out of control, beyond what’s “normal” for that individual. Walkers may take excessively longer walks. Joggers may increase their zeal for fitness; personal spending may turn into an irresponsible, unbridled spending frenzy and financial disaster.
Pastors with obsessions may experience marked weight changes as their obsessions relative to food change. Desires and activities designed to materialize fantasies of power, sex, and control may tragically become realized, resulting in clergy misconduct of various sorts. Unfortunately, such immoral, unethical fantasies become realized at great price to pastors, families, and congregations. Tragically, timely intervention may have prevented many of these tragic falls.
As the crisis drags on and on and on, and as the “light at the end of the abysmal tunnel darkens,” competent organizational skills become subject to two behavioral extremes: an obsessive perfectionism and need for total control or, it’s opposite, chaos and apathy. Undoubtedly, many experience an unpredictable swings back and forth to the two extremes.
Unable to control the extremes of either—or both—of these extremes, the compulsive pastor is subject to almost certain increased levels irritability and self-perpetuating paranoia. Ironically, heroic efforts to recover control independent of intervention simply perpetuate—and intensify—the destructive cycle of addiction and compulsion…a cycle that can end in hopelessness, loneliness, and suicide.
Crisis can transform the willow into an oak. When it does, the oak snaps….with almost certain tragic, painful consequences.
Recently I became aware of a pastor in the Michigan District-LCMS who received a surprise e-mail message. It was from Rev. Michael Ruhl, the newly-appointed Senior Congregational Counselor for the Michigan District-LCMS. He wrote this individual just to ask how he was doing…professionally and personally.
Certainly, this is a step in the right direction. How many of you have every had church hierarchy contact you in such a way—without prompting? How many denominations have considered this intervention strategies? Might this help to avert some of the “aloneness” pastors may experience—especially in difficult times of ministry? Might such attention give support to brothers who might otherwise be considering resignations in difficult circumstances?
When pastors sense that their ministry, their gifts, their perseverance means something to the Church, it is encouraging. It indicates to pastors—before, during or after crisis—that their ministry is valuable. More important, it indicates that there are brothers in ministry to help, care, and assist them as part of a ministry team.
One of the most memorable times in my ministry was when, during a crisis event several years ago, I phoned Michigan District Vice-President, Rev. Erwin Kostizen of Clio, Michigan. I picked up the phone, nervously, and said, “Vice President Kostizen, this is Pastor Tom Fischer of Midland….”
Before I could finish my sentence he said, “Boy have you been dumped on.” He then offered—and gave—some of the greatest levels of support a brother could give during a very difficult period of ministry over an extended period…until resolution was realized.
A competent, confidential brother in ministry can make all the difference in the world!
After the 5,000 were fed and Jesus refused to be the crowd’s “bread-and-butter” King, many disciples left Jesus. In responding to Jesus’ question, “Will you leave me too?”, Simon Peter’s answer gave us the greatest key for coping in crisis: He said,
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68 KJV).
Peter’s first word, “Kurie” (i.e. “Lord”) showed how Peter was beginning to learn something important about dealing with trauma. Like Peter, our first word, in trauma, ought to be to the “Lord.” He has the words of life; He promises to build His church in spite of Satan’s attacks. Jesus promises to be with us…even when we’re fearful or falling apart. Go to Him, go to His Word, go to His strength…first!
How we deal with crises—personal, professional, or ecclesiastical—is an indication of how we deal with success.
Did you see Tiger Woods on TV on Sunday, August 17th? He was off the fairway, in the rough, right in the middle of a clump of trees. There was seemingly no good shot from his vantage point.
What was interesting, however, was watching how he dealt with his adverse predicament. As he approached the ball—buried in the rough—he approached the ball and swung with the same ease, focus, skill, confidence and concentration as when the ball was only six inches from the hole. He could deal with adversity because he learned how to practice and develop healthy skills and attitudes on the easy shots. Having learned these lessons well, he applied them skillfully and effectively in adversity.
Though such attitudes didn’t guarantee a perfect shot every time, they did give him a greater sense of confidence when failure was the only option.
In worship this morning I had an object lesson with the children. As I struck a match and lit it, I asked them, “How do you put out a match?” “Blow it out!” they said. “Wrong!” I responded. “You use a fire extinguisher.” Using progressively bigger candles—and then a full garbage container—I asked the same question…and the answer was always the same—use the fire extinguisher.
Our personal connection with God is like a fire extinguisher. We shouldn’t just “use” Him for our “big fires.” Instead, we need to recognize that we need to call upon God in EVERY time of trouble…even the little ones that are totally within our management capability.
When we use our own power in the small things, we set ourselves up for disaster. Why? Because, like Tiger Woods, if we’re not practicing healthy and effective stress and conflict management skills on the fairway, we’re not going to make it in the rough.
Practice using God’s power to deal with burning matches…and such practice will pay off when dealing with event the most raging church fires!!!
The most important healthy coping strategy is to let God do it!
When we try to do God’s job, we don’t make progress; and we become frustrated. When we let God do His job in our lives and in our churches, we make progress. What we really need to learn is to do our part and let God do His part. Resorting to addictions and compulsive behaviors simply delays the realization of the most important lesson we can learn:

No matter how hard we work, how competently we lead, or what successes we have experienced, We don’t build God’s church, God does.
There are NO exceptions!

God wants to build His church through us. But, as long as we are trying to do His job, God doesn’t—and can’t—do it without working around or in spite of us.
Our greatest calling is to believe in His working through us; His part is to do the work. We can only be faithful and responsive instruments to do His calling. Only He can create the outcomes which are truly pleasing to Him.
Even when we’re out of control remember—He REALLY IS in control.
Thomas F. Fischer

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