It is okay to say, ‘I don’t think you can do this’

As long time readers of this blog will know, I suffer from ongoing bouts of depression. It is something I have to live with and – as far as any of us can tell – it isn’t going away. I am pretty much permanently on medication and, for the most part, that addresses matters. I’m largely fine on meds, that is to say, I am not permanently depressed. I am, to all intents and purposes, not depressed. But the pills, good as they are, do not stop periodic flare ups. Those times are not so pronounced or long lasting because of the pills, but they happen occasionally. It is just what I have to live with.

Now, this post isn’t about my depression. It is really my way of saying I am clearly not against people with long term illnesses – even long term mental illnesses – entering ministry. Not only do I suffer from depression as a minister, I wrote a book with a bunch of other lads who are in (or were in) ministry posts and have depression too (you can get a copy by clicking the appropriate link on the Books & Articles tab at the top of this blog if you like). I do not consider long term illness a barrier to ministry. I am aware of churches that simply will not hire someone who had mental health issues. I, personally, think this is a mistake on the part of the church and they are unnecessarily limiting themselves and ruling out people who may have some particularly helpful pastoral insight.

I am also of the view that it is reasonable for churches to make accommodations for their pastors who have long term illnesses or tricky family setups for reasons beyond their control. It may be that your pastor cannot do all the things that the last pastor did. Indeed, one doesn’t even need to be ill to hear that particular criticism. Ultimately, so what? What other pastors do, or previous pastors did, is immaterial to what this pastor will do. Perhaps they will do a whole bunch of stuff more helpfully or other things that the previous bloke didn’t do at all that happen to be better. Fine, you might like the stuff that happened before, but maybe you’ll like the different stuff that happens now. I think there should be a degree of flexibility over what we consider to be credible ministry. That is to say, not all ministry has to look the same and there should be an openness to things being done in various different ways for the cause of the gospel.

But I think we do have to operate in the world of reasonable accommodation. More specifically, we have to actually be clear ourselves on what the core and essential ministry of a pastor really is. For example, let’s say the last pastor ran the youth work but the next guy doesn’t feel able. We are suddenly faced with a question of whether that is a necessary part of his ministry or not. Is it a core element of pastoral work, is it a legitimate application of a broader principle but not necessarily a required form (so it’s okay for the new pastor not to do that but we would expect him to work out the wider principle in some other way), or is it tertiary and a nice thing one guy did but absolutely not required of anyone else? We have to figure out whether it is a core component of a role or whether it’s simply not required of any and every pastor thereafter.

When folks are ill, or have setups that make certain things difficult for them, we equally have to ask what accommodations are reasonable. It was when I was a teacher I first became very ill with depression. I was so ill I could not go into school and stand in front of classes teaching and I struggled concentrating on reading so marking would be tough. Were there some things I might have been able to do eventually? Probably. But the core component of the role – actually teaching classes and marking books – was beyond me. There came a point – entirely reasonably as far as I can see – that the school simply asked whether I was up to coming back to do the job. In the end, it was apparent I couldn’t and the school had to let me go. They weren’t being unkind – I had been off sick for quite some time – nor were they against making reasonable accommodations. But there comes a point where so many accommodations must be made, one isn’t actually doing any of the job they need you to do.

Some folks – quite rightly – want to argue that we should make reasonable accommodations when it comes to ministry. And I totally agree. As I said earlier, there should be a degree of flexibility that allows us to take as broad and helpful a view of ministry as we can. Where we can make reasonable accommodations for people with hard family lives or beset with illness, if they are qualified for the role and they are able to fulfil core aspects of it, we should be flexible. That attitude is entirely right and proper. But there are times when those difficult circumstances and life situations – hard as they are – simply mean we cannot do core components of the role. We have to make so many accommodations that the person isn’t actually doing any of the job anymore.

I knew a minister who had a condition that meant he lost his voice and couldn’t speak. For him, with all the will in the world, he wasn’t able to preach anymore. But he had been appointed specifically as a pastor who would take on the bulk of the preaching and teaching ministry in the church. There simply wasn’t any reasonable accommodation that could be made. You can’t employ a preacher who is unable to preach. I would hope in such a situation the church would be very kind, would be as generous as it could to the pastor under the circumstances, but if you consider public preaching to be a core component of pastoral ministry (as almost every church does), there comes a point where you have to say, we’re really sorry about it, it’s very sad, but you simply can’t fulfil this particular ministry any more.

Similarly, I have known of a number of pastors with long and fruitful ministries who have retired early, or stepped down from their role, because they had family situations that made it hard for them to care adequately for their family and do ministry at the same time. They didn’t feel able to fulfil the work of ministry and give adequate attention to their family needs, so they gave up their ministry for the sake of their churches – so somebody else could be appointed and do the work of ministry – and for the sake of their own families. Again, under those circumstances, I would hope the church would be extremely kind to them and be as generous as possible. But it is not at all unreasonable – indeed, I would say it is quite right – to make that decision. There comes a point where essential ministry demands are beyond what we can credibly deliver under the circumstances God has placed us in. The church cannot pay us indefinitely not to do that work and it isn’t right for us to expect it whilst we can’t do it.

This, again, is why it is so important for us to work out what the core component of ministry is. I don’t think people should be ousted from post because they are ill or have family circumstances that affect the shape of their particular ministry. That clearly isn’t right and we should have a generosity and flexibility that recognises a breadth of gospel work. At the same time, there comes a point where it is clear the demands of ministry are going to be too much for someone or the core elements of the role cannot be fulfilled alongside managing one’s own health or other responsibilities. It is neither in the interests of the individual nor the church to continue in a role that isn’t working for either party. Sometimes we have to say, this is too much for you.

This all boils down to what we consider to be the essential role. Far too many pastors with illnesses or hard family circumstances are pushed out of their roles because they can’t do everything people in the church expect of them. They have very specific views on what hospitality ought to look like, for example, rather than recognising the various ways the pastor may well be hospitable that perhaps take a different form to entertaining people in his house that many people assume is the only legitimate way. They may have set views on particular forms of evangelism rather than seeing the specific kinds of evangelism the pastor is doing that don’t fit the assumed mould. They might have specific views on what a pastor should be doing that, really, are not specific things scripture says ministers must be doing. We need to have a clarity about what is actually required and generosity about what amounts to legitimate ministry under the circumstances.

At the same time, the church cannot be expected to continue employing someone who isn’t doing any of the core aspects of ministry for which they were appointed. Whether they are long term sick or have circumstances that make it hard, if a church needs a pastor, and no pastoral ministry is going on – whilst they may well be very sympathetic to the challenges and difficulties the person is facing – there comes a point where the church has to be able to say there is stuff here that needs doing and none of it is happening. But again, they can only say that if there is clarity on what the essential aspect of the role actually are. In the end, the pastor is not a dogsbody there to do any old bit of ministry work someone in the church decides needs doing. They have been appointed for a specific purpose. The church has to ask, taking as generous a view as possible of what that might look like in all its many and varied forms, whether the essence of the job is actually being done.

These things are, of course, tricky. I don’t think there is a one size fits all answer. There has to be flexibility to recognise different ministries come in different forms. At the same time, there has to be room for a church to say this is what we are appointing someone to do and, if they aren’t able to do it, as sad as it is, we might need to find someone who can. I have seen too many people destroyed by ministry pressures, that are often just what they are, to think it kind to send people into them who will not cope. Nor do I think it helpful to churches to leave them in a bind, with someone unable to do the work to which they were called, but nevertheless unable to afford to get someone in and keep that person in their pay. In the end, I don’t think it is unkind to say to some people, I don’t think you are able to do this, perhaps you need to step back, and that’s okay for all concerned.