I wrote an article last week on 6 Things Church Members Need to Know About Pastor Burnout. One paragraph caught my wife’s eye. She called it the most important part of the piece.
One of the heaviest burdens of ministry is the burden of knowing: knowing who’s hurting, knowing whose marriage is about to implode, knowing whose kid is heading to rehab, knowing who really sent that anonymous note. The burden of knowing cannot be delegated. Nor can your pastor easily offload it when turning into the driveway each evening.
I once read this piece of leadership advice: the writer suggested finding a spot on the way home—a bridge, a driveway, a shopping center—and consciously “dump” the day’s load there. In doing so, the cares of work or ministry are not taken home to be a mental distraction from any family time that evening.
If it was only that easy every single day.
Being a pastor makes one the recipient of a lot of information, much of it on the level of “Classified.” People confide to their pastors at depths sometimes hard to fathom. Once a man I did not know stopped by my office very, very distraught. After a lot of stalling the man finally said that his father had, decades before, helped deliver a girlfriend’s unwanted baby, smothered it, then buried it on a beach somewhere in South Carolina.
Not exactly how I envisioned the day going when I woke up that morning.
On another occasion a very upset man played me an audio tape of a conversation he’d had with his father. In it his father admitted to killing a woman (possibly a sex-trade victim) in wartime after, I think, she’d stolen something from a fellow soldier.
On other occasions people have told me about affairs, near affairs, problematic kids, raging parents, financial woes, job problems, porn addictions, abuse, spouses who’d “had it up to here,” and divorce filing before it was common knowledge.
In addition to direct confessions there is information a pastor finds out indirectly from hall-talk, concerned neighbors, Sunday School/small group leaders, deacons, other staff, and other pastors. The list is long and ever changing.
This unceasing flow of secret information can create a very heavy burden.
What happens if I accidentally let something slip?
How do I get counsel without breaking my word?
Is there even anything I should do other than pray?
How can he/she be so blind to the obvious answer? Why won’t they listen?
What am I supposed to do?
I’ve only preached about this 50 times.
As long as there are pastors and as long as there are people with problems there will be secrets to keep. Here are a few thoughts on how to keep secret knowledge from becoming an overwhelming burden.
Don’t be afraid to tell the person that they need to open up to others.
This is why small groups exist. When small groups are functioning properly the community of believers is handling problems that otherwise might be committed to you in secret. The sharing and bearing of burdens is the responsibility of the entire body, not only the pastor(s). Based on the person’s mental, emotional, and spiritual state, they should be encouraged to invite others into their struggle. The quicker they will open up to others the lighter the burden of knowing will be.
Be open and clear when you plan to get counsel from others.
If you feel the information downloaded on you is outside your realm of expertise get permission to talk to another pastor, a counselor, or refer them to a trained counselor. Pastors routinely seek counsel referencing “a person in my church” or “a person in my community.” I do not consider such a breech of confidence since anonymity protects the person. However, sometimes it’s still good to get express permission if you can.
Inform them of your intent to share with other pastoral staff.
This is important. In the local church all pastors are pastors (as opposed to “just” staff members). All of them share the responsibility for spiritual oversight of the flock. No single pastor should shoulder the entire burden of knowing. Spiritual insight from the other pastors is crucial. This practice should be common knowledge to the church.
(On a side note, some church members may balk at this idea due to the lack of trustworthiness of a particular pastor on staff. That is a situation that must be dealt with.
Any staff pastor who would betray (or has betrayed) a confidence should be rebuked, disciplined, and—if the behavior continues—fired. Such as leader undermines the credibility of the other pastors or leaders as well as their ability to function with spiritual authority.
If you are in a single staff church this might apply to things you can or cannot share with your deacons.)
Refer some people for counseling.
There is a mindset with some people that the pastor has to fix everything. He’s the marriage counselor, the family counselor, and the financial counselor. It’s almost like they hear Coldplay’s “Fix You” as the office soundtrack.
Some pastors aren’t gifted at counseling beyond a certain point. Pastors who accept more counseling than they are gifted to perform run the risk of a burden of knowing heavier than they can carry (not to mention feeling like a failure for an avoidable inadequacy). Find a solid Christian counselor and refer them.
The devil does his dirtiest work in the dark. Secrecy and shame are two of his most effective weapons. Our goal as pastors is to get people into the light of the gospel where the Holy Spirit can take the burden. It is not to join them under a weight of secrecy, increasing our own burden. We will always carry some burden of knowing, but we cannot allow the burden to overwhelm us. We should gladly, and often, cast our own cares upon Him because He truly cares for us.
Note: Regarding the murder confession above, we (another pastor and I) contacted law enforcement and were advised the confession was hearsay since the confessor was neither party nor witness to the crime. Also, pastors are legally obligated to report certain crimes (child abuse, for instance). Any knowledge of such crimes should not be kept in confidence, but should immediately be reported to law enforcement.