Last night the news broke that Robin Williams, who had brought laughter to millions throughout his acting career, had been pronounced dead following an apparent suicide. Williams had struggled with depression for some time.
Sadly this is not a unique story. For some reason, those whose job is to make other people smile and laugh often seem to be tormented by deep personal unhappiness in their private lives. A popular 19th-Century opera, Pagliacci, played on this theme by portraying a circus clown who was violently tormented by grief over his wife’s infidelity. For those of us who prefer our culture to be less high-brow, Pagliacci was the inspiration behind the Motown hit song Tears of a Clown, by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
The image of the tragic clown also has a scientific basis. A recent study by Gordon Claridge, Emeritus Professor of Abnormal Psychology in Oxford University, discovered that comedians demonstrated significantly higher than normal psychotic personality traits, including introverted moodiness.
This set me thinking about Christian pastors. Those of us who serve in the ministry have something in common with comedians. Every week we are expected to stand in front of a crowd of people and meet a variety of expectations. Yes, I know how we echo the apostle Paul and stress that our aim is to please God rather than to please people (Galatians 1:10). But we are human beings also, and most of us desire to please God while still preaching in a way that informs and inspires our listeners rather than sending them to sleep (as Paul did in Acts 20:9).
Today, thanks to Christian television, there is not just an expectation for a preacher to deliver a message from God’s Word, there is also an additional pressure for he or she to look good, have white shining teeth, and to entertain a crowd. The insidious modern culture of personality has invaded the Church too, with people having their ‘favourite preachers.’
The biggest nightmare of any comedian is to ‘die on stage’ – not in the sense of physical death during a performance (as happened with the British comedian Tommy Cooper) but the experience of receiving total silence from the audience with no laughter response. Most preachers can testify to having preached an occasional sermon that felt like that!
In recent months I have heard some shocking reports, mainly from the USA, of Christian pastors who have taken their own lives. In each report it was revealed that they were struggling with depression and great personal turmoil, yet in most cases their congregations were entirely unaware of these inner battles.
This leads me to ask, ‘How real should a preacher be?’
To some, the answer is obvious, they insist that a Christian minister should be 100% open and honest. I have a lot of sympathy with that view – no-one likes to listen to a phoney or a fake. Yet there is evidence to show that many churchgoers are turned off when the preacher is too open in sharing their struggles and heartaches.
John Mosey was an Assemblies of God pastor in the UK. In December 1998 his 19-year-old daughter, Helga, was a passenger on Pan Am flight 103. When the plane was passing over the little town of Lockerbie in Scotland a terrorist bomb exploded and blasted Helga into eternity. Pastor Mosey and his wife were devastated, as any parent will understand. They found the grace to forgive their daughter’s murderers, and they were open with their church as they worked their way through their raw and intense grief. The saddest part of this story is that members, and other leaders, in their church were unable to cope with their openness. Relationships deteriorated to the point where Pastor Mosey had a breakdown and resigned from the church. My purpose in mentioning this is not in any way to criticise John Mosey – he is an incredible person who has continued to serve the Body of Christ – but simply to illustrate that we might say we want openness from leaders, but we don’t always appreciate it when we get it.
A few years ago Janice and I went through an extremely tough time in our pastorate at the Solid Rock Church in Drogheda. We have had the privilege for the last 20 years of pastoring a wonderful and growing multicultural congregation of people from all over the world. Yet we were hanging on by our fingernails. Stuff was going on in our family and we had experienced a devastating betrayal of trust from a colleague in the ministry. Some people in the church were unhappy, and very vocal in their unhappiness. The collapse of the Irish economy had cut our church income to less than 40% of where it had been two years previously. We couldn’t make the mortgage payments on our church building, we weren’t getting paid, and every day I would arrive in the church office expecting to find a letter notifying us that the bank was foreclosing on the church building. A lot of people had put a lot of trust in me, including our parent denomination, and I felt like I was letting them all down. At times I would wake up at night struggling to breath and feeling like someone was sitting on my chest. I would pray and read my Bible, but nothing seemed to shift the shadows and lethargy that clung to me.
Thankfully, by God’s grace, Janice and I came through that experience. We, and the church, are in a better place now. Things are still challenging – but we kept our building, our faith and our sanity.
Yet there were many Sundays in those dark days when I really didn’t feel like preaching at all. I didn’t feel like smiling. Given a choice I would have stayed at home and curled up on a sofa. If I really did have to preach then I just wanted to cry and tell everyone how miserable I was. Then I would step up to the pulpit, and I saw rows of expectant faces. I saw people who were fighting cancer and needed encouragement. I saw families who had gone from being a dual-income household to living off State welfare and were desperately looking for hope. I saw immigrants who had come to Ireland to build a better future and were now having their homes repossessed by the bank. I saw the wife whose face still bore the bruises from the fists of her abusive husband. And I knew that my task at that moment was to bring life and hope. Publicly airing my pain was not a luxury that the church could afford if we were to come through that period.
When training other leaders in the church I sometimes liken our role to that of the cabin crew on a plane. Jesus is the pilot, and He will build His Church. We are the stewards and stewardesses who serve throughout the flight. The plane might hit a bit of turbulence, or there might be a smell of burning in the cabin at times. But if we start panicking and showing fear then pretty soon the whole plane is going to descend into chaos. Our job is to smile, and to encourage everyone else on the plane to behave in a way that is going to help keep everybody safe until they reach their destination.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about a culture of secrecy. Nor am I saying that leaders should have a fake persona. But I am saying that, at times, leadership demands that you place the needs of others before your own feelings.
And yet, all of us crave authenticity. We want to be real. No-one wants to be part of a church where people put on masks and pretend to be something they are not. Sometimes I have been criticised for being too open, for sharing struggles, frustrations and doubts with the church. For, despite the responsibilities that go with leadership, I still see the church as my brothers and sisters – not as children or consumers.
What I’m saying is that pastors and church leaders sometimes struggle to find the right balance between transparency and being the inspirational speaker that the church wants to hear from the pulpit. We don’t always get it right. But maybe an incident like the suicide of a comedian can help us talk more openly and honestly about the tears of a clown, and the fears of a pastor.
And, for those of you who serve the church in some other capacity rather than as a preacher, please do remember to pray for your ministers. They need your love and support.