My Pastoral Existential Crisis

I have a personal theory about pastoral ministry.

But I think my theory will make more sense if I first talk a little bit about surfing.

Though a novice, I thoroughly enjoy surfing. It’s a great exercise, you’re up close and personal with nature, and there’s nothing like the rush of riding a wave.

Surfing is also, in my opinion, one of the best metaphors for church ministry.

  • “You need to paddle but it doesn’t matter if there are no waves.” (Human effort vs. Spirit’s move)
  • “A second too late and you lose the wave.” (Timing and decision making)
  • “Don’t ever surf alone.” (Need for community)
  • “There are sharks in the waters.” (Identifying unsafe people)

The list can go on and on. But I think there’s another lesson that can be drawn from surfing: Sometimes in church ministry, you can find yourself “caught inside.”

“Caught inside” is a surf term that describes being “trapped on the shoreward side of an incoming set of waves.”

To put it in laymen’s terms — there’s a set of waves about to crash over, but you’re not close enough to get over the waves, nor far enough to avoid it, but just rightly positioned to get throttled by the surf.

These two dudes are caught inside.

These two dudes are caught inside.

 Now imagine 3–5 waves following soon after.

I’ve been caught inside on multiple occasions and as you can imagine, it’s the worst.

You get pounded. You drink water. Once you come up and orient yourself, the next wave is looming over you.

It’s difficult to describe what it’s like experientially. There’s a keen sense of powerlessness. There’s acceptance but also fear and dread.

So back to my theory.

I believe there can be a season(s) in a pastor’s life when one can be pastorally “caught inside.”

This is where you’re trying to be as faithful as you can to God and the church, but unfavorable circumstances, which stand outside of your control, seem to continually crash around you simultaneously or in rapid succession.

They could be things such as, though not limited to:

  • Key people leaving your ministry/church leaving you with open-ended questions.
  • Interpersonal conflict or division with members/team.
  • A downward spiral in your ministry momentum or personal effectiveness
  • The growing financial needs of your family you can’t meet.
  • A looming inevitable ministry transition
  • Pent up frustration from not feeling utilized the right way.
  • Doubting your pastoral calling.

Now, let’s be real here. I think many pastors experience at least one of these waves regularly.

But I’m not talking about one wave of discouragement that comes and goes. I’m talking about a flurry of multiple circumstances crashing over you.

This is different. This isn’t just one bad week. It’s for a season. This season could be as short as several months or extend up to a year(s).

And little by little, the pastor “caught inside” will begin to feel it.

It might first start out with some loss of motivation for the weekend grind. He may begin to find his hobbies more therapeutic than before and will want to escape through them more often.

There may also be a growing confusion as well as other emotions (sadness, bitterness, cynicism, apathy). Others may just feel deeply alone and/or misunderstood.

Over time, some will have a hard time dreaming about their ministry’s future and dreaming about their personal future. Some even begin to wonder if it’s worth being a pastor and seriously contemplate quitting.

And this is the pastoral existential crisis.

I remember my pastoral existential crisis.

It’s a little saddening when I look back because I didn’t even realize I was going through it at the time, but it started my final year in seminary and lasted for roughly 2 years (There’s something about finishing grad school that just messes with us right?).

I remember having some major questions about what it meant to be a pastor. I was starting to grasp the reality that I had burned a few years of my life in seminary for pastoral ministry. I had begun silently asking, no, blaming God for what He had gotten me into.

I was holistically unhealthy at the time. I grew cynical and regrettably ministered in the flesh as the waters swooshed around me. I could not sense a vision for myself nor the ministry God had entrusted to me though I continued to tread water. I felt remarkably alone, continuously trying to orient myself with the salt water in my mouth.

Oh don’t get me wrong, I was surrounded by great people, but that didn’t stop the pounding from each coming wave.

It felt like it would never end.

Those two years were awful.

But today, I consider those years to be some of the most important ones in my pastoral journey thus far.

Because my theory extends further — I believe God in His goodness and desire to advance His Kingdom, strategically allows His pastors to get “caught inside” for good reason.

Here are 3 reasons in no particular order:

*If you’re a pastor reading this and going through your own personal pastoral existential crisis, I hope these reasons serve to encourage you.

**If you’re not a pastor, I hope these reasons can inform the way you pray for and encourage your pastor.

1. To Uproot the Pastor’s Hidden Issues

Pastors can mask a lot of their deeper issues through church ministry — through their noses in books, the brouhaha of conferences or the next big thing, and by helping people.

But this means the pastorate itself can serve as an incubator for sin and brokenness.

Getting “caught inside,” then, is a gift from God in the sense that God forces a pastor to confront his deeper realities — his pride, insecurities, pains, etc.

I find it fascinating how so many seasoned, older leaders each have their own personal pastoral existential crisis story. They talk about how hard it was but how much they needed it.

Even when I look back at my earlier pastoral years, I’m petrified by the amount of pride I carried. I had to be humbled and that two-year season rocked me to the core.

2. To Soften the Pastor To Be Relatable

Pastors rarely hear an amazing expositional sermon and think, “I wish that sermon took into account people’s situations more.” But non-pastors, or the rest of the world, can walk away feeling that way.

People experience sadness, confusion, and disappointment. And pastors can be pretty insensitive (sometimes) with our neatly ordered theologies, nicely packaged answers, and C.S. Lewis quotes we can offer too quickly no matter how good the intentions.

So the pastoral existential crisis awakens the pastor to understand the loneliness of the struggling church member, to sympathize with the confusion of the post-graduate single adult, to empathize with the broken dreams of the guy having his mid-life crisis.

It even makes pastors more caring for other pastors because it enables them to see others as brothers and not as competitors.

People need the truths of God, but they need the truths of God wrapped up in the incarnational hope and love of God through a person with a truly compassionate spirit.

3. To Strengthen Pastoral Resolve

Pastoral ministry is tough. It requires toughness. But toughness is created through tough circumstances.

Unfavorable circumstances forces pastors to stretch, grow, and mature.

There’s a reason why leaders throughout the Bible go through rigorous circumstances before they’re handed the keys of leadership. Moses had a 40-year existential crisis. David was anointed king but ran for his life for years before he was installed as king.

I think I’m gonna need more than some reading time at a coffee shop.

And this is why being “caught inside” helps pastors in the long run.

If pastors can come out of that season stronger and healthier, they will be better pastors, which in turn can catalyze churches for the better.

I wish it didn’t take a pastoral existential crisis for me to learn those things, but I’m grateful.

And if you currently find yourself out at sea, here’s what I’d recommend for you in the meantime:

1. Get Around Someone Safe

Find one or two high character people who will listen, ask good questions, and speak truth into your life.

2. Be Patient

This will not be forever. It will pass. Hang on.

3. Start Surrendering

Tell God that your life is completely His, that He can do whatever He wants with you. If you can’t pray that, it may be why He’s allowed your pastoral existential crisis to occur in the first place.

And pastor, if a church member asks you how you’re doing, it’s ok to say, “Tough season, please pray for me.”
If you’re not a pastor, ask your pastor how he’s doing once in a while and pray for him.

I’m waiting for my next pastoral existential crisis.

I don’t look forward to it, but I know it’s going to come some day.

I also know there’s going to be something beautiful and meaningful on the other side of those waves.

In the meantime, I’m gonna keep paddling out and ride out what I can.