Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Goodbye, my friend

A friend died last week.  At his memorial service one of the speakers imagined the scene in heaven when Phil approached the pearly gates.  “Wait here,” St. Peter said.  Approaching God, St. Peter said, “Pastor Phil’s here, but I don’t see his name on the list.”  

“It’s there,” God said.  “I was expecting him, just not so soon."

God didn’t choose when Phil would die.  Phil did.

Phil and I have been friends for years, scratch that, decades.  We met in an ethics class in seminary.  We were assigned to work on a paper together.  Phil wanted to do it one way; I wanted to approach it another.  Through a clash of wills a friendship was forged.  

We both became pastors.  We both pastored large congregations, but I was called to a church that was significantly larger than Phil’s.  One of the first calls I received after assuming my new pastorate was from Dr. W. A. Criswell, the pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, the largest congregation in the convention at that time.  At least that’s who my secretary thought was on the line.  Nope, it was Phil.  He was way too fond of doing things like that.

Years later my folks moved to Dallas and joined Richardson Heights Baptist Church.  Phil was their pastor.  Whenever I visited them, Phil and I would get together for a bit.

Then I moved to Houston.  A few years after Phil was called to be the pastor of Williams Trace Baptist Church, now Sugar Land Baptist Church.  Our paths crossed yet again.  He was a pastor.  I was the director of missions.  Friendly competition gave way to intentional collaboration and Phil was not only a friend to me but to UBA as well.

The last time we talked—just before Christmas—Phil was positive, pondering his retirement, undecided (at least non-disclosing ) about what he was going to do.  Life was good, but things changed for him quickly.  In January Phil developed heart problems.  Despondency became depression.  Through the spring, as the days got longer Phil’s depression got deeper.  It takes a long time to climb to a high point, but it doesn’t take long to hit the ground when you begin to fall.  Phil fell into a deep place quickly, very quickly.  Sadly, when someone begins to fall there is little anyone can do to stop it.

When I was an undergraduate studying psychology I read an E. A. Robinson poem—Richard Cory—in an abnormal psychology textbook.  Richard Cory was a wealthy, mannerly, well-groomed, much-admired man whom lesser folks envied when he walked through town.  Then, “one fine night” Richard Cory took his own life.  Outward appearances do not always reflect one’s inward reality. 

For over forty years I have either been a pastor or worked with them.  Phil’s story, while unique, is not unusual. Pastors, all leaders, are first and foremost people subject to all the frailties that plague mankind.  Health issues?  Got ‘em.  Spiritual issues?  Yep.  Emotional issues?  Mental health issues?  Relationship … marriage … family issues … we’ve got them all.

Why mention this?  Certainly not to lower the status of our pastors.  They’ve got tough jobs and more than enough critics.  They (we) don’t need one more.  Instead I want to remind us
  • that we all live and lead in spite of our shortcomings, weaknesses and frailties.  Often it is by overcoming these shortcomings that we develop strength and greater credibility.  Our heroes are not those without problems; they are those who overcome them.
  • that we all need help to be our best.  Leadership, by its very nature, isolates, but no leader can go it alone.  A ladder is made stronger and more stable by leaning it against a wall (and it is even better when there is someone at the bottom providing additional support).  Leaders are better, stronger, more stable when they lean on others.  It seems like it would be just the opposite, but it’s not.  We need help from others to be our best selves.
Sometimes we need special kinds of help.  We need more help than a friend or colleague can provide.  We need the help of professionals—counselors, therapists, psychologists, physicians.  Over the years the stigma of pastors seeking help from mental health professionals has lessened, but it’s still there.  Pastors, especially pastors, have difficulty acknowledging their need for help.  We’re the ones others turn to for help.  We shouldn’t have to turn to others for help, we reason…and that’s just wrong.  The sooner we acknowledge that the better we can become.

Are you a pastor … staff member … leader?  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  It’s the courageous thing to do, but even then it doesn’t always work.  It didn’t with Phil.  Don’t let that stop you.  For every “Phil” story I’ve got countless stories of folks who found the help they needed.

Got a pastor?  Be a friend.  Encourage them to get the help and support they need.  If necessary, make it possible for them to get the help.

Phil’s story is tragic, but every story doesn’t need to be.  Help those you can help.  Listen when others try to help you.  Thank God that his grace covers all our sin, shortcomings and shame.  

Goodbye, my friend.  I’ll miss you.

I encourage you to read Phil’s eulogy for a friend who committed suicide:  Through a Glass Darkly.

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