When I lived in Chicago, I joined a pastors’ study group that met once a month, looking at the Lutheran Confessions (those historic documents which defined Lutheran theology during the Reformation of the Church). The group included several brilliant men, experts in theology and in languages—not only the Biblical Greek and Hebrew, but also Latin and German. They were capable, not only at interpreting words and grammar of those languages, but also of detecting nuances relevant to the times and situations of the original writers. These men earned advanced degrees in their fields, and several of them are now professors at universities and seminaries. As a pastor and theologian, I had the respect of the members of this group and was honored to be included in their gatherings.
Seeking to have our “confessional” voice heard in the district and synod, the members of our group were encouraged by some in our number to be nominated for leadership positions within the organized church. I allowed myself to be nominated and elected as vice-president of the annual district pastors’ conference, since the president of that conference was part of our confessional gathering. A few months later, he accepted a call to a congregation in another district, and I found myself president of the conference—helping to arrange meeting facilities (including meals and overnight lodgings), plan the agenda, invite speakers, and of course lead the sessions. I must have done an adequate job, since I was re-elected by the conference to the office of president. I also was asked, by the president of the district, to complete a term as “circuit counselor,” giving me loose oversight of several pastors and congregations in one part of the district.
At the same time, I was pastor of a congregation and father to young children. Their grandparents lived only an hour’s drive away, which was a blessing in some ways but a struggle in others. My wife and I said that, since I worked on major holidays, we would host family gatherings rather than traveling. But this did not keep the extended family from expecting our presence in their homes as well. One year, even though we hosted the Christmas Day gathering after our church service, my mother-in-law also hosted a brunch on Christmas Eve, several hours before our Christmas Eve service. My parents then expected us at their house right after Christmas, since my sister and her household were visiting from out of town. We had three family Christmas celebrations on three consecutive days, in addition to the special services and regular Sunday service at the church.
My biggest personal struggle hit one spring. Several church groups delayed their springtime activities to happen in the two weeks after Easter, recognizing that pastors like me are busy preparing for Holy Week and Easter services. They failed to leave any time to regather energy after those celebrations. I found myself emotionally overwhelmed, falling into a darkness of clinical depression. One of my friends from Clyde days heard my distress and did what he could, sending a care package of chocolate in the mail. But, for the most part, I was left to myself to steer through the combined pressures of demanding and conflicting expectations. This was not the first time I had experienced depression. I had known dark times in school, as early as junior high school when I was the target of bullying. My leave of absence from seminary was likely a response to depression. I was unhappy in Miami and counted the days until I could leave. This was one of the darkest times I recall, though, because this time no visible path promised a way out of the ongoing pressures and expectations. J.