Jonathan David Faulkner
Note: This article will be considered the beginning of the seminary year advice piece.
I want to start this off with a disclosure: The following article is in no way meant to politicize the tragic death of Pastor Andrew Stoecklien, I did not know him and have no connection to him other than the fact that I am a pastor and will hopefully soon be leaving to return to full-time pulpit ministry. My intention here is to continue and spread conversations that I have had with many in my own context. As someone who has been directly affected by suicide and who struggled with my own mental health for years, this is an issue that I feel a need to speak on. Hopefully I am letting enough time pass that this post serves the purpose of sparking conversations outside of where they are currently taking place.
Because if the issues and troubles we have been facing here at Gordon-Conwell are indicative of our sister seminaries, as they tell us they are, then we need to have this conversation. Not just here, but in our churches, among our supporters and among us as students. If our attitudes towards mental health and suicide do not change, we are only going to continue this cycle and it is going to get worse. If 1-4 Pastors struggle with mental health, as was reported by Christianity Today in 2014, should that not gives us pause? If pastors report feeling isolated or walled-off or lonely should we not take that into consideration?
There is a quote that I think we all hear and kind of let roll off our backs. It goes like this: “The habits you develop in college/seminary will follow you your ministry.” I am living proof of this. In college I had a sort of cycle I lived in, a burn out cycle where I would do very well for awhile and then self-destruct. I took that cycle into my first pastorate and you know the rest. When I climbed out of the back of that truck that day it was just another day working full-time and pastoring “part-time.” I was not expecting that 90+ hour weeks would catch up to me the way they did. The last time a burn-out cycle ended was a catastrophic and catalytic event. There is a good chance I may have also been depressed during those years from Middle School to that fateful day in February of 2015. I would never recommend a major brain injury as a means of working through your past, but it was what the Lord used and three years after the fact I am glad it happened, Painful as it was and sometimes can still be (like when I cannot remember the table for word 😉).
Here is the thing though, our culture values hard-work because it does not know how to value the one doing the work. We are all taught to work hard, make a living, get good grades, be the best. Whether that be through materialism or some other ism. As much as we would like to thin otherwise, our seminaries can be and in some ways are no different than the world. When one professor assigns twenty hours a week of homework on top of the twenty hours per your other two or three classes the hours pile up. Throw in a part-time job or two…or three jobs if you live in married housing and kids if you have them a work life balance becomes impossible to achieve. You either spend way too much time in the library working on classwork that in some cases is ungraded and does nothing to advance your knowledge of the subject at hand (busy work). Instead of training successful pastors we set pastors up to burn-out in 10 years or less (the national average). In fact, only 10% of pastors who begin as pastors, retire as pastors, which explains why there are so many “retired” pastors in your churches.
You can talk about community as a seminary or college until you are blue in the face, but if you constantly cut community programs and make it harder for the community to function as one. Or, if your expecting the students who are burning out because of academic overload to pick up the slack created by cut community programs, then you are asking for a major mental health break down.
I like the way Bonhoeffer handled community at Finkenwalde, yes, the ordinates had to study and work hard but there were also many afternoons he would cancel their time of instructions and they would go for a swim or run along the beach. I know this looks a lot different in a seminary of 600 as opposed to one of just 5, but the principle of caring for the body and soul that was so emphasized at Finkenwalde and care for one another is one that our seminaries can learn from. Even the twice a semester reading week’s are not breaks from class, but rather times of greater isolation for many as they pour over textbooks without having to go to class.
Yes, I do think there is institutional responsibility on the part of our seminaries to train us to have a proper work/life balance while we are here. As in, the seminary is responsible for teaching us to find a good work / life balance through our courses, mentoring and if need-be counseling. Then, the student is responsible for implementing what they are learning and discovery how that works for them.
The students are also responsible for making sure they do not isolate themselves but dwell in the community of the Body of Christ that God has put before them to take part in. Our Great Halls and Cafeterias should never be empty, instead they should be places where we gather for the joy of being with one another as brothers & sisters in Christ. Then we need to make sure we maintain those relationships far beyond our time in seminary so that we never allow ourselves to think we are alone. That friend we can call or who has the ability to call us and vice versa.
Above all, we should be reminded of who we are and whose we are. To be reminded constantly of our names and positions as redeemed and loved by Christ, presented to God as righteous in-spite of our sin. To be reminded that God is not judging us on our seminary performance or our knowledge of Greek or Hebrew or how well we write an exegesis paper. But that we learn to become people who love one another and pastors who love his flock.
I say all of this because one pastors suicide is too many, heck, one suicide is too many. One death, if it can be prevented is too many and if our seminaries can help prevent them then that should be a higher priority than academic performances. An objective stated from day one of year one as you are discipled to be a pastor.
This may require seminaries to make major shifts in the way they approach seminaries. Faculty may have to reduce their workloads and listen to students concerns instead of dismissing them. Administrators may need to come and live alongside the students to get a sense of the way they live instead of sitting in ivory towers away from the people they have been called to serve. Instead of mere seminaries, they have to become highly intentional Christian Communities for pastors that prepare and send out emotionally and spiritually healthy pastors.
This happens through life on life, daily living, not just through reading a book. Though we should read our bibles, they are the literal Words of God after-all.
I tend to work Seminary as a work day, 8AM-5PM. I make sure to finish everything, work and otherwise by five so I can be home with my wife at night or go out with one or two of the brothers. I also take weekends off completely at the beginning of the semester. After 5PM is my wife and I’s time and we use it. I also set out a To-Do list every morning and work off a master schedule for every assignment. Anything that does not get done before 5PM gets pushed to the next day. I also intentionally front-load my semesters, which means I begin working on my work for the semester at the end of August. This semester Tuesdays are devoted to work on my Thesis.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary working on Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel in the North Shore of Boston and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church.