It’s coming! Midlife crisis! I am among the older of the millennial generation, and here we are. I also happen to be a pastor. So, I am staring down the barrel of the looming midlife crisis along with the holy burden of caring for souls entrusted to my care. This could be a recipe for disaster.”1
Jared Sparks then asks,
Why do so many middle-aged pastors have affairs? . . .
. . . Along with unmet ministry desires (not pastoring a mega-church) or unmet life goals, the midlife pastor gets depressed. This is an all-too-common reality! When depression lingers, burnout isn’t far behind.2
Midlife is a time of profound disorientation. For church leaders, “our relationships are what make us a body. Yet that glue itself is tested under the solvent of these unique conditions. How do leaders lead when we can’t gather? What can we do anyway? We are definitely not equipped to lead organizations under these conditions. We find ourselves having to adapt to these times while dealing with our own anxiety and with limited resources. Some of us may soon be out of work. We are in a time where we need a new beginning, but we are trapped in liminal space—a space between. We feel lost and not a little hopeless.”3
In the book The Critical Journey, authors Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich describe six stages of the journey of faith. Stages three to five are of particular interest because they describe the movement from a productive life to a place of confusion and from there to a new place of restful action. Our interest is in that transitional place between stages 4 and 5. They call it “the wall.”
Stages of faith
Stage 3 is the “normal” productive life. It’s busy. There are multiple and complex demands with little time for reflection. Then something goes wrong, and we are launched into liminal space. The most notable description of stage four: “Things just aren’t working anymore,” and “There’s got to be more.” I don’t know how many pastors and leaders I have spoken with in the past 10 years who find themselves in this squeeze.
Another way of framing the transition between stages 4 and 5 is the movement from a stable state of apparent orientation through disorientation to reorientation. When our internal maps suddenly become inadequate, the experience is one of profound disorientation. We are truly lost.
But these transition experiences are not new. Our heroes of faith were familiar with uncertainty and with disorientation. According to the author of Hebrews, Abraham went out, "not knowing" (Heb. 11:8). Walter Brueggemann sees the movement toward uncertainty in the Psalms—the movement from orientation to disorientation.4
First are prayers of orientation. The words of Psalm 1 present the kind of black-and-white world most of us live in before the great questions rise to disturb our clay. In this simple world, the good guys are blessed, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. This is the pre-9/11 world. Then comes the crash, and suddenly, we find more affinity with Lamentations. “I am the man who has seen affliction” (Lam. 3:1). Where are you, God? Our questions echo a sense of abandonment, a once-predictable world that has become unstable. We no longer know who God is. God has become like a hunter, like a bear lying in wait for its victim (cf. Lam. 3–5).
Our experience of sovereign presence has become something else, like sovereign absence.5 If we make it through this phase, eventually, we come out the far end with a different perspective. We are reoriented to God and God’s world.
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness (Lam. 3:21–23, ESV).
Sharon Parks terms the experience “shipwreck,” those times when individuals experience something unexpected or disappointing. “These experiences often became the context in which big questions emerged in powerful ways.” She explains that technology has made life transitions harder than they used to be. Digital devices and social networking “can contribute to heightened productivity and a greater connection to the global community; yet [to an] increasing sense of loneliness and isolation that leads to many mental and physical health risks.”6
If we pass through the uncertainty, we can discover new purpose. Says Parks, “If we do survive shipwreck—if we wash up on a new shore, perceiving more adequately how life really is—there is gladness. It is gladness that pervades one’s whole being; there is a new sense of vitality, be it quiet or exuberant. Usually, however, there is more than relief in this gladness. There is transformation. We discover a new reality behind the loss.”7
“Shipwreck” experiences are a part of the much larger journey of developing a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. They can result in a richer, more personal faith and become the foundation of new exploration. In organizations, they result in renewed engagement and energy and opening new territory, or in what is termed “a competitive advantage.” Our personal sense of control was inadequate and unrealistic. We have surrendered to something larger than ourselves.
In classical spirituality, we call this experience of hitting the wall by a different name: the dark night of the soul. The hope of the dark night is that we are like the caterpillar weaving a cocoon and will emerge transformed.
In the experience of the dark night, God seems distant and silent. But the silence is fraught with purpose. In this experience of abandonment, our soul is purged of self-motivation. The experience is one of soul-searching and of purification, the kind of desperate reflection we avoid when things are going well. And so, God engineers a way for us to slow down, perhaps even to stop. The pain gets our attention in a way that daily victory and constant activity do not.
In the Old Testament narrative, Israel is led into the desert because only in this way can she learn radical dependence on God. Daily, she is fed by God, given water by God, and delivered from her enemies by God. By day, she is led by the cloud, and by night, by the pillar of fire. God leads Israel into the desert to woo her. Exodus is a great romance. The Lord will allow no other lovers for Israel.
This is the great value of the desert; it purges us of distorted motives and wrong attachments. In the desert, we detach from things and from self in order to become attached to God and His kingdom. Only after forty years in the desert is Israel ready to enter the land of promise. But what mechanisms does God employ for this purpose?
This is the great value of the desert; it purges us of distorted motives and wrong attachments. In the desert, we detach from things and from self in order to become attached to God and His kingdom.
The dark night is a gift to us: a gift intended to bring wakefulness and humility. When leaders and faith communities are in decline, they begin to ask new questions, deep questions, about motivation, about ends and means, and about control. The Lord engineers the journey so that our eyes are lifted above our own needs and the small kingdoms we build to the eternal kingdom He alone can build.
Disorientation arrives for the purpose of renewal. God puts to death what is earthly in us so that His life can fill us and so that, eventually, we can renew our ministry and mission with the sole aim of pleasing our Master. We feel caught. The call is to enter a holding space—a place between. There is no going back and no going forward. It is neither movement from nor toward.
But neither is it empty space: it is God space, sacred space. In the paradoxical reality of spiritual life, at the still point, we discover the dance. We can freely embrace God’s gift of liminality. You aren’t lost; you are right here.
Can we learn to swim between two worlds? Can we learn to dwell in the space where we are not in control and we don’t know the answers? Can we answer God’s call to be where we are?
At 71, a renowned pastor reflected on his mid-life experience:
I am overflowing with thankfulness to the mercy and the power of God to hold on to me during those years. . . . When I look at them, I have to say, “Thank you, Father. If you had not been massively true to your promises to complete the good work that you began, I wouldn’t have made it. I sure didn’t have the fingers to grip this cliff.”
My encouragement to men is that you lay hold of Jesus Christ as Paul says in Philippians 3:12. Lay hold of him precisely because he has laid hold of you. . . .
Paul gets real clarity, and it’s not complex. It’s short. You can put in a sentence why he exists: to magnify Jesus Christ—whether strong or weak, whether living or dying—to finish our course in faith and love, not turning to the right, not turning to the left, not making shipwreck of our faith, our marriage, or our ministry. . . .
I promise you that if you stay faithful to your wife, God will re-enchant your marriage in ways you can’t imagine. And the children? They are in his hands. You are not God. You are his emissary . . .
God is faithful. That’s the bottom line.8
The way forward
When my children were young, they enjoyed all kinds of games. But we evolved one game I never really understood. When I was lounging around, they loved to come and sit on my lap. Sometimes, as a kind of hug, I would put my arms around them, grip their ankles, and hold them in a vice grip. They would squeal and struggle. But so long as they were small enough to sit on my lap, I was strong enough that they could not break free. They loved this game! But what was it really about?
Now, much later in my life, I understand the game. I realize that there was a security in their inability to move. They learned a kind of surrender to the strength of a father. That strength was reassuring to them—it told them they were safe under my care. They believed their dad could handle anything. Of course, it was an illusion, but their experience of my strength helped them build a foundation of trust that enabled them to begin to take risks in the world and grow their trust in God. The Welsh poet David Whyte writes,
Courage is the ability to cultivate a relationship with the unknown;
to create a form of friendship with what lies around the corner over the horizon—
with those things that have not yet fully come into being.9
We may feel trapped in this strange location, unable to move. But when we are ready, the Lord will teach us of our weakness and His strength
(1 Cor. 1; 2). Then, we can enter a new kind of stillness. And when we are ready again, He’ll let go.
- Jared Sparks, “The Millennial Pastor and the Looming Midlife Crisis,” For The Church, August 7, 2019, https://ftc.co/resource-library/blog-entries/the-millennial-pastor-and-the-looming-midlife-crisis/.
- Sparks, with minor editorial revisions to capitalization and punctuation.
- Adapted from Len Hjalmarson, Broken Futures: Churches and Leaders Lost in Transition (Skyforest, CA: Urban Loft, 2018), 31.
- Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001).
- See Walter Brueggemann in Cadences of Home: Preaching to Exiles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997).
- Sharon Daloz Parks, “The Undergraduate Quest for Meaning, Purpose and Faith,” Spirituality in Higher Education 4, no. 1 (Nov. 2007).
- Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1999), 29.
- John Piper, “My Mid-Life Crisis—And Counsel for Yours,” Desiring God, March 19, 2018, https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/my-midlife-crisis-and-counsel-for-yours.
- David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998).