Battle Fatigue, Old Sergeant’s Syndrome, and Grace

You can’t miss that St. Paul likens ministering to soldiering.  In reference to paying pastors, he says in 1 Corinthians 9:7, “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense?”  In Philippians 2:25 he calls Epaphroditus “my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier.” To Pastor Timothy Pastor Paul writes, “Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs–he wants to please his commanding officer” (2 Timothy 2:3-4). And in forgotten Philemon he calls Archippus “our fellow soldier” (verse 2).  Where’s the shepherding imagery?  Why all the soldiering imagery?  Because while you’re a shepherd to sheep the ministry is warfare to you.

October 4, 1944 General Eisenhower distributed to combat units a report by the Surgeon General on the hazards of prolonged exposure to combat.  “’The danger of being killed or maimed imposes a strain so great that it causes men to break down.  One look at the shrunken, apathetic faces of psychiatric patients…sobbing, trembling, referring shudderingly to ‘them shells’ and to buddies mutilated or dead, is enough to convince most observers of this fact.’” On the basis of this report American commanders judged that the average solider could last about 200 days in combat before suffering serious psychiatric damage.  “The Surgeon General’s report went on to lament the fact that a ‘wound or injury is regarded, not as a misfortune, but a blessing.’  The war was clearly taking a toll on more than just men’s bodies” (This Day in Military History, A&E Television Network).

Anyone who has served faithfully in the ministry any time at all sees the similarities between this almost 70 year old report and his own experience.  You probably hide it from most around you.  If anyone at all knows, it will be your spouse.  She will know, by the way, even if you don’t tell her.  It’s better to tell her; if you don’t, you end up wounding her. You can’t lash out in an un-pastoral way to members, but you can to her. You will do less of that if you tell her of the combat going on. No, don’t give details; don’t break confidences.  The strain and pain isn’t in the details. It’s in the constant shelling and sniping.  By telling her, she will help to put the whole house on what is called a war footing.  (No, she doesn’t tell the kids anything, but the household will be more of an R and R zone, the rear lines.)  Part of the problem we have with our current crop of real combat vets is that for the last 10 years, only they have been at war.  We haven’t been.  They return home with their battle scars as soldiers always do and find a pervasive feeling of “what battle?”

By God’s grace you are going to be in the warfare of the ministry a lot longer than 200 days, somewhere in the neighborhood of 14,000, and it will take its toll.  In one of my parishes the warfare was particularly intense.  A brother in the ministry said after two years, “You know; you can’t take this much longer.” He was right; I couldn’t, and by God’s grace I didn’t. The real intense combat comes when another pastor is involved; recognize this. This is going up against elite troops, Special Forces.

The LCMS officialdom will be long on the official and on the dumb.  Most of them are bureaucrats and know very little of a ministering that is soldiering.  Others that have been in the parish were appeasers, and appeasers are usually left alone by belligerents in warfare.  In fact, the only way officialdom enters the fracas is when the other side brings them in.  This will be because you’re winning.  I have found the official churchmen sympathetic to my casus belli but the most they did was give me the books Antagonist in the Church and Clergy Killers (Still think Paul exaggerates when he speaks of us as soldiers?).

There is a true spiritual battle fatigue and there is no cure but to get out of the shelling, sniping, and fighting. Sometimes a Call delivers you. Sometimes a vacation can.  Sometimes a real tragedy, not the made up one your detractors have cooked up, can bring about an armistice. You should not resign. You may find a job, demit, and return to being a layman. (It’s funny that while Lutherans and Protestants recognize no indelible mark from ordination, the world in general does. There is a stigma attached to pastors leaving the ministry.)

There is a real spiritual battle fatigue, but don’t mistake old sergeant’s syndrome for it.  The internet articles I looked at don’t seem to distinguish the two, but either in my Army chaplaincy training or someplace else they were. It was noted that before battle old sergeants would display some of the shaking, nervousness, and wide-eyeness of battle fatigue, but they preformed fine under fire. They were like old war horses who when they smell gunpowder and hear cannon fire get antsy and start neighing.  The old sergeants like them were all a jitter because like them they knew what was coming not because they were afraid to do it or couldn’t do it.

Even if the military is no longer making this distinction, you should.  Don’t let your Saturday jitters (mine use to start on Friday), your Sunday morning nerves, that out of body feeling you get sometimes while preaching or teaching tell you, you have battle fatigue and can’t go on. No, this is old sergeant’s syndrome. You know you’re sallying forth to war against the Devil, the world, and your own flesh armed with nothing more than the Sword of the Spirit which the three aforementioned laugh at as Goliath did David’s “sticks.”  Hey, it is crazy; it is nerve-racking; it is fearful.  But take heart; more than that it is your office.

And your office is a grace.  That’s what Paul calls it. In 1 Corinthians 3:10 he says, “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder.”
In Romans 15:15 he says, “I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me.” In Galatians 2:9 we read, “James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me.” In Ephesians 3:2 Paul says, “Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you.”  Finally in Ephesians 3:7-8 Paul tells us, “I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace…Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles.”

Why do I belabor the point? To bring home to you the comfort of another point one in Paul’s side. Paul, as you know had a thorn in his flesh (literally “stake’). This thorn was his ministry.  Three times he says that he begged, implored, pleaded, parakaleō the Lord to remove it. The Lord lets us know what that thorn is by how He replies: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9). If I’m off the mark, it’s not by much.  As one who has begged, prayed, pleaded, and beseeched to be discharged from this combat many more than 3 times and always running into Ecclesiastes 8:8 “No one is discharged in time of war,” I am very familiar with the ministry being a stake in my flesh which doesn’t want to serve or suffer with anyone at anytime.  I am delighted, invigorated, therefore, that my stake is also a grace.  A grace I can live, die, and rise with.


About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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