Before I left for seminary, I was given a word of caution from a friend who was already there: “Every single guy here is panicking about not being married. Don’t do that.” At the time, I admit I thought it was an exaggeration. And, in fairness, it was — to a certain degree. It held much truth for many, though. Both prevailing opinion and the job market think it best for clergy to be married before serving the church in a ministerial role. The push to get an “MRS” over the “MDiv” resulted in a few fun jokes about seminary dating culture. My favorites were “The odds are good, but the goods are odd,” and, “There are three stages to seminary dating: talking, engaged, and married.”
Along with a handful of other friends, I graduated with M.Div. in hand and no work done towards the MRS. This is probably because 1) my course loads were crazy (self-imposed, largely, but crazy) and 2) I never panicked about it. I’m not one particularly given to panic anyway, and I applied the same attitude to dating and marriage. As a result of my laissez-faire attitude, I did lose a great many prospective employers — but God still put me where I needed to be. I’m routinely asked about my wife or how many children I have, as single pastors are truly anomalous in my ministry context, but I politely answer and shift the topic. No panic there.
It’s not just the pressure to marry which can induce panic in a person, though, is it? Work is the biggest stressor most people have. True on-the-job emergencies happen. Bosses can come down a bit too heavy-handedly. Uncertainty and confusion abound in a results-driven atmosphere. On the flip side, being unemployed causes just as much panic for some.
And then you come home from work, and an all-new set of panic triggers presents itself. Bills have to be paid, and your creditors don’t care about your hours being cut. Your spouse and children all have wants and needs, all requiring you to devote resources to them (including your own time). The dog had an accident on the couch again, little Billy poured bleach in the aquarium, no one bothered to put a new roll of toilet paper on the roller — oh, and by the way, your mother-in-law called, and she’ll be here tomorrow to spend a week with her grandbabies.
What about if I add an oil leak in your car? A failing report card? The church asking you to serve on a committee? (The horror!)
Panic is a response to many things, even things other people may think nothing about (like parties or making phone calls). I suppose it’s a misapplication of the fight-or-flight instinct. You can’t do both at once, or perhaps they’re in overdrive and demand an immediate external, physical response to the psychological turmoil within. It could be the brain’s inability to process so many stimuli simultaneously. I really don’t know. All I know is sometimes panic sets in, takes over, and rules one’s life.
I don’t want to minimize the impact of panic and anxiety. Telling someone “just don’t think about it” has never helped. Never. Not a single person. Sometimes it requires counseling and medication to get a sense of panic under control. If you need that kind of help, please seek it. Please get the treatment you need to get well. There is no shame in this.
Even if you don’t suffer from panic attacks, and ceteris paribus, most of us have no reason to panic, regardless of the situation facing us. Yes, life is difficult and uncertain; as a character from a favorite movie once said, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Even in the pain and panic, however, we as Christians have hope. We know there’s light at the end of the tunnel because we know the light of the world. We know we will suffer, but we also know we will be delivered. We don’t worry or panic because God cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
This is the great truth Christ taught in the last pericope of Matthew 6. “Therefore I tell you,” Jesus says, “do not worry.” The Father knows our needs. He treasures us, values us above the rest of creation. When we seek God, He takes care of us. Worrying doesn’t help. Anxiety and panic serve no purpose. Our faith and trust in God sees us through. Our belief in His goodness and love should outweigh our belief in the world to overwhelm us. That is how we avoid panicking. Trust God to act in the right ways at the right moments, and do everything you can to be ready when He does. (This means, fellow single ministers, to look for a spouse [as God wills] without proposing on every first date.)
May the One who calmed the sea calm the storms which arise in the hearts of Men. Amen.