A friend has recently asked me to offer some happy memories of my years as pastor as I do this pre-retirement journaling. I agreed to do so. As I began that task, however, I found those memories all tinged with some sadness and a lingering, inescapable sense of failure.
I suspect part of that failure-flavor comes from my own tendency to melancholy places. But I think more comes from facing the reality that we as clergy work with impossible job descriptions. I am coming to the conclusion that only people with sociopathic personality tendencies can enter and endure the pastorate without succumbing periodically to times of the blackest self-doubt and personal despair.
First, there is the question of what defines a successful pastor. We clergy, especially those serving in connectional churches where others (Bishops, Superintendents, etc.) have greater authority, are evaluated primary with two metrics: how many people show up for Sunday worship and how much money is given each week. So two things over which we have absolutely no control determine whether we are designated “effective” or “ineffective” in ministry.
Second, congregation members tend to evaluate us with a radically different measuring stick. Essentially it reads this way, “How happy does the pastor make me feel?” To expand a bit, the question reads, “How happy does the pastor make me feel on the occasional Sundays I do show up at worship–those Sundays when I’m not too busy with other things or not just too lazy to get up?”
Again, measurement from that side also looks at something over which we have no control. More than that, it makes clergy responsible for the feelings of others, an absolute no-win position. The moment we give into the temptation to make it our job to ensure the happiness of others, we have left behind our call and our integrity.
Now, I entered the ranks of clergy motivated by the same thing that has motivated most pastors I know: a burning desire to help a shattered and broken humanity find reconciliation, redemption, renewed hope and healing in the Holy Love of our Holy God.
We come from a deep love for God and a love for humanity. We sense that we are called to follow what is known as the Great Commission: to go into the world and make disciples of all, teaching and baptizing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That call is coupled with the Great Commandment: to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
And I am often reminded that the One who gave that commission and commandment died an excruciating death, alone and abandoned by the very ones into whom he had poured his life.
There is no question but that joy fills us when we do see people receive the gifts God is so willing to lavish on us and then see those same people pour out those gifts on others. Joys like this bring tears of delight to my mind as I access those memories. This past Sunday, a young child who has been attending our liturgical 8:45 service approached me before worship started and held out his hands. They were full of coins. He looked at me and said, “I’ve collected four dollars and 24 cents and I want to give it to the church today.” Oh my, oh my.
And then there was yesterdays’ Service of Holy Communion at all three services where I gave myself the privilege of serving each person, and with each one having the opportunity to choose the type of consecrated bread desired to represent the Body of Christ. What special moments we shared at the altar as eyes met with smiles and bubbling laughter and the words, “The Body of Christ” took on new and deeper meanings! These memories leave me radiant with happiness.
But the reality is: we clergy generally have far, far more memories of failures than successes.
Recently, I spent untold hours and a fair amount of personal funds to hire an attorney and help keep a young man out of jail. When the immediate crisis was dealt with, I asked for the debt to be repaid by regular service at the church for four months.
At 2:30 am, on the first Sunday I had asked him to be in service, I received a text from him that stated that I had asked way too much of him, had not been helpful to him, and that it was people like me who were the reason he had not attended church in a number of years. No, he would not be there.
Yeah, this is the kind of stuff that sucks the life out of me. This is part of the reason I am utterly worn out.
I am not blaming this young man. He was speaking his own truth, and that is the right thing for him to do. I just know that this is the normal pattern for most people.
The question almost everyone is asking of us: “What have you done for me lately?” Few ask, “How far am I willing to go with Jesus?”
Jesus went to the cross for me. Every single clergy person worth anything has to ask that question almost daily, “Will I go to the cross for others, even as they reject me?”
But there is a resurrection: one with a capital “R” and one that we must see daily, hourly, sometimes even multiple times an hour. Life after death is the core of the gospel promise. That resurrection hope and reality has kept me going. It also told me that a time has come for a different type of resurrection, one that will breathe more life into my writing ministry and also free time for me to play a bit, to see my grandchildren grow up, and just to sit and watch the weather.
Three months, Twenty-Nine Days. I expect to live out each of those days with continued love for God and for God’s people, to stay in service to them, to savor the joys and moments of delight that punctuate my days, and to suffer the heartaches that accompany this calling.