One aspect of a pastor’s life that no one prepared me for was how entangled all my relationships would be because I am a pastor.
The one piece of guidance I was given that I believe was intended to protect me from the natural entanglement of a pastor’s life: never be friends with people from your church.
(I’ll say more about that in a minute.)
What that piece of advice was meant to protect me from is the built in dysfunction of the interconnected, overlapping, enmeshed and complicated relationships that make up a pastor’s life.
When I first went to work as a pastor it was in a tradition that would vote every year to affirm elders and ministers for the coming year. Potentially, my employment was on the line every single year according to the will of a simple majority. Imagine what it would be like to lead a large group of volunteers and participants with whom you…
celebrate births, weddings, pledges of allegiance to Jesus and worship;
share moments in Bible study, baptisms and burials;
try to care for during divorce, remarriage, grief, unemployment and family conflict, chronic illness;
receive confessions, encourage fidelity, preach the hard passages and the comforting passages, break bread, and argue about the style of music/color of carpet/proposed changes…
all the while knowing that whatever you do in any and all of these circumstances could be the difference between thumbs up or thumbs down at annual meeting time…could mean the end of your current job.
Most of my adult life, a group of the people I pastor and share life with – or all the people I pastor and share life with – have determined my salary, know my salary, know my house payment and utility expenses, know my healthcare costs and determine what plan I can afford. For the whole of my adult life, if I ever felt I needed a raise to make ends meet – I would have to approach the people I pastor, the people I share life with, and ask a small group of them, or all of them (depending on the church system I was in) if I could have a salary increase.
The first summer after I started Bible college, preparing for full-time ministry, I sat in on a church board meeting where the elders discussed the height of the grass on their pastor’s lawn.
I probably should have run away and joined the circus at that point.
A pastor friend once asked me if any of the elders from my church walked into my home unannounced just to make sure I was keeping an orderly home. His did. Thankfully mine never have.
At least not that I know of.
Another pastor friend had several of his own family members part of the church he pastored. Family issues became church issues and church issues became family issues and ultimately my friend “felt led” to move to another church, far away, to escape the conflict.
“Don’t become friends with the people you pastor.” Is, for me, terrible guidance. It seems so unlike Jesus as to even be sinful for me. But I understand the complications and pain that led people to teach this to people in pastoral formation.
Imagine if every time you had a conflict at work it affected all of your closest relationships, overlapped with your relationship with God, potentially interfered with your income and struck at the heart of who you are as a person and follower of Jesus.
Imagine if every important relationship in your life was all in one place and all those relationships were in relationship with each other.
Imagine being invited out to dinner with friends and you don’t know until the meal is over and you are home again if this will be a work night or a fun night.
Imagine being out with a couple you and your wife have been friends with for 4 years. You have walked with them through marriage troubles, business troubles and poured your life into them to see them grow healthier and deeper in their faith. And just before dessert arrives they tell you there’s something they need to talk to you about. They lower their eyes, look back and forth to each other, hem and haw and finally tell you that their kids, who are early teens, have been going to the youth group at the McChurch down the road, the really big one, and they are really loving the youth group there and all the cool stuff they get to do and all the other kids from their schools who go there and, well, they’ve decided, “for the sake of their children’s faith” to leave your church and go to McChurch starting this Sunday.
But they hope you can still be friends.
But they have just joined a power group from McChurch and all those new relationships are taking a lot of their time.
When this happens I have felt…
Judged as inadequate as a friend, a pastor and a human being.
Betrayed as someone I felt was close lets me know we weren’t as close as I thought we were.
Embarrassed because I thought we were better friends than to have this conversation in this way.
Exposed as a terrible pastor because you’re leaving for McChurch. McChurch!
Fearful because you will inevitably invite some of our mutual friends to join you and your family – not intending for me to find out you were recruiting but I’m not stupid and why would you think I was that stupid when we were friends for so long? – over at McChurch.
And God help the church whose pastor starts from a place of insecurity. (that’s another post.)
It’s a strange thing to be your spouse’s pastor. To be your children’s pastor…especially when they want to talk with you about attending another church.
It’s hard when the place you worship is the place you work and the place you work is full of the people whose giving pays your bills and attendance indicates some kind of validity to your vocation. It can be almost impossible as a church planter to not see new people as “potential givers” or reduce the Faithful to “giving units” (yes, I have heard ministries talk about the Imago Dei using exactly those terms). The multi-layered complexities of relationship for people involved in pastoral ministry can be mentally staggering.
And emotionally painful.
The pastor’s life is an entangled life. You can get around that by creating a system that allows you or facilitates you keeping your distance. But I would argue that it’s impossible to be a good pastor and keep your distance. I would argue that the pastor’s life is, if you’re doing it right, a life of heart break that can make you bitter or better.
Entanglement is part of the deal and that’s why a pastor’s own well-being, mental health, spiritual formation and ethical practice is so important. This entanglement is why working the 12 steps should be part of every pastor’s rule of life. I recommend to every pastor that they find a coach, formal or informal, find a spiritual director, take your vacation times in blocks, take a sabbatical every seven years, listen to your spouse’s evaluation of how things are, make your listening prayer time a priority. The interconnectedness of relationships, identity, vocation, spirituality and recreation is why we all need to be mindful about our interactions with each other and commit ourselves to being as emotionally healthy as we possibly can.
Because things are so entangled, I want to add this postscript, I feel I ought to add this postscript – I’m posting this as part of Pastoral Ministry Tuesday (PMT). This is not a cry for help. This is not a complaint about the church I pastor. This is not my laundry list of complaints. This is not a lack of gratitude on my part for this beautiful life God has given me. But this is an attempt to pull back the curtain a little on this PMT on just how tangled up and challenging life might be for a pastor you know.