(It’s Pastoral Ministry Tuesday, time for a mostly weekly post about pastoral ministry – the life and the challenges, the highs and lows of living this pastor’s life. Step up and take a look behind the curtain.)
There’s an old joke that goes something like this…
One Sunday morning, a mother went in to wake her son and tell him it was time to get ready for church, to which he replied, “I’m not going.”
“Why not?” she asked.
I’ll give you two good reasons,” he said. “One, they don’t like me, and two, I don’t like them.”
His mother replied, “I’ll give you two good reasons why you SHOULD go to church: One, you’re 59 years old, and two, you’re the pastor!”
There are a lot of reasons people go into pastoral ministry but why do people stay in pastoral ministry?
I do not think I’ve ever met anyone who has been in pastoral ministry for more than a couple years who doesn’t have a painful story to tell and “war wounds from friendly fire” to compare with other pastors. It’s an occupational hazard, and while all our vocations may include them, the risks that come along with pastoral ministry cut especially close to the heart and bone.
When you are responsible for the well-being of souls and part of the present day system of how we do church, your normal workday can look like a busy month for the bomb squad. There are fires to put out, bombs to diffuse, landmines to navigate and help others avoid. An average day can be the kind of experience that keeps a therapist in business for years to come with questions about your competency from people who have never done your job; people complaining about a message or prayer or conversation in which you felt like you had been led by God; contacts from people in the community who want to know what you’re going to do about the member of your church that has been doing them wrong which makes them wonder what you’ve been teaching them as their pastor.
The want to be wanted is a powerful force in anyone’s life. It is as powerful in a pastor’s life as it is in yours. And many pastors are made to feel by the members of the governing body of their local church, that they are the opposition, the force to be resisted, the agent of change or progress that requires them to be an equal and opposite influence to pull in the opposite direction back towards the familiar. Feeling unwanted by the people you mean to pour your life out for can cause us to turn to some unhealthy and illegitimate sources to satisfy our need or to collapse in on ourselves becoming darker, heavier and so dense we can no longer shine.
To be fair, there are some people in pastoral ministry whose proverb is, “Ministry would be so much easier if people weren’t involved.” Their motivator is about power, influence, income – the stuff of earth – and they have the capacity to carry on getting the job done oblivious to or without regard to the quality of relationships they share with the flock of God of which they are a part but to which they have been called as a shepherd.
Sometimes the joke – there seem to be a lot of jokes around this – is that the pay for what we do isn’t much but the retirement plan is “out of this world!” Which is a little like what Carl the groundskeeper (as played by the brilliant Bill Murray) was offered by the Dalai Lama in leu of a tip for caddying… “So we finish the eighteenth and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.”
It’s not so nice.
Again, there are pastors who make a lot of money. Like obscene amounts of money. Pastors who make it onto “Preachers in Sneakers” (check it out on Instagram) who either have sweet endorsement deals or fat paychecks, or both. I’ve watched the Youtube depositions of pastors giving testimony to the IRS about the silk shirts, tailored suits, Gucci belts and multiple houses and vehicles they’ve tried to claim as “ministry expenses.” But these are the outliers. These are not normal people engaged in pastoral ministry.
Occasionally someone will ask me, “How do I know if I’m called to pastoral ministry?” And eventually I always tell them the same thing, “If you can do anything else, do it.” There are too many forces that will come against you in everyday life that will make you doubt yourself, doubt you should be doing what you are doing, shake you to the very center of your being with accusations, innuendo and judgment. If you can find peace doing anything else, do it. But when you find your heart is restless, when you realize people keep coming to you, when your heart is drawn over and over and over again to people who need a shepherd, hold on to that inability to do anything else – embrace the call – bear the burden and find Pete’s words true for you, “Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor.”
You pastors, my friends, you are soon to be crowned, soon to be honored by our brother and great shepherd – who knows EXACTLY what you are going through, has not only felt it all in his own lifetime but now feels it all over again with you in yours. He knows what it’s like to bear the weaknesses of others and have them scorn you for it. He knows how it feels to be weighted down with sorrow for what others are going through. He knows what it is like to contend with fakes and phonies that make it all that much harder for you to do what you do the way you do it. He knows what it’s like when people would rather have the strong man instead of the suffering servant.
He sees you.
He is with you.
And he knows your name. He call you, “the soon to be crowned.”
“The soon to be honored.”
“The soon to receive never-ending glory.”
It’s not total consciousness, but it’s not too bad either.
Blessings on all of you, my sisters and brothers – the road is full of stones but may you walk tall knowing there are even better days ahead.