Waiting tables I learned that I could be invisible. Or I was so low on the social order that people just didn’t care what they said in front of me. While I stood waiting to write down an order, couples or families or groups would have conversations in front of me that I am sure they wouldn’t ordinarily have in the presence of someone they didn’t know. And some wouldn’t even be had in front of close friends.
In my various incarnations as a waiter, I found this experience repeated. I could stand inches away from people who would say the worst things to me or to each other or about other people, oblivious or unconcerned by my presence. And when things slowed down, when all the wait staff was sitting at a table having coffee and wrapping silverware, we shared our stories.
As an associate pastor or staff pastor, I was surprised to experience this same phenomenon in a different setting. In my role I might carry a lot of responsibility but around a group of “senior pastors” I often faded out and couldn’t be seen. Maybe for the same reasons this happened to me as a waiter.
I remember going to big church conferences and walking with my friend and senior pastor right up to the door of a meeting room with a sign on the outside, “Senior Pastors Only.” Here I wasn’t only invisible to the group, I was persona non grata. When I became a Senior Pastor and magically attained value enough to enter such rooms I can assure you that absolutely nothing is said or done in those rooms that other staff pastors shouldn’t or couldn’t be in on. It wasn’t about content and it wasn’t about numbers.
Once, I asked at such a meeting if I could bring the rest of the pastors on my staff to the next meeting so they were included. I was told this could really create problems. “What if,” I was asked, “one of the other senior pastors is having problems with their worship pastor and wants to talk about that with us?” I suggested they should talk to their worship pastor and not to us if there was a problem between them but that went down like a rat sandwich. In my last 20 years as a senior pastor, I’ve never heard anything at one of these “senior pastor meetings” that any other pastor couldn’t be in on. Ever.
At one of those meetings we were all supposed to write down a prayer request on a piece of paper that went around the room on a clipboard. We talked while it went around the room and when it came to me I wrote down a request for me and my wife to work through some communication issues we were having and to feel like we were on the same page about some important things we were dealing with. As the requests were finally read off the paper so we could pray for each other, one by one I realized I had not understood the assignment. The requests generally went something like, “Please pray we would have a greater sense of the anointing in our worship service…” or “Please pray that I would be able to have the courage to step into the manifestation of the destiny God has for me…” or “Please pray that our church would once again double our attendance for this year…” My request for prayers for my marriage stuck out like I’d asked for recovery from an STD.
The point of my story is that the best pastoral meetings were the ones I was excluded from because that left me with all the other excluded pastors where we shared the real stories of what was going on in our churches and our lives. We didn’t have any position to posture over with each other. And I can tell you there are a lot of hurting, used and abused church staff pastors out there.
Over time I’ve become convinced that people aren’t dropping out of vocational ministry because they weren’t called in the first place but primarily because we have not tried to create safe work environments for pastors. They are our invisible waiters, the people we talk to or about but not with. We use them – rolling them up from the bottom like a tube of toothpaste – making sure we get every last bit of life out of them before we start the rehiring process.
I attended a denominational meeting once and found myself in a room packed full of senior pastors who came to hear from a Duke professors talk about soul care. He innocently suggested that the pastors in the room could talk to their regional director if they were struggling with something personal. The room erupted in laughter. One person explained the laughter to the Prof – “The LAST person we would share our struggles with is our upline report.” For this room of a hundred and fifty pastors or so, neither the local church, nor the company of pastors, or the denominational leaders tasked with their care was a safe place.
Sometimes, as a senior pastor in a larger organization, I can once again feel invisible. And I’m not alone.
Often, in my experience, those tasked with our soul care are the architects and purveyors of dysfunctional systems who behave as if they are more committed to their systems than the souls they intend them to benefit. And in a situation like this, the disenfranchised will find one another, the flotsam and jetsam will gather and share their stories with one another. The secrets those in power think they have locked away behind the walls of their authority are passed along freely by those desperate for safe places to relieve their trauma through story telling.
In the same way, those who have left the church through traumatic experiences and abuse and feeling disenfranchised by those who wield power over, will tell their stories and seek safe places and will often never think of “church” and “safe place” as synonymous ever again. If we who have power to do something about this never do, the church will never come back to the building.