This story I find myself in has led me into a tension about my vocation. I’d call it the tension between what is and what can be. I remember years ago watching a contractor on TV who would rescue homeowners from renos gone wrong. His vocation brought him into this same type of tension which he shared with the rest of us through his show. He would dismantle parts of the house looking for the causes of problems the owners were experiencing and often find the original contractor or renovating contractor had done really poor work, sometimes just leaving things undone, out of sight behind drywall.
He was very critical of people who shared his vocation who did this kind of poor work. It was really a form of malpractice. And that tension, between what was and what could be, was visible on his face, recognizable in his voice and sometimes he lost his temper on camera at things he discovered. And sometimes I know my writing can come across that way. Even though I’m a pastor, this is my story, my vocation, I can be very negative about the practices of people who share this vocation.
It’s the tension I feel coming to the surface between what is and what can be.
In this pastor’s story life, I am also aware of the pressures that many (most?) pastors live under. The extraordinary ordinary women and men who share my vocation are often doing so under tremendous pressures that very few people know about or think about or take time to consider. For all the celebrity pastors and not-so-celebrity pastors who have turned the Church into a means to amass wealth and clout, there are many, many more who are faithful to the Jesus story and week in and week out face temptations to power and abuse and faithfully turn away from it to choose to be self-emptying and gentle.
Right now, in this pandemic season, it’s being reported that pastors, along with many others, are resigning, quitting, walking away from their jobs. Some are calling it “compassion fatigue” and others are reporting that they have been deeply disappointed over the actions of church goers over the last few years and they are just…well…over it. They have reasoned that if what they have seen is the result of their life’s work they would rather be doing something else.
I’ve written before about the pressure that comes from having your whole life, nearly every significant relationship, your career, your vocation, your financial well-being, your spiritual life, all tangled up in one giant ball of interconnectedness, you’ll live with the advice of Buckaroo Banzai to his brain surgeon friend, during an operation, “don’t tug on that, you never know what it might be connected to.”
It’s impossible to calculate the pressure that comes from knowing that telling that person in the choir who keeps saying hurtful things to newcomers to the choir could cost you their family, including the granddaughter your daughter is best friends with and could lead to two adjacent families leaving because they were offended on behalf of the choir member who says hurtful things (which are just “calling it like I see them” and isn’t that what Jesus told us to do anyway?). Of course if they leave, you know the couple who are just waiting to leave if they see people moving towards the door will likely go to and they are significant financial givers and if they leave you’ll have to decide to lay off the church secretary or the youth pastor, both of whom are friends and you know can’t afford to be a one income family so will probably have to move on to find income and you’ll not only lose staff but also good friends. On top of all this, your spouse has been ready to get out of ministry life for about 3 years now and when your daughter is heart broken over the loss of a friendship you’re almost certain it will be the proverbial straw that breaks it all.
1, 2, 3, 4…pressure.
A pastor has been told, in no uncertain terms that God is watching and will hold her or him to account for the way they’ve shepherded the flock of God of which they are a part. Most of the pastors I know believe that. That’s heavy stuff right there. In a liminal season like this when no one knows where we’re going to end up after all this (people telling you otherwise want to sell you something) pastors are as jumpy as a long-tailed cat in a rocking chair factory. Not out of a sense of fear but out of a sense of the sacredness of this vocation. Our desire is to go beyond “do no harm” and add something meaningful to the spiritual formation of everyone we know.
We want to get this right. It feels vital and important and necessary to get this right.
People have left during this season. Some have left because we supported the Republican party despite former President Trump and the behavior of his allies. Some have left because we could not support the Republican party because of President Trump and the behavior of his allies. Some have left because we encouraged everyone to get vaccinated against Covid and others left because they believed the vaccine was (multiple choice): a) made from aborted babies, b) changing our DNA, c) a mind control plot or d) all the above. If ever there’s been a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario for churches like mine, it’s been the last 2 years in North America.
Good pastors have been getting it from every side, y’all.
We’re living in a consumer culture. The constant message we are subjected to from childhood is that the customer is always right, and the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. Both concepts are fairly antithetical to the Jesus Way, but they are so ingrained into us that we baptize them into our faith rather than exercising them from us. One thing this means is that we’ve created a competitive culture within the Church rather than a cooperative one.
I was the lone non-baptist pastor in a room full of pastors at a meeting a crisis pregnancy center was hosting. The competition vibe in the room was tangible. The guys at my table all wanted to play the “whose is bigger” game and the “who’s more biblical” follow up. Even if you don’t play the game, as a pastor you are very much aware that you are in the game. Pastors are made to compete for market shares. Hell, we’re made to market. Jesus becomes a commodity and our brand has to find a competitive edge in the market place. I’ve talked with pastors who installed “auto-tune” for their worship vocalists so they could keep up with the slightly larger church down the street.
Competition, rather than motivating us, usually isolates us and leaves us feeling adrift and unable to build trusting relationships with others. Ultimately it will cause us to resent those we feel have forced us on to this never ending treadmill of keeping up, those we feel demand the latest, newest and most cutting edge or leave us for someone who meet their demand.
Suddenly in the pandemic season we’ve also found ourselves competing with the mega-pastor on YouTube.
Mega-pastors. Plural. A multitude.
And most of us can’t afford his production values or his sermon writers. But the pressure is real. It’s on YouTube. It’s a church. How hard can it be? How much could it cost? It must be cheap and easy if these other churches do it. Few realize the thousands upon thousands of dollars some spend for their look and sound.
And we realize the congregations that we are trying to pastor are being influenced more through the week by the images and sounds of these megas than they are us – it’s pervasive. We watch the news and see some of these same pastors turned into spokespeople for the rest of us and it only increases the pressure as we cringe at the things they say and feel the weight of the knowledge that their “hot take” will carry more weight with some of our friends than wisdom that comes at the speed of life that we’ve contended for through suffering, study and contemplation.
If there are bills to be paid, we feel pressure to pay the bills. Good pastors want a balanced budget, they don’t want to spend more than what they have but no amount of diligence on our part can guarantee any income for the church other than what we ourselves contribute. If people don’t give, we are tempted to use guilt and shame and manipulation – can call it conviction. It’s a razor’s edge we have to walk so that we are leading and not pushing, inviting and not demanding, helping people listen to the Spirit instead of telling them what they ought to think.
And if your church has paid staff…every pastor with a paid staff in this pandemic has carried the weight through decisions being made, choices being faced, people fading away and figuring out the next right thing…and how those will all impact the paid staff and their families. I can tell you, it’s not a lack of faith in God that keeps us up at night, it’s an awareness that control is an illusion and God hasn’t promised any church that it will exist beyond the current generation.
Welcome to the tip of the iceberg of pressure that most pastors are facing. It’s not good for our mental health, physical health or spiritual health. Rarely do our networks or denominations do anything to help us with this pressure or even offer us meaningful commiseration. They have bottom lines and bring their own unique pressures to bear on local church pastors as well. Tod Bolsinger says in Canoeing the Mountains that our tendency at this point is to return to what we’ve always done but do it twice as hard. And that just won’t work.
I probably should have added a trigger warning at the start of this for all my pastor friends to see before they got this far into my post.
If you’re a pastor and you’ve read this far, there are better days ahead. The one thing I can tell you about this liminal season we are in is that things will not be the same on the other side of it. It seems certain that some will return to the form we’ve had for so long but only because they were already satisfied with the results. Good pastors living in the tension of what is and what can be will find the future offers new opportunities and new ways of being the Church in the present day, fresh and more satisfying ways of living out our vocation. But first, this transitional time that will take just as long as it takes. And ultimately we will need the courage to shed this wineskin we’ve known and become soft, and vulnerable and willing to express the Way of Jesus as never before.