As a pastor you often find yourself in a weird place. Stuck between these two roles of being a pastor, and being you. This isn't another post on how mean the world is to pastors, or how the pastor has it hard. No. This is about the reality that this pastor faces the truth of how one's personality can often cause struggles with the way one should be as a pastor.
Because a pastor should be trustworthy, loyal, honest, forgiving, well-mannered, humble, not offensive, loving, grace-filled, basically the boy scout motto lived out within the context of a Jesus-focused life that is used for the purpose of evangelism and ministry. But there is this struggle in how often that can possibly happen. We all have that image of the doting pastor. We want the shepherd who fits every New Testament requirement.
An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. - Titus 1:6-8
An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not an excessive drinker, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy. He must manage his own household competently and have his children under control with all dignity. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?) - 1 Timothy 3:2-5
There are others, but these are the biggies. How often we can read these, and basically, as a pastor, you begin to hyperventilate. You read the requirements and think you cannot, nor will you ever be able to measure up to this, let alone what your people may desire of you on top of all these other expectations. The biggest fear for us as pastors is that there is this thinking that a pastor is a sugar cookie, stamped out on a celestial counter, all looking the same, being the same, doing the same, speaking the same, never wavering, and if they do, they go in the rejects pile.
As one who is finishing up his first 3+ years of fulltime ministry, with over 20 years of ministry experience overall, I have been one plagued by what should be a pastor versus what I have been. The worst parts of us, as pastors, is what we struggle with the most (no kidding), because we are these sinners called out to serve and sometimes our sin can get the best of us when what our people need is a saint. I do wonder if the greatest pitfalls to a pastorate are not the headline grabbing indiscretions that destroy most ministers, but the little personality flaws that can harm relationships or give a picture of a pastor that drives others away from what it is the pastor should/ought to do. The pastor being on this regular treadmill attempting to live the life of the poster-child preacher, while not ever being the fool many of us are.
While meditating on this over the last few months, as I have been brought face-to-face with my own failures, I have found at least four ways in which a pastor can unknowingly run adrift of one's congregation or ministry without noticing or trying:
I am not a Minnesotan. My origin story is different from where I serve. Many pastors remain within the confines of what they see as their comfort-zone which helps them relate to their people more closely. Some, however, are sent by God to places they do not know, or are not too familiar with. This can cause issues with how one may relate to their people. Having to learn every day how they may use the local folklore, customs, and traditions to their advantage in ministry.
This does not mean that a pastor cannot appreciate what it is that makes their people unique and precious to them. What makes a pastor love his people is often similar to a marriage. When a spouse dies, what is usually missed the most in their absence is the very thing that drove their partner nuts for decades. The idiosyncrasies that once made them cringe now are yearned for just one more time. It is what made them who they are, and once they are gone, those things most like them are what is wished to be present in our lives.
A pastor can often be seen as unloving or uncaring because they don't have those same interests or lifestyle. This is a difficult thing because it is hard enough for a pastor to temper their personality in the pulpit, it is even harder, and more damaging for a pastor to feign interest in something that is just not them. However, what makes us love you is the exact thing that you think we don't love about you. We love your lives, your interests, your stories and hobbies, but they are yours to have and nurture. For us as pastors, allow us to love you without needing to become you. We have our own stories and customs that we wish to share. Our partnership is thus that we can be different and be compatible. That is the beauty of the gifts of God in ministry.
This is my greatest fault. My flaws so often lie where my humor is used as a defense against anxiety or reality, and this is what causes me, as a pastor, to lose some credibility.
I grew up in a sarcastic household. Sarcasm is the way we communicated love and respect. It was how we made sure those we care for knew we cared. But I find that I am not very good at it. I have no issue with needling folks I love all the time, but I have learned over the last few years that it is not my best trait, let alone a necessary one. I have actually hurt people because I was joking and they took me seriously. What is worse is when the joking becomes a disease of ever expanding edges that loses containment and begins to spread. It goes to far, big mouths remain open, and eventually you say the wrong thing. What is worse is when you know you do it and you wish you wouldn't and you then spend a night or two not sleeping because you worry about what others think of you.
I think this has been an issue for many of my colleagues as well. We may have grown up with the stoic pastor who seemed to have never laughed before. Or maybe we had the pastor who was so well-educated that any joke that was said was too smart for us. So, like most youngsters, we rebelled and took things too far, often bordering on offence because we need to be different than the generation before (at least that is what we tell ourselves at parties).
There is a possibility as well that none of this is your story. That you are the pastor who takes themselves and their work so seriously that they don't have this issue. I covet that of you. Every Sunday I tell myself to play the straight man, be sensible and cut to the chase, and I fail because there is this part of me that needs to be snarky because I think I can defend myself that way. If I can get people to laugh, or maybe even to be angry, at least I can know what they are thinking of me, which helps and hurts all at the same time.
3. Politics (or lack thereof)
All you have to do is turn on the TV or listen to the radio to see how this becomes a struggle for any pastor today. Imagine serving a group of people as diverse as the electorate in this country. Then imagine those people coming to church and expecting the pastor to have the same opinion as them on a particular topic that is current in the culture. How might you think life will go in the relationship if the pastor's opinions are different, or non-existent? Not well.
Usually this comes in two waves. One, is the cry of "Church and State." We want separation. "Keep your opinions to yourself, pastor. No one asked you. Tell me about Jesus so I can go to lunch and rip into my opponents without worrying about how my Jesus might influence or direct my politics." Or two, we want our Jesus to talk and look like us. We want Jesus' opinion on Chick-fil-a, Starbucks, immigration, LGBT rights, climate change, plastic bags, and the opioid crisis. We want to hear what Jesus has to say about Fox News, CNN, and Mark Zuckerberg. We want our Jesus to fit in with cocktail parties, or pull up a stool at the municipal liquor store, and champion everything we say and do; fitting into the conversations we have so that we might feel better about how we think and live.
Too bad that this is easier said than done. Your pastor is called to preach the Word. Sometimes that Word has political implications that may cause you angst. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it scolds us into repentance for sins that happen in the voting booth, sometimes it brings us sorrow over sins committed in our ignorance. Whether these happen or not, the role of the Word is always to offer up to you a crucified, bloodied, dead Jesus who rose again for the sake of your forgiveness and redemption. Sometimes this is politically sound for dealing with concerns of the day, and sometimes it is the only comfort we have because the Word is there to rip us from any confidence in politics or politicians that have become our golden calf.
Your pastor has his opinions. He votes. He may even talk about politics every Sunday from the pulpit because our current culture is obsessed with it. A pastor is not infallible. But if your pastor is not telling you what you want to hear when it comes to your political opinions, this may be what you need. It is in fact the job of the pastor to often to tell you what you don't want to hear. And if you don't like it, or it leaves you disturbed, it could be that this is what you need. It could be that what the pastor has to say is to speak to a sin that you need killed. One that has consumed you that leads you away from the necessity of Jesus for you.
This doesn't mean that a pastor should have the job of repeating the words of the echo chamber they find themselves in so that they almost become hostile. It doesn't mean that we return to a day and age of hellfire and brimstone. It does mean that your pastor may, from time to time, say something that you don't like. And maybe you write them off for that, hopefully not completely, and hopefully it doesn't become the place for "That is your opinion, pastor." because it may be that your pastor was sent to you for that exact moment to say or not say what you want because your soul needed that voice or that silence just as much.
Every pastor has certain gifts. Those gifts fit into their role as pastor in order to serve the Kingdom as God intends. But those gifts are never the same as the gifts of your previous pastor, or the pastor before him. There is no mould. There is no factory which punches out pastors like Ford made Model-T's. Your pastor comes with their strengths and their weaknesses. An average pastor can know their faults (Maybe even a below-average pastor), and they can learn their strengths over time. What harms us as parishioners is that each of us has that pastor that formed us. They made us into the Christian disciple that we are today. They were the one who sat at the bedside of our father as he died, buried our wife, or baptized our children. They were the one who led us in worship, preached at Christmas, and led our youth group. Another pastor comes and they are not that pastor. They have different gifts, different abilities. They need your help in different ways, or maybe you are not able to help them because your gifts are not compatible to what it is they need for the ministry at the time.
Reality of the working of God is that the pastor you have is the pastor God has sent you right now. That pastor may be there in order to lift up new leadership. They may be there to help you journey through a difficult moment in your life, or the life of the church itself. They may be there because a humbling needs to take place in your life, the life of the congregation, or the life of the pastor.
It could be that for years, a pastor has lived within your comfort zone. They were the perfect pastor for you when you were young and had kids, but now you are older and the kids are gone. The pastor remains with those gifts to serve other families in the same way they served you, but maybe now they are not the one to fit your exact place in life. Does that mean they aren't your pastor anymore? No. It may mean that they have learning to do, and so do you.
It could be that you have unresolved sin that needs rebuking and forgiveness. Maybe the former pastor wasn't up to the job, or maybe they were too scared to say anything. Maybe this pastor is not too scared because you aren't their friend and so they are willing to risk ridicule in order to speak to you in that sin.
It could be that this pastor has come to your church for this exact moment because this is the pastor God needs to have there. It could be that the congregation on the whole needs what that pastor can give to you right now, because all the other needs of the individuals are insignificant in comparison to what the congregation must receive at this time. Does this pastor remain forever? No. Does the current place in the journey of faith in this congregation stay static? No. But this pastor has come to help in a certain way, for a certain time, because the gifts of that pastor, whether obscure or not, are the gifts of God for you right now.
It could be that God has sent this pastor to you because you are what this pastor needs right now. Maybe the pastor was hurt by a former congregation or colleague and God has sent them to you for healing in their life, as much as in yours. Maybe the pastor is young and inexperienced and God has sent them to you to learn from you and to grow as a pastor. Every new pastor has to land somewhere, and some congregations are of a size or circumstance in which they can only afford a young or brand new pastor. Maybe that is you. You may be called to be the incubator of the baby pastor so that they might be of help to the wider church in their ministry going forward.
As a "young" pastor (I am 41 after all, but in my first church as solo pastor), I find myself stuck sometimes in a reality in which every church has a history, and every church has that beloved pastor who did so much for them. Every other pastor has to then live up to that reputation, and we can't. We aren't that pastor, even if we have similar gifts, because we are literally not them. Add to this that some of us, in our inability, need more grace from you than others. Some of us are just gifted with being great. We have great sermons, great answers, a perfect demeanor, and think through everything in such a way as to avoid offence and to avoid the pitfalls of grave mistakes. Others of us have to still find our voice. We have to learn what we can and what we cannot do, and this could take a while.
Example - I am a manuscript preacher. I like to write out everything word-for-word because I know I have the disease of putting my foot in my mouth. I also follow rabbit trails that usually harm more than help. Distractions can be avoided this way, plus it is a way of protecting me from myself, and protecting you from the worst parts of me. Recently, through the coaxing of a mentor, I have left the pulpit and manuscript behind and begun to write my sermons as I often teach, which is with an outline and minimal notes. I spend more time in meditation and really know the story of the text in front of me, but it has given me a place to be vulnerable and accept the grace and mercy of my people. I still have much to learn and much more need to grow, but I see in this little thing a place in which my church has become my partner in the work, rather than a group of people I serve, or consumers that receive.
I write all of this as a form of confession because I know that I need to do a better job of reflecting on my gifts and my snares. I have to begin to realize how I as a pastor can find myself in a lonely place unless I speak up about all this that troubles my conscience. I also have a dire need of being humbled, humiliated again and again so that I might grow, serve and love. Because in these pitfalls should come some education. Some truth. I should be able to be me, but also not be the me that is not conducive to the work.
Bottomline - Pray for your pastor every day. Know that your pastor struggles with bouts of loneliness and fear. With worries of words, emotions, and life. With the fact that they get hit so much by the call of the denomination they serve in, and the voices of the pastors they serve alongside of, that they feel so much pressure to change you and you to change them, that sometimes, we both need the freedom to know that God has given us each other for the necessity of the now, not of what we might be. Besides, if we weren't constantly in need of saving and redemption, we might forget our Jesus, which would not be good.