CALLS IN TENSION
A major component of a pastor’s grief is the disconnect between the ideals of faith shaped by his or her beliefs and the pressures and demands of serving a church. When you think about it, a pastor is called by God and hired by a congregation. Sometimes, those two forces are in tension. Take just a few moments to reflect on the contrast between the demands of church reality and what you would like ministry to be about.
Being human with the normal hopes and fears, ministers at times wrestle with their own conflicted feelings of envy, desire to be successful, fear of conflict, hunger for recognition, etc. While the failure of the church to be faithful may frustrate us, we are also powerfully aware of our own weaknesses and the limits of our faith.
GOD NOT DEPENDENT ON PURITY
Yet repeatedly we discover that God is neither dependent on our purity nor defeated by the acts of faithlessness of clergy or congregation. Ministry is a complex mosaic of strengths and weaknesses in an often confusing and sin-filled world. I think it was theologian Shirley Guthrie who suggested that the church was one of the few organizations whose criteria for membership is the confession of our own inadequacy.
Ministers are strong and weak, faithful and faithless, as are the members of their congregations. Yet each week together we gather to hear the Scripture, sing the songs, and pray the prayers that remind them that there is more to life than meets the eye. When we are honest in our confession of sins, we discover that our hope rests in a power beyond ourselves, and that there is reason for hope. The miracle of the church is not in our faithfulness but in God’s faithfulness. We are witnesses to how our confused reality keeps being interrupted by grace.
As clergy, we stand in the breach between God and humanity. We are imperfect, but we have been called by God. Like Moses in leading the Israelites out of Egypt, sometimes we find ourselves speaking to the people on behalf of God and at other times begging for God’s mercy on behalf of the people. At times we feel like neither audience is listening, but we are not free to abandon our call.
It is not easy to respond to an invisible God who, at times, seems hard of hearing. It is even more frustrating to respond to a people who are more interested in complaining than in listening to God’s directions. That is why we need to actively nurture our spiritual connection in this journey to which we have been called.
A SPECIAL FORM OF GRIEF
There is a particular type of theological grief that a pastor experiences which may account for the large number of pastors who drop out of the ministry in the first five years of ministry. When a person experiences a call to serve God in the ministry, s/he also has at least some vague idea of what that might mean. Then they go to seminary and begin to shape their understanding of the ministry. The image of the ministry becomes more concrete. Their thoughts are formed by theological beliefs and images of how God wants the people of God to respond as a church. In many cases, candidates for the ministry has not even had a lot of experience in the church, maybe having dropped out as a teenager, and then some experience later moves them to make this response.
Then, having completed their education and training, they receive a call to an actual church. This is where there is a clash between the ideals of their theologically shaped idea of ministry and the reality of managing a church. Though called by God, they are hired by a congregation, and the members have very definite, though often conflicting, ideas of who a minister is and what s/he should be doing as their pastor. Think about the amount of time that you spend on mundane tasks that seem to have little to do with the spiritual. There is a grief in letting go or at least transforming your ideas about church to match the reality you experience.
Some clergy are so disappointed that they leave the ministry. Others lower their expectations and find themselves doing a job rather than responding to a calling. And some are fortunate enough to find help in reforming their theological ideas in a way that helps them rediscover faithful ministry in the ordinary activities of church life.
BUILD COMMUNITY AMONG PASTORS
You can invite several clergy to subscribe to a course on Matthew and meet weekly for coffee and discussion that can feed their theological imagination.