Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The hardest thing(s)

A couple of weeks ago, at our men's breakfast, Ron asked me, "what's the toughest thing for you about being a pastor?" I thought about it a moment, and answered honestly - it's been a different thing at each church I've served.

Lakebay is the fourth church at which I've had the privilege of being paid to do ministry. And in each of those four churches, the struggles have been unique to that location. The 'toughest thing' in Upland was different than the 'toughest thing' in Gresham, and my struggles in Turlock were vastly different than anything I've struggled with here in Lakebay. In one of those churches, 'the toughest thing' was a manipulative, deceitful pastor who undermined my work and lied about me to the congregation (btw - he's now passed on, so if Brad or Gary are reading this, I'm not talking about you :) ); in one of those churches, I struggled with dogmatic fundamentalist types who felt that anything not matching up to their expectations must necessarily be sinful. In one of those churches I struggled with the remnants of a battle fought 25 years earlier; in one of those churches 'the toughest thing' was simply unworked-through personality differences and unspoken expectations.

That's not to say all my struggles were the fault of others. Add in to those issues my own lack of education early on, my own naivete and pride, my own sheer exhaustion at working while going to school and having babies at home, my own sin nature. . .I own the fact that struggles are always a two-way street, and I have been far from perfect over the years. So, yes, many of those 'toughest things' were exacerbated by my own actions and plans, or lack thereof.

But if I had to give a long-term, across-the-years answer, I would say that, for me, there are a couple of "toughest things about being a pastor" that stand out.

1) I've been in this long enough that I've witnessed people with whom we've ministered crash and burn in explosive ways. What's tough is getting the news that that person you've loved, with whom you've gone camping and shared meals and gone on mission trips, that person you've discipled, cried with, laughed with, shared a cabin at camp with - that they're living on the streets with an alcohol addition. Or they're in prison for rape or theft or drug abuse. Or even getting onto their facebook page and finding out that their greatest pleasures are drinking at parties, drinking with the guys or the girls, getting drunk and having sex with random people (it's amazing what people put on their facebook pages, isn't it?). Or even, they're doing relatively okay in life, but they just have no time or space for, or interest in, following Christ. When they left their youth, they left God behind, and now they're pursuing anything and everything but Christ. I've seen people slam hard into walls, I've seen people simply fade away; either way, when these are the people with whom you shared the Word, people for whom you threw Christmas parties and organized mission trips and people you led in worship. . .it's tough to see them throw it all away. It's painful to hear "did you hear about (____)?" and know that, whatever comes next, it won't be good news. So that's tough.

2) One thing that has always stuck in my craw has been the people who are a part of the church, or the youth group, but then they just. . .drift away. One week they're not there, then two, then three. Then you begin to wonder. . .and awhile later you bump into them at the store, and it's awkward, but eventually they'll tell you "I'm going to the group over at that other church now. Nothing against you, but they have ______" And you wish them well and walk away. I remember a couple times over the years when people had the backbone to tell me right up front "we're leaving, and here's why. . ." And as painful as those times have been, I must say I appreciated those people. And I think it was a healthy process. Even if I didn't agree with the reasons they gave (other than moving to another state. . .), I felt honored that they would choose to make a clean break, to be forthright and honest, to let me know exactly what was going on so I wasn't left wondering. I've never fully understood how people could be completely tied into one church, and then just suddenly leave for another, without so much as a goodbye. When people choose to leave, I figure they're responsible for their own choices, and it's not my place to try to argue them back. But I've always appreciated straightforward, direct communication, so that everything is in the light, rather than slipping out the back door with nary a "so long and thanks for all the fish." The first is painful, but healthy, the second is also painful, but in the way that lingers on and on. It's a little like dating, I suppose. Telling the other "I want to break up" is painful, but better than pretending to be busy, not returning phone calls, leaving them hanging and wondering and hoping eventually they'll figure it out and leave. Losing people is always tough as a pastor (well, not always. I can think of a couple people. . .), but it is a lot more irritating when you're left to wonder if they're just on vacation or if they've jumped ship completely.

3) It really comes back to communication. And I think lack of clear communication would be the final 'toughest thing.' And by that I mean either people who never speak to you, but still get angry when you don't meet their expectations, or the passive aggressive, smile and tell you they love you when really they're thinking about leaving. Or even the people who tell you everything is fine, when really they're going through a divorce, battling with addictions and depression, and just found out they have terminal cancer. As I see it, I'm called to sit with people in their dark spaces as well as their light ones. True ministry happens when there is honesty and open-ness. I think sometimes people feel like they "don't want to bother the pastor with their problems." But that's exactly why I am a pastor - so that the Lord's grace can flow through me into their difficult spaces. I'm not saying it's easy to continually walk beside people in the valley of the shadow of death, but it's a lot better than finding out six months later that they walked through alone, simply because they were too prideful or ashamed to say anything about it. I used to wander over to the local coffeehouse to hang out with the youth of our church. From a distance, I'd see some of the kids smoking. At some point, they would see me coming and attempt to quickly hide the cigarettes before I reached them. And I always told them "I hate to see you smoking, because it's disgusting and it'll kill you. But I'd rather you be honest and smoke in front of me than have you hide it and pretend you're not. In the end, we need to be honest and transparent with each other. I love you enough that I want to see you as you are, not as a fake shiny happy copy." Or something like that. And I still feel the same way. I'd rather hear from people that they're feeling crappy, than have them smile and say they're super when in reality they're not.

However, with all that said, I still love being a pastor, even with the difficult, hard things. The joy of serving the Lord and serving others continually inspires me, and the experience of grace in my own life allows me to have grace for others when they fall short of these impossibly high standards I have. Even when former youth stumble, even when people wander away, even when people hold up their walls and refuse to let me inside, I still love them and still love serving the Lord with them. So don't think I sit around and stew about these toughest things; not most days, anyway.

But Ron asked, so there you go. Hope this answers the question.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow Dan. That was honest. Number 2 really gave me food for thought. I think in a relationship between two lovers, the one stops calling, makes excuses whey he didn't come over, forgets dates, etc. and you are left feeling like a piece of disrespected, pond scum. But if they come to you and say, "I can't continue, this is not working for me, but I want you to know I care about you and wish you well," at least you would feel respected. When I was in high school I had my first romance with an "older man," a sailor. We dated every weekend for several months. Then he went overseas and wrote me wonderful love letters and a promis that we would get engaged when he got back. On the day he arrived in port, I ran up to him and threw my arms around him. He went stiff, gently pushed me away and said, your choking me. He didn't say a word in the car all the way back to my place. The next day he packed up his stuff saying he had to return to port. Instead of a hug or kiss goodbye and an Ilove you, he said "I'll see you sometime." I never heard from him again. It would have been so much easier if he had just said, I don't feel that way anymore. I feel like it's time to move on. But thanks for the memories."Sorry to ramble, but I think I know what you mean. It makes you feel disrespected and abandoned.