I have been a pastor for 18 years, and they haven’t all been good ones. But I am learning what it means to be a pastor, and the bad years have taught me just as much as the good ones. Maybe more.
I’m not sure if many pastors read my stuff, but for those who do, here is my encouragement to you. Here are my learnings. I care a lot about the future of the church, and so I care a lot about pastors, because it’s a much more taxing job than we let on, most of the time.
Here is what I’m learning as I wrestle with my own calling:
Try + Fail = Learn is the only formula I trust. I used to be so tempted to try to copy the formulas and successes found in the great church conferences that I went to in the 90’s. They were so inspiring. Unfortunately, my ambition drove me to want to succeed so badly that I tried copying a lot of great stuff that I shouldn’t have ever tried to copy. I’m learning that each church is unique, and we are called to be faithful to her unique story. While we can learn from the successes of others, our own failures, rooted in our own story, are far better teachers. I’m leaning that for me to really be leading and trusting God with our future, I’ll always be doing things that I don’t really know how to do, and when I do that, I’ll fail a lot. But the point is not perfection (or even success), the point is faithfulness to the unique calling on your unique church.
I’m learning not to waste my time on haters. I know, that sounds harsh. But I used to think I had to spend a lot of energy and time on the scary people, people who are vindictive and angry and want to make me (and others) pay. But I’m learning to confront what I need to confront with directness and compassion, and then move on. In fact, I’ve learned that spending more time with vindictive people almost never helps them, or me. It takes a monumental amount of energy, and it’s just not worth it. This has been a hard lesson to learn.
Calling is rooted in place and people, more than my gifts. I used to think that my gifts (like preaching or leadership) are what I am called to do. Now I think that calling is about a specific geographical place and a specific local people, and while my gifts are at play in that setting, my gifts are not the point. I’ll never forget the moment, looking out at the people at my church, and it hit me: I love them. These actual people in this actual church. I’m called to them, not just to preach or lead. For me, that’s calling.
I’m leading less strategically and more messily. I used to think that we had to have an iron clad strategic plan so that we could know whether we were succeeding at our mission. Strategic plans are important. But I’m learning that being a pastor, and leading other pastors, is mostly about entering into the scary and mysterious parts of people’s lives. Helping a couple try to remember that they love each other. Sitting with a gay person in my church and hearing her story. Listening to a parent cry over her adult child’s bad decisions. At our church, our mission statement is “To invite people to pursue the struggle of becoming fully alive in God.” That’s messy.
I’m learning to be for something, instead of against it. It took me a long time to realize that I was fighting against the very church in which I was spending my life’s energy. This came from an arrogant and naïve place, thinking that I knew what was really important, and almost nobody else did. But it also came from a wounded place, needing so badly to be heard. Thank God, I am breaking free of that slavery. I honestly just don’t have the energy for that anymore. There are things to fight against. But the true prophetic voice that this culture needs is rooted within something deep and strong and true – the essence and Spirit of Jesus. It is not enough to simply be against something.
The best thing I can bring to ministry is my own transforming self. Being transformed into the image of Christ is a mouthful. What it means is that in my actual life, what’s most important is that I’m arranging my life so that I’m empowered by Jesus to become who he wants me to become in my marriage, in my family, and in my community, for my own joy and for the sake of others. I am grateful to my time spent with Ruth Haley Barton and the Transforming Center for this lesson. It’s so easy for pastors to think incessantly about the health of others, while neglecting our own souls. And when we do that, everybody loses.
If you’re a pastor (or were a pastor, or want to be a pastor) what are you learning?