Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pastor, Chill Thyself

My summer begins today.

Every year since I entered the ministry, I've wangled an arrangement with my church. We Presbyterians are supposed to take two weeks a year of study leave, time to go off to conferences and seminars and retreat centers, where we can hobnob and connect and diligently keep ourselves up to date on the latest and most trendy new trends in our 2,000 year old tradition.

I don't do that. Not because it's a bad thing, even though I can usually get that data through the blogs I feed and the books I read. Instead, I apply that time to my summer, one day per week, and take care of my kids. On that day, I sit by poolside and read and write, while the boys swim back and forth and back and forth. That's study, of a sort, I suppose. I shuttle them to go have fun with the few kids who are fortunate enough not to have every last moment of their summers prescheduled by their hovering, overachieving parents.

I take them on bicycle outings. I putter around the house, while they read and play and enjoy being a kid. I do still take calls, and keep an eye on things. But I make a point of slowing down.

It's not a very Washington, DC way to think. For all the invective leveled against it by folks for whom "inside-the-Beltway" means just another level of hell, DC is a crazy-hard-working place. Washingtonians endure long hours, big stress, and soul-sucking commutes, and all this while suffering through the sultry heat that should have us spending June through August on a big wraparound porch sitting under a fan slowly sipping mint juleps.

That lifestyle of gogogogogo is, to my observation, also the way the pastors who flit and fret across my field of vision tend to live. The institutional church can be a high maintenance bride. She demands constant attention, and is more than willing to pitch a Bridezilla hissy if you don't meet her expectations. Endless meetings can stack up upon even more meetings, which pile up on stomping out interpersonal fires, which are followed by an aging air conditioning system that punks out on Sunday morning. And while dealing with that Cavalcade of Very Important Crap, we're supposed to teach and preach and be deeply rooted in Christ's grace. More often than not, it seems that pastors let themselves be consumed. They let themselves be stretched and stretched, until that stress frays them. Under that self-inflicted stress, we respond less graciously to others. It becomes easier to be broken, to be hostile to those around us, to gossip, to promote faction, or to withdraw.

When I permit myself to overextend, I feel it in myself. I snap to judgment. I snark. I fume. I fail to be centered in Christ's peace.

This is not a sign of a healthy faith life. Faithful folk, as a recent study at the University of Toronto showed, have a tendency to be less stressed out about stressful situations than those who have no orientation outside of their own selves. Being oriented towards God provides a foundation for dealing with the stressors and difficulties of life, one that makes it a whole bunch easier to cope with messiness.

That's certainly true when we're afflicted by crises. But we shouldn't be letting our lives put the Lord to the test. Our faith needs to form the way that we structure our lives outside of those crisis moments. If those who are the spiritual leaders of a faith community are running on an endlessly spinning gerbil wheel of stress, trapped in a cycle of internal and external expectations, then there is something wrong. There is something wrong in us, as we allow our own need to be in control to consume us. There is something wrong in our communities, as they expect their pastors to conform to the frenzied pace of the secular workplace.

So stop fretting. Seek the kingdom. And consider, for a moment, that perhaps the best place to find that may be poolside.

And yes, the pool has WiFi. And a good cell signal. You are so incorrigible.