Thursday, September 21, 2023

When Pastors Don't Leave the Church

The post circulated with a peculiarly aggressive virality, singing out across my algorithm-mediated social awareness.  All across the [#pastor #church #denominational #progressive] networks, it was shared and reshared, not because it said anything new, but because it was both familiar and touched a deep taproot of anxiety.

A pastor had flamed out in their congregation, and said why at length.  Their reasons, all familiar.  Overwork.  Unrealistic expectations on all sides, conflict around said expectations, emotional trauma, burnout, low salary, and the like, part of a dark litany that resonated with the gnawing anxiety of America's dying denominations.  

People are leaving.  Pastors are leaving.  The whole edifice is falling apart.  So we pick over every failure, looking for clues as to what's going wrong.  

There is much to be learned from that, of course.  Understanding what causes the demise of movements and organizations can be profoundly useful, assuming you don't just obsess over those causes and do nothing about it.  Understanding the factors that contribute to burnout and generate destructive conflict are also essential.

But it can also be ruminative, in the way that anxious systems tend to chew at something endlessly, picking at their wounds, obsessing about their failings.

Focusing on the positive that can be replicated rather than the negative that must be avoided is of equal value.  What is it that makes a pastorate work?  What are the features of spiritual leadership that leave congregational leaders feeling blessed and alive, eager to be serving?  What are the frameworks and paradigms and core expectations that make it more likely you'll stick around?

I've served as a pastor for two decades.  There are times that it's been impossible.  I've left a church before, when it was clear I was serving no purpose there.  I've considered stepping out of ministry entirely.  But I didn't.  Why not?   Below are seven ways I've framed my own role within the church that have helped me stick around when the going got tough. 

1) Check your ego at the door.

Public leadership tends to draw folks who hunger for the affirmation of the crowd.   We want to feel important.  We want to be the One, the Chief Spiritual Officer, the Smartest Girl in the Room, the Hero, the Speaker of Prophetic Truth Bombs.

If this is our mindset, we will fail.  If we allow ourselves to believe our own propaganda, we will fail in our capacity as a pastor.  We might do well materially, sure.  We might gather the adulation of those who hunger for a powerful personality to define them.  

But we won't be serving the church.  We'll be serving ourselves and our own need to be at the heart of things.  If you come into a church expecting to be the capo di tutti capi, you're going to be sorely disappointed.  Because while church can feel like family, you don't want it to feel like Family, capice

The task of the pastor is to be the Servus Servorum Dei, the "servant of the servants of God."  Find the gifts and graces of your laity, and nurture them.  Encourage them.  Support them.  It's not about you, any more than it is about any other soul that chooses to follow Jesus.

It's a liberating thing.  Say it to yourself: "I am not in charge."  God is.  Sometimes you may need to be the one who makes a decision, if others expect it of you.  Other times, decisions will be made by others.  That's fine.  Trust that God is at work.

This is easier to do in smaller congregations, ones that function more as organic human communities and less like dot.coms or dot.govs.    It's why I prefer smaller congregations.  When a thousand souls see you pitched up before them as a Jumbotron demigod, it can do unhealthy things to your sense of your place in God's work.  

No matter what the size of the church, no matter how much organizational structure your church requires to function, you're a servant.  Hold that fast.

2) Your church is your community.

There is one question worth asking yourself whenever you begin in ministry: Were you not the pastor of the church you serve, would you be a member of that church?  If the answer is yes, good.  If the answer is, well, sure, after I've made them into exactly the church that I really want?  

You're in the wrong place, both physically and spiritually.  Ask yourself: how does that way of thinking work in any relationship?  It doesn't.  You know it doesn't.

"I don't have anywhere to worship," I've heard pastors say, "Because I'm so stressed and busy preparing for worship on Sunday."  Oh, dear heart.  If you're not worshiping in your worship, then you're not leading worship.  You're performing.  It's kind of a baseline, a measure of the authenticity of our relationship with our congregations.

There's a toxic misunderstanding of the role of the pastorate that pervades denominational Christianity, one that poisons pastors and communities alike.  Sure, we pastors are professionals.  But our relationship with our communities is unlike the relationships of other caring professions.  We are not psychotherapists, who must keep ourselves separate from those who pay for their services.  We are bound to our fellow Christians rather more deeply, and by fellow Christians, I mean the people right there in front of us.  A congregation is full of disciples of Jesus.  That's the point of a church.  Not one Professional Christian (tm), but an entire community of Jesus folk.

There's a tendency of professional pastors to view their colleagues as other pastors.  Seek community outside of your church, we were explicitly told in seminary.  Find a safe place where you can be yourself, where you can set aside your professional role and really be you.  Find real friends, by which pastors can mean "friends with whom you can comfortably gossip about your church."

Is there a logic to this?  Yes.  Is it a good logic?  O Sweet Lord Jesus no.  

When a pastor cannot be themselves in their community, authentically and truly, then they're modeling that behavior for everyone else.  If a pastor can't be vulnerable in church, can't show their imperfections to their brothers and sisters, can't screw up or make mistakes?  If they're dishonest about themselves, why the hell (I use that term advisedly, and in its meaning) would anyone else bring their whole self in?   If your church is not a sanctuary for you, then how can it be a sanctuary for anyone else?  The falseness of your Pastor Mask trickles down, and suddenly everyone is roles and masks and illusions.

Note that this does not mean "being undifferentiated."  You understand that you are more than your relationships within your church.  You're a human person.  You have family.  You have other friends.  It does not mean that you shouldn't have space for lifegiving and authentic relationships outside of your particular community.   But when we are only really ourselves outside of our church, we have become false.

Again, this is easier to do in an organically sized congregation, which is why I prefer the small church.  If you pastor a 10,000 member church, it's not humanly possible.  But those churches...when they are healthy...are really just a hundred smaller churches, communities within community.  There are ways to make that work, to be yourself within one of the ecclesiolae in ecclesia, the little churches within the big church.

This is not safe, I'll admit.  When you really love your community, you really hurt when they hurt.  You feel when they struggle, you feel when they fail, you feel when they're in pain.  You get to watch them die.  It's so hard.  

If you're in a toxic environment, you will pay a price for honesty about yourself.  It'll suck.  You may have to leave that particular place.  But it is a particular place, not all places.  It isn't the Beloved Community, no matter what your trauma may scream into your ear.  

3) Build up.

Your job is not to tear other people down and remake them in your image.  Your job is to find their grace, to illuminate it, to open it up, to bless and honor and encourage it.  Your job is, again, to be the servant of the servants of God.  Who is the servant of God?  Every single soul who has chosen to be part of your community.  

Your job is not to tear the church down and rebuild it as a temple to your ego.  Your job is not to rebuild a two thousand year old faith in your own image.

 Your task is to find what your community is good at, to find the dreams it has left unfulfilled, and to encourage it to be the community that God is calling it to be.  That call exists whether you're there or not.  At best, you are a part of it.  But it doesn't come from you.  Again, in case you didn't hear that, it doesn't come from you.  It's a God thing, one that involves others.  Trust your people.  Trust that Jesus is working in your people.

It's like walking through life with a friend as you grow together.  You watch, and you listen.  You rejoice in who they are, and their place in your life.  You give them room to be themselves, trust them to choose rightly, and help them up when they fail so that they'll have the courage to try again.  You treat them like a human being, a person who has value because they are a person.

Walk with your people.  Help them pull that weight.  Put in sweat equity.  Celebrate them.  

4) Be poor in spirit.

Set aside the idea that you're guaranteed to make a middle class living as a pastor.  You might.  But you also might not.  It's likely, given the context, that you won't.  Don't bank on it.  A minority of pastors will serve congregations that will pay them enough to do well.  Most of us won't, because most congregations are too small now.

You'll need two things to endure this.  First, most pastors will require another source of income.  Get your CDL.  Learn a trade.  Something real.  You can try writing books, because if there's one profession that always makes bank, it's being an author.  Please please please do note that this is sarcasm.

Or, if you're married, have a spouse who also has income, you can take on the dual role of homemaker and pastor.  It works.  That last one did for me.  Is that easy on the ego?  No, but again, check point number one.  

Second, go deeper than that.  Turn your heart away from viewing the church as a profit center in your life.  It can't be that.  It's your church, remember?  It's the place you go to be spiritually fed, to be among brothers and sisters in the faith.  Treat it as such.  Nothing is a surer sign that a pastor has lost the narrative than when their heart leaps first and foremost to kvetching about salary.  

It's a community, not a career.

That said, there are soul-blighted "churches" that wield a meager salary like an overseer's whip.  They expect eighty hours a week of work, a whole life sacrificed to their needs, but balk at giving a pastor enough to survive.  There are other churches that are happy to offer a hefty salary that they lock as a golden collar around a pastor's neck.  Would you be part of such a community?  Of course not.  Neither should you pastor one.  Value your freedom, as the Apostle Paul valued his.  

Seek only what you need, and nothing more, the absurdly self-indulgent standards of our decadent, bloated bourgeois culture be damned.  For millennia, this was the metric of authentic and spiritually healthy Christian leadership.  "Blessed," our Master said, "are the poor in spirit."

That hasn't changed.

5) Preach the faith.

Your task is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  That's the whole and entire point of the pastoral vocation.  You're not an academic.  You are not an activist.  You are not a businessperson.  You're not an entertainer.   You're a pastor, and your duty is to proclaim the good news.

There's much to be said to engaging deeply in the study of scripture, tradition, and the faith.  I value my various and sundry degrees.  They've made me a better pastor.  But there's a shadow side to the academic mindset.  Academe is driven by faddishness and a hungry ethic of imposed newness.  You don't get tenure by teaching the foundations, eh?  It's also prone to the ethos of criticism and analysis, in which what matters isn't passing along a value set, but deconstructing that value set.   If you're at a critical remove from the faith, you're lecturing about it, not preaching it.

That's not to say that there isn't often a political component to the Gospel.  There is, but it never neatly lines up with your particular partisan predilections.  I mean, sure, there's a deep social justice element to Christian faith.  But the entire narrative of scripture also contains a fundamental distrust of the educated power elite, as the prophetic literature favors rural over urban.  It's neither bolshevik nor fascist.  It both does a new thing and holds on to the the good.  Preach it true, not as your circle of right or left wing fellow travelers would want to hear it.

That's not to say that you don't need to tend to the work of the church, and the use of congregational resources.  But it's never about profit and profit maximization.  It's not about organizational growth, and it sure as hell (again, said advisedly) isn't about guaranteeing that the pastor is living a life rich in material blessings.  The church is not a creature defined by the marketplace, no matter what AmeriChrist, Inc. might tell you.  Proclaim it.

And that we're not entertainers doesn't mean that preaching should be blindingly dull, or that our music should be a grim caterwauling, or that our buildings should be drab and brutalist.  Beauty, joy, and delight are a vital part of our calling to life together, and as we tell people about the Good News, it's fine for that news to sing in their ears.  Just so long as the song is intended to serve that purpose, rather than existing simply for itself.  Let that be clear in your public witnessing.

In your intention and in your practice, it's all about sharing the message of Jesus.

6) Teach the faith

There's a time when preaching isn't what you need to do.  There are times when it's the wrong tool.  In particular, it's counterproductive when you're presenting a challenging issue.  Getting up in a pulpit and tearing apart people's sense of themselves...their faith, their identity, the things they hold a great way to drive human beings away from the Gospel.  Delivering a monologue might feel "prophetic," but it sure ain't pastoral.

The challenge, of course, is that the Gospel is wildly provocative and unsettling.  It is an unsafe space for the partisan heart.  This is why going beyond sermons is important.  You've got to get into places where people can ask questions.  Where they can tell you where they're struggling.  Where they can push back against your interpretation, and know that you still love them.

Pastoring requires a willingness to be in conversation.  It requires listening to others as they respond, and sharing the stories of others, and letting them engage with one another and with you.  

That means genuinely listening, mind you.  Not "listening closely so you can prepare your calculated and devastating response."  Not "remembering all of what is said so you can complain to your true friends about it later."  But listening, and allowing yourself to hear the soul that is speaking.  The danger in that, of course, is that there's the real possibility that you might yourself be changed.  That your understanding of grace and the Gospel might shift as you encounter it expressed in loving disagreement.  

If you are progressive, you may find yourself seeing more value in the witness of the past.  If conservative, you might find yourself getting a little bit more open to new possibilities.  

Jesus is unsettling that way, but that's a good thing.  As you commit yourself to teaching that path, you'll be changed by it.

7) Live the faith

You can't preach or teach a thing you don't live out yourself.  The goal of every pastor is to be a disciple of Jesus.  If you don't feel that call above every other call in your life, you're missing something lifegiving.  You don't "differentiate" yourself from it.  It is the purpose around which your psyche integrates itself.  It defines you.  It sets the boundaries.  It establishes the goals.

Faith is what defines our understanding of all things.  Everything else is of less significance.  

Your faith is different from your calling to serve as a pastor.   This is important, because the call to be a pastor isn't a call for every season of your life.  There may come a time when you are no longer the right person to serve that role.

I understand that there may come a season where I am no longer a pastor, when I need to step back and just be a Christian. That's not for me to determine.  Should such a time come, I would welcome it.  What's the point of declaring to the world that being part of a community of Jesus followers is the Most Excellent Way, if you're not committed to walking that way yourself?  

Unless you're in charge, of course.  Again, back to point one.  

If "being a pastor" is the core of your faith, then encountering that season can be a shattering thing.  You can start faking faith.  You can start wearing your role like you're a cosplayer at JesusCon.  It's no longer really who you are, but you pretend it is.

Your inner life must also be defined by your faith in Jesus.  Not that you're perfect at it, a spiritual hero who is nothing but win.  When you start thinking that or presenting yourself that way, you've confused yourself with Jesus, and that's where things go badly wrong.  

But that the self you strive to become and your understanding of the good are grounded in the Gospel.  That's your plumb line.  That's your core metric.  That's your goal, the goal that defines all other goals.

And ultimately, it's why you stay.