Monday, January 12, 2015

When Ministers Age

Yesterday, with my wife Irene listening, I said to an old friend in ministry something like: “I don’t have the energy that I used to. I can’t work ten- and twelve-hour days anymore.”

“Whoa, did you hear what you said?” Irene asked, afterwards. “Is that really true?”

It is true. The realization that I’m slowing down has been rattling around in the back of my consciousness for some time now. But I’ve resisted putting that feeling on the table to examine more closely. This sense I’m slowing down is humbling, a bit scary, and the occasion for more than a little insecurity on my part about what it takes to be a pastor these days.

After all, the church is in crisis, right? We need better, sharper pastors than ever. Better communicators, more hip, multi-taskers, people who can run with the younger crowd that doesn’t want to come to church to hear some old-geezer who (from their perspective) can’t possibly know what life is like for Millennials or Gen Xers like them. How is an old guy—I’m 58—going to find the energy to run with this younger crowd?

Sometimes I wonder. A bit of background is probably in order. I have never been the sort of pastor to work too hard. I’ve never put in those fifty- or sixty-hour weeks that I keep hearing other pastors talk about. I tend to think lots of pastors either exaggerate about how much they work, or waste too much time and call that work.

I’ve always been good at setting reasonable boundaries and explaining them to parishioners. For example, when I had little kids, in the days before email, I asked people not to phone me between 3:30 (when they got home from school) and 8:00 pm (when they were in bed). I explained why, and said that emergencies were excepted. Parishioners were always very good about respecting those boundaries and the other ones I set as time and circumstances changed.

I also understood, from the beginning, that I wasn’t and will never be a high-energy person. But still, I always got my sermons written by Friday afternoon, my pastoral visits done, and found plenty of time for reading and for doing my hobbies—some of which, like genealogy, can be time-consuming. Organization helped. Being focussed on the clock helps. Not having a TV helps. Not being one for shopping or going to movies helps.

But lately, sometimes I feel as if the energy I’ve been able to focus on my work—which was always more than enough—is sagging. In truth, this realization has been creeping up on me for a few years now. Where I used to go to two and often three meetings a week after the kids were in bed, now one is about all I really want to get out for, if I can manage it. Where once I used to be able to spend hours in the evenings reading, now I tend to have a hard time concentrating after ten pm. Where once I had the get-up-and-go to start new Bible Studies and Second Services and be a member of a small group and serve on Presbytery-level committees and write book reviews, now I’d rather sit at home and read a book for a the few hours I can before I fall asleep.

What really surprised me when my wife asked me about my energy level, upon reflection, is that the friend I had been talking on the phone to mirrored my comments. He too struggled with how much he had to give to his church now, compared to thirty years ago. And if I think about it, I’ve heard plenty of ministers in private settings with other ministers who, approaching 60 or 65, have confessed that they’re either just putting in time or struggling to finish well. They are tired.

Does this mean I’m a bad pastor?

No, I don’t think so. I think that I’m more skilled, steadier, more emotionally in tune with my parishioners than I was at thirty, half a lifetime ago. I think my preaching has evolved and improved a lot. I think I work a lot smarter than I used to. I don’t major in minors nearly as much. I can remember, in one church I served, going to the mat to get them to switch from individual cups to a large cup for dipping. In another church I spent months educating and promoting and begging the council to use a certain Eucharistic liturgy that I loved. In both cases I didn’t understand about how there is a right time for everything, including change. I’ve grown up, and in many ways my church is getting more bang for its bucks now than ever, I think.

Still, I am running the last lap of my mile in ministry. Even if I finish the race well, as I certainly plan on, this last lap is going to be a bit slower than the first three. And I wonder what that means, exactly, for the church I’m serving.

Will I have the energy to manage major change, if that is necessary? Do parishioners sometimes wonder why I’m not busier? Am I rationalizing with myself when I think I’m better than I used to be—at least better when it comes to time management and quality of work?

My current congregation isn’t unreasonable in their demands. They are a very supportive bunch. No one is complaining. I like what I’m doing immensely, and don’t feel as if I’m putting in my time, at all. But this is a topic—how one’s energy for the work fluctuates with the seasons of life—a topic that I have not heard many ministers talk about publically, as opposed to privately.

Do we short-change our churches in this go-go culture as we age? Are we fooling our congregations sometimes, just to make it through? Or are older, somewhat wiser (we hope) though somewhat weary (probably) pastors sort of like used-cars? If you can take a few dents and higher mileage, they represent a better deal? Even though no one really wants a used car? What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. John, I appreciate your thoughtful posts. Keep them coming. Another matter: I have a question that you might have some thoughts on that doesn't relate to anything you've mentioned on your blog. Could you please respond to me at tuckerworst [at] comcast [dot] net and I'll get back to you. Thanks. Ruth


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