Monday, January 16, 2017

Insurgent Advice for Pastors (Parishioners Welcome to Listen In)

            We all know that ministers are supposed to be great preachers, Bible scholars, and culture critics. They should have a rich interior life, great emotional intelligence, and manage time effectively. And so on.

            But there’s more. Stuff they don’t necessarily talk much about in seminary. So, what follows is my insurgent advice for young pastors. Take it with a grain of salt, since my experience may not be universally applicable. Still, this is the sort of stuff I would talk about if I were invited to a seminary ministry class. And, from another angle, it is the sort of insight that parishioners can use to support and encourage their pastor.

            One: Friends. For reasons I’ve never fully grasped, I find that ministers rarely make good friends with other ministers in their community. Partly, this is my fault. If making new friends isn’t my priority, it won’t happen. If I won’t brave time in traffic to get to the coffee shop, it won’t happen. If I don’t pick up the phone and ask about stopping by, I won’t. And if my internal theological or professional “weigh and evaluate,” apparatus is too finely tuned, I’ll be too judgmental.
            Still, even when I try to overcome these personal challenges and I do meet other ministers I rarely find my interest reciprocated. Maybe I’m just hard to like, but, from my conversations with fellow ministers I know in other contexts, I sense this reticence to connect is widespread. I think part of it is rooted in the temptation we all have to brag about how things are going rather than get real—and bragging is irritating.
            Ultimately, however, no man or woman is an island. We all need friends. So, if it isn’t going to be other ministers, it still needs to be someone else. Find friends! They are one of life’s greatest pleasures.

What does it take?
            Two: Loose ends. They are both unavoidable and precious. Unavoidable because you may have as many as two or three hundred “bosses” in your congregation, parishioners who feel strongly about “their” church and how it is going. They see you as many things—but also as their employee. So, that comes with lots of expectations. Your email box will fill up with their advice, queries, and complaints. They will corner you in the hallway to fret and direct and complain about everything from youth ministry to janitors to music selection. It adds up to a lot of emails that need to be answered, promises that need to be kept, serious concerns that must be addressed, and phone calls to make. Loose ends. Tough stuff.
            But loose ends are precious too, because each one—every email waiting for an answer, every expectation laid upon you in person, every appointment you need to make or keep—every loose end is a great opportunity. When you tie up loose ends you connect, you show yourself to be a caring minister, and you create trust. Tying up loose ends makes you real to other people, helps you laugh or weep with them, embrace or nudge. Loose ends are precious because they are a raw material ministry provides for connecting you more deeply with parishioners.
            So, tabulate those loose ends. Keep “to do,” lists. Answer every email religiously (spiritually?). Stay organized. Connect.

            Three: Anxiety is a fact of life in ministry. I used to handle anxiety easily, but it gets tougher and tougher as I get older—a pattern I’m seeing over and over among colleagues.  I’m not sure why. For me, it’s partly my nature. It is that unending sense that there is always more I could do (see two, above and four, below). And I’m anxious because of the ever-increasing complexity of the job itself. To make matters worse, fewer and fewer people are going to church. Success in growing churches is rare. But expectations for ministers remain high.
            What can I say? Most interesting jobs are more complex than they used to be. Most interesting jobs are never done.
            The thing is, all of us need to take anxiety seriously. Don’t drink too much. Don’t take it out on others. Face anxiety straight up without blaming others. Get counselling if your anxiety is extreme. Practice prayer or mindfulness meditation or a hobby or sports or long walks or best of all, all of these things, because they do give relief. Confide in your partner or a friend who will listen. Read up on anxiety. Get to know all about your enemy. Tackle it. If you don’t, your anxiety will stop being a helpful goad encouraging you to do what really matters, and will start being a corrosive force that saps your life of pleasure.

            Four: Relax. Even though the Bible loudly promotes the idea of Sabbath, too many ministers find it really hard to take time off. There are those loose ends I mentioned in two, above. And anxiety can sometimes fuel increasingly less productive attempts to get on top of things—attempts that take more and more time and that become a vicious cycle. What happens, eventually, if you don’t take enough time for yourself, is that you start spinning your wheels. Your time at work becomes less productive. You play Solitaire to avoid difficult tasks. Resentment about being busy builds. Things slide.
            So, take time off: every day, every week, and every year. Walk the dog. Pick up a novel. Visit friends. Play a game of Scrabble. It takes discipline and self-understanding to get the balance right and to stay organized enough to leave time for yourself. If you don’t try, however, you are not going to make it as a minister, because you will burn out—and probably with lots of unfair resentment to spare.

            Five: Flexibility. Ministry isn’t unique. Lots of jobs come with huge responsibilities, stress, potential conflict, anxiety, and high expectations. But ministry is very special too. We usually have a great deal of flexibility in how we structure our days and lives. We’re not expected to clock in or out. We can arrange, on almost any day, to either golf with a friend or be home when the kids return from school. We need to recognize that flexibility, exploit and enjoy it. It is one of the things I most love about my job.
            So, don’t complain about the unreal expectations placed on us ministers unless you also own up to some of our great benefits. And perhaps most important, be disciplined about both taking advantage of your flexibility, and about not using it to waste your time.

            Six: Don’t show contempteven in private. If there is one quality in a minister that, from my perspective and experience at least, suggests failure, it is a penchant for complaining about your parishioners or refusing to hold them in high regard or even attacking them publically from the pulpit.
            People catch on when you don’t hold them in high esteem. You can’t hide contempt for long. People have a sixth sense for it, even if you think you’re putting on a great show. Don’t be condescending. Don’t mock in private. Don’t disparage parishioners to staff or other parishioners. This is just really, really dumb. Not only is showing contempt hypocritical, given scripture’s own values, you will eventually pay for your contempt with your own happiness and probably even your career.  

            Seven. Congratulate. This is a corollary to “don’t show contempt.” Churches thrive on success, gratitude, and volunteerism. So, congratulate members or committees or leaders whenever there is a reason to do so, even if the reason is weak! A steady stream of congratulations from the minister sets the mood for all congregational interaction. Congratulations create positive vibes. Saying “thanks,” makes people happy and encourages them to volunteer again. Every church needs to be a place where people are happy to leave with a job to do, and the expectation that they will be thanked helps make it so.

            Eight: Moving on. Leaving your current charge can relieve some stresses. You get out from under a lot of loose ends. You don’t have to repair those difficult relations that mark every ministry stop. You can skimp on sermon preparation by starting out with oldies but goodies in your barrel.
            But moving also creates great stress—just check out one of those web pages that lists the most stressful activities people regularly engage in. Moving is right up there with things like death in the family and marital breakdown. What’s more, many ministerial moves are to distant cities where you may not have friends or family and the support they offer.
            Moving is hard on kids too—though you never really know how hard till they tell you about it twenty years later. And ultimately, honeymoons in new churches only last a few months, and then it will be back to all the usual challenges, stresses, and strains. So, before you move, think twice—because moves are about you and your family’s long-term health as much as they are about the congregation’s.

            Nine: Exegesis. Exegeting a difficult text to within an inch of its life, as if this is what matters most about preaching, is just wrong. It isn’t the sitz in leben or unique use of the aorist that matters most about texts, at least week in and out. No. What congregations really need to hear about are the big themes of scripture, the core story, and how that stuff still makes a difference today. Instead of focusing on exegeting difficult texts, ministers would be way further ahead by paying attention to the art of actually getting people people hear the old, old story with new ears and interest. Spend your time on that.

            Ten: God’s gift to ministry. It isn’t me and it isn’t you. We all have weaknesses that, even if we recognize them and work hard on them, we are never going to totally overcome. We cannot be equally skilled at every aspect of our jobs. People will recognize our weaknesses even when we don’t, and they will likely grumble and complain too. If we expect or need 100% positive feedback about everything we do, we will all be unhappy campers.
           So, I try to keep two things in mind. First, I never stop trying to do better, because I have not yet arrived and with time I could do better. But second, along the way, I’ve tried to admit my weaknesses and ask for help—either for training to overcome my weaknesses or for other people to step in and do what I find most difficult. The alternative is us to live in a make-belief world with make-belief accomplishments.


  1. Well said, and very helpful. Thanks, John.

  2. Thanks, John. I appreciate what you've written. I'll add my amen to it all that and to number 1 that I've very much been enriched by friends, a few within congregations I've served but mostly with those colleagues of other traditions.


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