I wrote this quite a long time ago and filed it for another day.   I’m posting now, long after the incidents surrounding these feelings, because I think that the thoughts I had then are still relevant, even if I do not feel them in quite the same way now.

 

I, like many people in the church, have been on the receiving end of criticism, rumor, power games, and unkindness at the hands of people in the church.  Misunderstandings can transform into powerful gossip, hurt feelings, and cruelty.  Assumptions can lead to unimaginable pain.

The church, at times, is an awful place to be. 

I love the church.  I believe that God uses the church in significant, powerful ways.  I also believe that the church can easily lend itself to the powers of hell and become a force of death and destruction.  And I struggle to reconcile all of those things.

I sometimes wonder why Jesus felt it appropriate to leave his message and mission in the hands of very broken people.  He certainly knows better than I do, but if I had to choose a body of people to whom I would leave the message of the hope of the world… it wouldn’t be the church.

The church, as individuals in relationship with one another, often loves well and cares well.  The church, as individuals connected by a governing institution, frequently fails in many areas.

I often wonder why people develop such powerful feelings about the church as an institution.  I sincerely can’t fathom it, and I suspect that has more to do with my own place in the church than anything else.  To me, as a pastor, the institution is merely a means of shaping a people.  We do that through opportunities to encounter God in worship, through discipleship, and (the dreaded word:) programs, but we also do that through opportunities to serve, through casting vision, through mission statements and having an organized internal structure. 

To others, it is family, history, attachment to a place of spiritual growth, long-time relationships, etc.  I don’t have those things in the church.  My family goes with me, and if it is time to pastor another congregation, while I certainly mourn the loss of relationships, those relationship have been framed in terms of the time we’re together without the assumption of permanence. 

I frankly don’t like that. 

I sincerely hope to remain in my current place of ministry until I retire.  I am working to put down roots that will create opportunities for longevity.  I am eager to find a place of long-term belonging, and the kind of congregational shaping I am hoping to do is a very long process.

I did not come to this church with the expectation that I would move on in 3-5 years.  But at the same time, I was at my previous church for only 3 years, and fully expected to be there until I retired.

I am in a perpetual state of being untethered.  I hope and pray to remain, and understand that remaining is not entirely within my control.

In addition to God’s own instruction, which is what brought me to from the previous church to this one, there is, of course, the very real truth that Nazarene pastors operate on an initial two year contract, which is then extended to four years, and at the end of those contracts, the church board decides whether to retain or release the pastor. 

Naturally, trouble emerges at the two year and six year mark.

But even beyond that, there is the ongoing question of whether the church will have the capacity to love me and my family well.

There’s an extreme vulnerability in putting ourselves before a people, exposing our souls as we love people, emptying our hearts before them, entering into relationship with them despite the personal dangers, and committing to their spiritual care.  Namely, when disagreement (however small), misunderstanding or rumor enter the picture, those with whom you have become vulnerable know the exact locations of your wounds and are not afraid to poke them.  (I think of Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” the gruesome picture of Thomas placing his finger in Jesus’ wounds after the resurrection.  The difference, of course, is that my open wounds do not belong to a resurrected body, and poking them hurts!). 

Most of all, though, I think about my own kids.  I have told Carmen that I don’t know how children of pastors can grow up to love the church the same way their parents do.  Seeing the pain pastors go home with, how could they?  Given the designated time-off that we are supposed set aside for family time, only to be disrupted the day before with something that we cannot help but carry with us into the next day, what would make a child love the church?

The truth is, I’m terrified that my children will have nothing that tethers them to the church in the same way I do.  I am tethered by employment.  When things are at their absolute worst, I still have to show up on Sunday to deliver a sermon.  I won’t confess to you, reader, what would happen if I was not so obligated, but I don’t suspect it is hard to discern, given what I have said so far.

And if I am having those feelings, my children most definitely will, too.

There have been days when I have begged Jesus to deliver me from Ministry.  There are other days when I praise him that there’s nothing else I am capable of doing; I have no other marketable talents, because if I did, I know that I would not have endured in the church.

And I have often confessed to Carmen:  I will be overjoyed and proud if any of my kids enter ministry, but I will be deeply relieved if they don’t.  I know what it means to pastor a church.  I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

My favorite responsibility in the church has been participating in the Board of Ministry.  I am not currently a member, but was when I lived in Michigan.  The opportunity to encourage and lift up young women and men who are recognizing a call to ministry and pursuing it is deeply fulfilling.

And yet, sometimes I want to warn them, as I was warned, that if there is anything else in the world that you can do and be satisfied, go and do it, and don’t look back.

The truth is – I do love the church.  I love the people of the church.  I love being a pastor.  It is deeply fulfilling and I would not trade it for anything… most days.

But I also know deep pain at the hands of the church, and there are some days when it takes everything I have not to live out of my woundedness.

There have been seasons of ministry in which I have opened up the classified ads and looked for any other employment.  Anything at all, just to be released from the pain.

Praise God, he has never supplied that “out” that I have, at times, quite genuinely desired.  Because I love the church.

Healing is a long, slow process.  It is made longer when the wounds are continuously re-opened by others.  But pastors never die by stab wounds.  We die by a million paper cuts.  I have currently lost count of the number I have endured – but it has to be getting close to that one-million mark by now.  I expect that bleeding out is inevitable.  And as I bleed out, I suspect that I will continue re-assuring myself, “I love the church.”

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