This post is by Mark Stevens, a pastor-friend in Australia, and I suspect we can all benefit from this gentle reminder.
“I am appalled at what is required of me. I am supposed to move from sickbed to administrative meeting, to planning, to supervising, to counselling, to praying, to trouble- shooting, to budgeting, to audio systems, to mediation, to worship preparation, to newsletter, to staff problems, to mission projects, to conflict management, to community leadership, to study, to funerals, to weddings, to preaching. I am supposed to be ‘in charge,’ but not too in charge, administrative executive, sensitive pastor, skilful counsellor, public speaker, spiritual guide, politically savvy, intellectually sophisticated. And I am expected to be superior, or at least first-rate, in all of them. I am not supposed to be depressed, discouraged, cynical, angry, hurt. I am supposed to be upbeat, positive, strong, willing, available. Right now I am not filling any of those expectations very well. And I am tired.”
(Chandler W. Gilbert, “On Living the Leaving” in Edward A. White (ed.) Saying Goodbye, Bethesda, Alban, 1990, p.25)
A friend sent me this quote a few days ago and when I read it and thought, “Boy, do I know that feeling!” The quote has haunted me since I read it so I thought I would take some time to write it out. What I’ve come up with sounds a little 3-step but I am trying to think through how pastors can avoid the last line, “Right now I am not filling any of those expectations very well. And I am tired.” Anyone who has been in ministry long enough will know the feelings described in the paragraph above. Even the most seasoned pastor falls prey to such temptation and distraction.
On the weekend I was at a party and someone asked me what the hardest thing about being a pastor was. Without hesitation I replied, “Expectations: Theirs and mine”. If I am honest I think our expectations do more damage to our soul than a hundred from our church members. Therefore maybe it is good to reflect on and remind ourselves what really matters.
Over these past few years I have learned to say no. No to this and no to that. “You want me to come to that meeting? Sorry, no!” I thought I was doing really well until I realised the difference between saying no to someone and something they would like me to do is different to saying no to their expectations. Am I the only one who feels that tension?
In my mid-twenties I crashed and burned pretty hard. Since that time I have established boundaries to protect myself from myself and my need to appear busy. What I have come to realise however, is that saying no can be just as stressful as saying yes to everything! When I hear the disappointment of an unmet expectation in the voice of the person whom I have let down it takes emotional energy to overcome that person’s disappointment in me.
Learning to know what matters and what doesn’t is vital to going the distance in ministry. I once asked a football coach how he handled the constant scrutiny about his job and win/loss record. He replied with a quote from Bill Cosby, “I don’t know what the key to success is but I know the key to failure is trying to please everybody”. Experience tells me that most people respect my no. Maybe not at first but when explained they get it. However, the failure to meet their expectation of me creates in me a failure of my own expectations. In light of this what is required is resilience. Resilience is different from indifference (which is really just a defence mechanism). Resilience is an inner strength. It is an Ephesian 3:16 kind of strength. “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,” It is a strength that comes from knowing him and knowing who we are in Christ.
What I would like to offer now are a few steps that I think we as pastors can take to strengthen ourselves in Christ. I may be just speaking to myself and this is by no means a comprehensive list (Can you think of any others?)
- I think we need to work on our definition of what the pastoral vocation looks like or should look like. I’m not advocating a cookie cutter approach but a sense of what undergirds the pastoral vocation. What defines our identity and our integrity. For too long outwards aspects of our vocation have defined who we are. There are so many expectations out there (as listed above) that it can be hard. Some of us are shepherds, some are visionary leaders and others are evangelists. Why do we all need to be the same? We don’t but what we do need to stop is the expectation that the pastor can be all things to all people, all ministries in the church and to the community. You know what, if you are a member of a church, go easy on your pastor. He or she is doing their best. Just because they don’t meet your expectation doesn’t mean they aren’t meeting God’s!
- Attention to God in prayer and through the reading of the Word must be primary (in my mind this is the foundation I was speaking of). When was the last time someone expected you to pray? Many people expect us to be this or that or at this meeting. But when was the last time someone asked if you prayed or read the Bible? So, when was it? Truth is, people probably won’t expect this which makes it the harder to do it.
- Relationships matter more than almost anything else. We are called to love and serve our spouse and children before anything else (this doesn’t just apply to pastor’s either). Sometimes we need to say no to someone and their expectations of us so that we might say yes to our vocation as a father or husband (wife). I have found reminding myself that God is in control and therefore I don’t need to rescue everyone or fix everything has seen helpful. Not easy, but helpful.
- Finally, go easy on yourself! I’m not going to lie; this is much easier to type than live! Sometimes the biggest challenge isn’t other people’s expectations of us, but our own expectations of ourselves. I recently asked an elder what I could do to be a better pastor. His response astounded me; he told me to go easier on myself. He recognised in me a tendency to expect too much of myself. Especially as it relates to pleasing people. The great sin here is that all too often my expectations have more to do with my ego than the Kingdom of God.
I’ve decided that for me pastoral leadership means being a person who prays, studies the scripture and relates and cares for people. In a world increasingly hurried and busy being a pastor who stops and spends long and loving periods of time in prayer, the Bible or with people is a great act of leadership. I wonder if we’ve confused leadership with management and administration (getting things done or looking busy)?
In a sound-bite, tweet addicted world taking time to read and pray through the Bible is rare. I remember reading somewhere that a pastor is better off asking themselves, “How many people have I listened to in Christ this week?” As opposed to “How many people have I talked to about Christ this week?” It is a subtle difference but an important one for any pastor.
My list is nowhere near closed and what each of us needs to hear or work through will be different. But I sure do know a lot of tired pastors who, like me, live on coffee!
I wonder what you might add to the list?