Expectations: Theirs and Mine!

Expectations: Theirs and Mine! March 2, 2013

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?)

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

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  • Dianne P

    Oh man, this is going to sound harsh. Well, here I go.

    Appalled? Really? Methinks Pastor Gilbert needs a reality check. Or maybe a nice computer off in a cubicle somewhere. I’m a nurse, and I could pretty much say 99% of the same thing about my job (ok, no weddings – though once a bride in full long white gown was brought into the ER by ambulance..). I did deliver a baby onto the cold hard ground outside the hospital emergency bay on Christmas Eve. I won’t even begin to speak of the less happy moments. You’ve all seen enough on TV. And experienced your own, I’m sure.

    There were plenty of days… and long shifts into the night that just plain wore me out – emotionally and physically. But I never felt “appalled” by the demands of the job. Or anyone’s expectations. On the way to every shift, I prayed that I might be given the strength, patience and courage to minister to each and every person in love. To meet their expectations. And at the end of every shift, sometimes I felt so full of horror at the things I saw that I was too numb to cry. But I always thanked God for the opportunity to walk alongside someone in love.

    Ok, I will give you just one story. A father carried his 12 year old son into the ER while the fire trucks were going the opposite way to his house. The fire explosion was in the basement, where the father had told the son to go and throw some kerosene on the fire. The boy was pretty quiet as his mouth was too burned to form a sound. My job was to get an IV in asap. The only intact skin was the top of his foot. And of course, we needed the largest needle possible. With God’s help, while someone else was intubating him, I placed a large bore needle. Fluids and morphine poured in. After we stabilized him, he was choppered out to Medstar (DC) where he died weeks later.

    Expectations? Yeah, I guess. If that were your son, what would be your expectations of me? Would you care that I had a bad day, a fight with my husband, a flat tire, was up with a cranky 2 year old with an ear infection? No, I didn’t think so. And in the ER, you go on to the next patient, maybe someone who is very whiny about their sprained ankle and the long wait – in their eyes. And you tune into their pain and their frustration. I’ve been called a m-f (oh so many times, among other endearing terms), had a gurney flipped over and just missed me, ducked gunfire across the ER. And someone still has to make the coffee. And then go home to my own family. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

    I don’t in any way mean to depict the stress of my job (retired now) as something to complain about or brag about. There are oh so many people out there, in all kinds of jobs, civilian and military, who deal with all these horrors, and more. At least I was in an ER with all kinds of equipment and personnel. What of the soldiers in the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Iraq? I think of my 18 year old nephew headed into the Marines in a few months. Just a kid, no benefit of a graduate degree in theology.

    As they say in the monastery. What is it that you do all day? We fall down. We get up. Isn’t that what life is about? Mark Stevens, you’ve given some wonderful advice to anyone in a ministering role of any kind. Anything to add to your suggestions? Yes, remember humility, which I think Mother Teresa said is really just honesty. About who you are and whose you are. You do the best you can do, know what your gifts are and that they are from God, and pray. And fall down and get up.

  • Don

    I love the quote and, after 32 years of doing this, resonate with so much. That being said, I am right now on a 3 month sabbatical leave in another country reading, writing and not facebooking or staying in touch with my wonderful and healthy congregation. We can get away. We need to get away. Go!

  • Dianne,
    I hear what your saying – you have an incredibly demanding and stressful job, just as a pastor does, and probably in some ways more stressful and difficult. I think it is good for pastors to always remember that the people in the pews also have difficult jobs. That being said, the point of this post wasn’t so much to say that a pastor’s job is uniquely difficult, as it was to encourage pastors to not be a slave to unrealistic expectations. Sure, many people have very stressful jobs of all types, and often their lives are complicated further because they try to live up to the demands of so many people – their boss, spouse, children, extended family. As Christians, we are called to be servants to the world, even if it requires suffering on our part. But, anyone in any profession will burn out if they go non-stop. Even our Lord took time away from the demanding crowds to pray. As challenging as it may be, pastors should lead by example in this area, and should not be slaves to the idea that constant business is always better.

  • Dianne, thank you for being so honest. My father was a fireman so I am somewhat aware of the stress such professions are under and I in no way meant any disrespect. I don’t think being a pastor makes me, or anyone else, any better. However, I am a pastor so I write about my vocation and its unique challenges (unique to it).

    The quote speaks of the stress born out of people’s expectations of who we are and what we should be doing. The pastoral vocation is so poorly defined it is always open for interpretation. If I were a doctor people would not expect me to clean the toilets. Were i a chef people would not expect me to visit the sick. Unless we know who we are and what are meant to do then we end up feeling like the quote above.

    Interestingly as a pastor I have experienced some of what you have (being called a certain name relating to my mother etc) and anger relating to grief. That doesn’t phase me as much as unfair expectations of what i should be doing week in week out. But that might be me. 🙂

  • metanoia

    Appreciated both Mark Stevens and Dianne P. Sometimes life (no matter what the vocation) makes you feel like you are swinging on a pendulum of extremes. I like the monastery perspective. Life is our monastery, you fall down and you get up. There is grace in the falling and grace in getting back up.

  • Steve

    I think the paradigm itself is flawed.

  • Dianne P

    Oh Mark,
    I was afraid I might not have made myself clear. It was the quote that you opened with that was over the top, imho. I think your response was wonderful… for teachers, nurses, docs, firemen, police, soldiers, pastors, even blog writers, especially blog writers:) Anyone whose job puts them on the front lines of humanity.

    My point was not that nursing is such a tough job, though it is, but that many many people have very tough jobs. My point was that the Gilbert quote was more than a little self-pitying, that the word “appalling” was, well, appalling. And very sad. For him, and for his flock.

    Funny, in my job I never felt self-pity. Didn’t hear much from others, either. When my family came to the hospital cafeteria to have our (free) Christmas dinner together, I didn’t feel badly for myself. This was the life that I chose. I felt badly for those patients for whom I would be caring on Christmas. None of them volunteered to be sick, or in pain, or dying. I went home at the end of my shift… the patients did not.

    Let me reiterate my appreciation for all of your points. Each is helpful and essential.
    1. Having a good understanding of the job AND one’s gifts is essential. I understood that my gifts were optimal in dealing with whatever what was in front of me at the moment. Never worked a regular floor in a hospital… if I would have been given a medication cart and an 8 hour shift, I’m pretty sure I’d never make it to the end of the hall before the shift was over. Got my nursing degree at age 28 after volunteering in a variety of medical settings, including an ER.
    2. I’m retired from nursing for a living, and I now volunteer at a faith-based free clinic. We do 2 critical things. In the morning, we drop whatever we have already begun and gather together in a circle, visible to all the patients. and pray together. Opus Dei. Second, we stop work at lunchtime, gather together to eat, and pray again. The patients already there know that they have to wait and do so joyfully. Our fellowship and our prayer at lunchtime are what fuel us for the afternoon. Opus Dei again. Our own monastery.
    3. The clinic’s motto is “Healing through Love”. For me, life is always about relationships. Work IS prayer. Work IS love. If you can find 8 minutes in your busy day, watch the video here. http://www.amissionofmercy.org/arizona/ ‘Nuff said.
    4. The question here was of expectations. I put forth the idea that the expectation on ourselves, imo pride, is a more salient factor than the expectations of others. Pastor Gilbert has some overwhelming concepts of his own (expected) perfection. All I can say is that I would not like to have him as my Pastor. Resentment seethes through his one little paragraph. If I had a nurse come to work with those feelings, I’d pull her aside very quickly. Those feelings should not be inflicted on those who trustingly come to us for loving care.

    For those who wondered about my rant on the healthcare post, please watch the mission of mercy video to better understand my passion. My heart aches for this pastor who is in a helping profession and feels appalled, but the wisest thing that person can do, for all involved, is to get away, pray, and ponder. Either a new spirit or a new job is needed.

  • Thank you, Mark & Scot. I really appreciate this post. Mark, if there’s something I’d add to this list or tweak here, it would be that healthy pastors and chaplains need to understand healthy boundaries in order to be clear about which expectations are healthy, godly and reasonable of ourselves. (This develops that intersection you touched upon between expectations and boundaries.) When we understand, develop and maintain godly and healthy boundaries, our boundaries will offend people who don’t know why we’re failing their expectations. So, we need to be aware of that felt offense, and gently help them to understand themselves and why they expect something. We deal with a lot of folks who come from sin-sick backgrounds, families, brokenness and addictions. If we cannot clearly recognize when folks are encroaching unhealthily, we may not be able to help them discover Christ afresh, at that point. (Our careful questions may illuminate their own patterns to themselves.) We may be able to restore them gently to see different & righteous relational patterns. Otherwise, we may inadvertently turn them off. (I think you touched on this concern with your desire to please.)
    Some folks will be turned off by our boundaries, regardless of how gently and firmly we hold to them and explain them. However, many folks are hungry for God’s help through healthy people and systems to give them a stronger sense of identity, worth and stability as God’s beloved, than they have known, heretofore – which is what we would like our churches to model, in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit!

    Henry Cloud’s books and writings are especially helpful, and “Boundaries” which John Townsend and he co-wrote is excellent, imho.

  • Dan

    I can’t imagine existing in a church that has anywhere near the demands that Chandler W. Gilbert wrote about. I personally couldn’t survive feeling that pressure. I do think it is easier for church planters who created a culture that doesn’t have those expectations than to come into a church which may exist like Chandler Gilbert wrote about. I think the list of things he mentions is actually a part of the functioning of a local church community and needed to be covered. But to lay it on a single role to make them happen is obviously fairly crazy to try to do.

    There is tension out there, when you do have various definitions of what is a “pastor” in a a local church. Eugene Peterson and others write that pastors shouldn’t be visionary leaders but shepherds/pastors and get into the debate of what a “pastor” is or isn’t. I think some of the problem is when we envision the functioning role of what a pastor/elder did in a New Testament house church setting to contemporary larger churches. If a house church in the New Testament had 30-50 people and several elders/pastors than you may easily have a ration of 1:15 for care and pastoring. That is possible to do. But not when you get much larger than that as it becomes then impossible to truly “pastor” that many people alone. Therefore, we do need to multiply “pastors” in our churches to those who have pastoring gifts.

    In our church in attempting to solve that, we don’t even formally use the title “pastor” anymore. Pastoring for sure happens, but without setting expectations by a title. There is so much pastoring that happens from volunteer shepherd types in our church, who are really pastoring smaller groups and “shepherding” them as they know them vs. the “pastor” who happens to teach and be on the stage. We didn’t want to rob the title from other people who are pastoring. So we don’t formally use it and people easily know who is caring for them, who is teaching etc. in the various contexts in the church. Great discussion! This doesn’t mean “pastoring” doesn’t happen, but I believe it needs to be very much spread out and the expectations there aren’t on the one “pastor” at all.

    Thank you for raising up this topic and discussion!

  • kal

    Steve made a simple comment… “I think the paradigm itself is flawed” which i believe may be at the root of Mark’s post if I’m interpreting that statement correctly.
    From my experience in the ministry, I’ve found it’s all too easy to confuse busyness with ministry. We believe the busier we are, and the more we say “yes” too the more we must be doing a great work.
    This is more of a western addiction to busyness than it is anything spiritual.
    I don’t believe there’s any teachings in the scripture that commands we have to say yes to every request that comes along. In fact, i think it would be safe to say that Jesus most likely missed many opportunities to minister because He would retreat off by Himself because of His need to be recharged.
    As we see different jobs demand different amounts of commitment and sacrifice. I would hope we would always be willing to be honest with ourselves to see if we’re being drawn into helping others or drug into it.

  • wes

    Thank you, Mark (and Scot). The unwritten expectations on a Pastor and his family are much different than on most anyone else when it comes to vocation.

    Dianne, with all due respect, you both missed the point and made it all at the same time. You probably should have just stopped at “this is going to sound harsh” and just looked for a way to encourage your own Pastor.

  • Patrick O

    Expectations are brutal, there’s no doubt of that, but the ecclesiology that most churches operate under is itself bolstered by the very pastors who then feel overwhelmed by it. Is this what we should expect? Is this the way of the Spirit or is this a sign that something is wrong, even if our theology wants us to say that this is how it must be.

    I’m left thinking that either the Spirit is not doing the work we are told to expect of the Spirit or that our theology is not in line with what the Spirit wants of all of us.

    If only the Spirit gave gifts to more than one or a few people. Or rather, if only our ecclesiologies really put this into practice… then maybe expectations and experiences would find more balance and invigoration, rather than demands and exhaustion. But how does one make changes when expectations are so established? Who will save us from this body of death?

  • Many thanks for this refreshing reminder… a good way to begin a new week of pastoring.

  • Thanks everyone for the comments and feedback

    @ Steve, in what way?I too think the paradigm is flawed which is why O offered a way forward (Prayer, Scripture and relationship) but I am wondering if there is more to your comment?

    @ Dianne – No worries, I felt you were making a distinction. 🙂

    @Dan, Something you wrote triggered a thought. There is a difference between pastoral care and being a pastor. As a pastor I provide pastoral care but I am not the only only one. We have a team of people and elders that do this alongside me. But the role of those who lead the church are described in the NT at least as shepherds (pastors). So the name can be done away with however, it seems that shepherd is still the best biblical definition we have. The question I have is what happens for the person who takes over from you? Will the expectations increase on them because they’re not you? Just wondering. (I’m not making a point with the question it is an honest one).