The dangerous work of ministry

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The way I was going about doing the work of God was destroying the work of God in me.  -Anonymous Pastor

I love pastors. Really. Yes, I know that in our current moment it is more hip to be cynical of religious institutions and to reject the notion of religious authority. I get it. And I admit that there have been people and events and trends that perhaps give some justification to this cynicism. At the same time, I know too many pastors.

Many people only know a succession of ministers who serve their church as pastors over the years–they come and then they go. Some linger longer than others, but eventually they move on. There’s a tradition in presbyterian pastoral ministry of virtually renouncing all contact with members of a prior congregation once a pastor leaves. In some ways it makes sense, but it also means that few parishioners retain any contact with ministers who aren’t their pastor.

It’s easy to misunderstand people we don’t really know and whose lives we really don’t get. Of course, it gets complicated when we’re talking about pastors–especially, your pastor. It would be weird to ask her, “So…what’s it really like serving us?”

What seems a weird question for an individual to pose is actually a very appropriate question for a session and personnel committee to ask. Here’s the bottom line: the work of ministry is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it is so easy to use “god” to run from God. We can easily employ busyness in god-work and god-talk as a substitute for an on-going transformative relationship with God in Christ.

Ministers need the support of their congregations to really flourish in their work, and the session has to be an ally and advocate in creating a culture of appropriate clergy care.

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Ironically, churches sometimes believe that they’ll “get more for their money” if they drive their pastors harder. Preach more sundays. Do more visits. Be available in the office during business hours. Attend meetings on week nights, do funerals and weddings on saturday, and get to the church building at 6am Sunday morning to lead an exciting and life-changing encounter with the living God at 8:30 and 11:00.

None of these is a bad thing. In fact, one or two weeks as above is probably okay. What’s not okay, however, is expecting the above schedule to be the normal routine. It’s not healthy. It’s not sustainable. In the end, both the church and the pastor will pay a steep price.

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