Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Ups And Downs of Pastoring

I try to resist as much as possible the efforts that some people make to put me on a pedestal, or elevate me to a different category of human being, by virtue of being a pastor. For instance, I've been told that people really need to come to our church in order to hear me preach, and what I've said back is, "No, people need to come to our church and have their lives changed by starting a relationship with Jesus." Because our church is not about me; it's not a showcase to display my gifts, or a forum where I tout my personal views, or a fiefdom upon which I enforce my will.

One of the things I've learned in life is that people--all people--are just people. Famous people, poor people, educated people, homeless people, rich people, powerless people, black people, Asian people, incarcerated people, and anonymous people are all just people. Authors, athletes, royalty, gang members, bad drivers, and even pastors--we're all just people.

So I try to convey through words and actions as often as possible, that I'm just a regular person. Even though I'm a pastor, I'm just a person.

Having said that, I also believe that pastoring a congregation is probably unlike any other experience in the world. Oh, it's similar to being a coach, a teacher, a parent, a counselor, a business owner, an umpire, a shepherd, and probably other stuff too. But it's also dissimilar to all these things in important ways. Many pastors will attest to the fact that a life devoted to leading God's people is met with very high highs and very low lows.

Sometimes, in presenting myself, in talking about my life, I'm torn between these two equally true notions:

  • I am, at my foundation, like every other person with the same needs and the same joys as anyone else.
  • I work in a vocation that brings a completely unique set of demands and challenges, and which no one can fully appreciate unless they have personal experience.
This morning, during our worship service, I conveyed some of the discouragement that I had felt during the previous week, but also how God had used some key people at key points to help me realize that my feelings were not well-founded and to put me back on the right track. I debated about whether to share this example. On the one hand, it was an opportunity to show how I am imperfect, just like everyone else, and how I need to rely on God's guidance and grace. On the other hand, I was worried that my story might be misunderstood and misconstrued to be an indicator of fatigue or burnout.

Indeed, I had three different conversations with individuals who were concerned about whether I was growing weary in the demands of pastoring. Every single one of them were well-meaning, full of love and grace, supportive, and encouraging. And I appreciate the affirmations that each of them gave to me.

But I want to be clear: I am further now from giving up than I have ever been.

Part of my discouragement was due simply to the physical exhaustion of holidays and cross-country travel. But most of it was due to wrong thinking on my part (which God has revealed to me)--and that's what I was trying to convey. When we are a community on-mission, personal popularity doesn't matter. I need to make certain that I care more about the mission than I do about whether someone is on-board with me or not. My story was a perfect opportunity to illustrate that point in a personal way... and to put the lie to the idea that I never struggle, or don't have problems, or don't fail.

I think we're so used to pastors being either "perfect" (at least, in our perception) or failing in big, massive, embarrassing ways. The reality is that most of us live in the middle--we're just people, people with jobs that are nearly impossible to describe. But I do think some of the things in the Bible help us realize what pastoring is like:
  • But thanks be to God, who ... through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? (2 Cor. 2:14-16)
  • I have been in danger... from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; ... Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (2 Cor. 11:26-29)
  • Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:17)
  • Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, beacuse you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (Jas. 3:1)

I believe this is why the Bible says, "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching" (1 Tim. 5:17).

Pastoring is a heavy thing, but it is also a joyous thing. It is a wonderful thing, and a mysterious thing. Above all, I know that it is what God desires for my life, and because of the fire that he has lit inside me, I can do nothing else. It is such an honor to serve him in this way, and it is one I don't take lightly or casually. I am especially grateful for all of you who pray for me regularly. I believe God honors those prayers, and they keep me aligned with him--the exact place I always want to be, no matter what I might be facing next.

No comments: