Pastoral culture

I suppose it is a fairly well known situation that, most of the time, pastors get some stick. There is a certain scrutiny we seem to constantly be under. Every word, sentence, action – people often feel very free to pick you up on every point. In fact, sometimes it comes down to views on the choice to have one’s hair longer or shorter, on whether to be clean shaven or in possession of a beard…I even remember someone once commenting on the particular lines of a certain shirt. [All this is a particular hazard for a short-haired, bearded check-shirt-wearing pastor!]

These are the small things, but there are other things: a questioning of your integrity; an undermining of a decision; a slight on one’s family. Hear me say that I’m not suggesting people who exercise pastoral ministry are perfect. We are, however, mainly doing what we can under grace.

I look back over 18 years in ministry and note the various ways in which I’ve responded to this. You may recognise some of these responses in your own life.

1. Denial. That is, in the face of constant barrage, bury one’s head in the sand. This is unfortunate because a) you may miss on some helpful correction in the midst and, b) not respond to or challenge difficult behaviour in yourself and others.

2. Take it all in. That is, believe every word. Soon you will feel like the scrapings off one’s shoe and this is ultimately destructive.

3. Become continually defensive. That is, to continually engage to self-protect in each and every scenario (or fight) you’re invited to. Who has time for that? Who has energy for that? And what kind of ego constantly puts us up to that?

4. Despair. Does this one need explaining? It involves breakdown and adds to the shockingly high level of people who fall out of ministry either by choice or by desperate misdemeanour. Put simply: can’t. take. any. more. I’ve seen this many times in the lives of good pastor friends and, in part, in my own experience. I guess most pastors, on a reasonably regular basis, consider packing it all in.

I can’t speak for all pastors, but most of us are passionately involved with every ounce of our energy in ministry. We’re all in. We’re pastoring dying people one minute, talking building projects or some such thing the next, or getting an earful the next.

I’ll tell you – when someone takes the time to say, ‘thank you’, ‘we appreciate you’, or ‘you made a difference’ it is like soothing balm – you store it because you need it.

I’ve not got it fully sorted, but over the years I’ve tried to determine my response to this in a number of ways.

1. Demythologise the pastor. We are not a god, not God, and nor do we have a direct line that is not available to anyone else. 100% human and totally not good at all the things there are to be good at. The flip side of this is that people need to realise they speak to a person and not an ‘office’. Just because you say the line ‘it’s not personal’ it doesn’t negate the fact that persons are always involved! I also invite pastors down from their thrones and pedestals, and never climb them again, and to live as themselves and not out of a title.

2. Reflect biblically. Leadership in the New Testament is a team sport. The modern pastoral office has attracted to itself an over-importance beyond its helpful function. I’ve written many times about this. Whole body ministry; priesthood of all believers; leadership by partnership with humility.

3. Live wholeheartedly. This is my main strategy: to seek to live in the opposite spirit of what comes towards me. I ask daily that God would allow grace, peace, hope, and understanding to overflow. I ask that I will be able to maintain an open vulnerability. That is, to speak from the heart about the impact of people’s words, and not to internalise things which I know to be ultimately untrue or unhelpful. I also ask for the necessary strength and determination to move forward inspite of what comes, however it is motivated. Hard decisions need to be taken and carried through at times.

I fail at most this on many occasions, but it is, nevertheless, what I understand to be a reflection of Jesus and how he would have me be. I’m not saying that I or other pastors are never on the other end of the stick as dealers of ‘ungrace’, God help us.

We need to be able to work and commit ourselves to ways of deep reflection, listening and determined change towards what we consider to be appropriate grace-full communication and action. We need to continue to open ourselves to the risk of being open-hearted and be realistic about our limitations. We need to be responsive to one another in love, honour and mutuality, with keen self-awareness and an honest appraisal of our own shortcomings.

I write this not because of any present experience, but through general observation and reflection over the years. However, I share this that we all might be a part of culture change for the better in the lives of our churches. How about it?

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