I can’t say that I wasn’t warned. It shouldn’t surprise me that my job is starting to feel like an impossible job. I grew up with parents who were champion church complainers. There was hardly anything that the minister did or tried to do that they didn’t complain about. When a new minister came along just after I went to college, there was even more complaining—from them and from their friends. They were especially suspicious about anything the minister did that seemed to focus on newcomers and on what the “old guard” thought might be an attempt to gather up a “new guard,” so that in disputes the minister would be able to get “his way.”
I can’t say that I wasn’t warned. I shouldn’t be surprised when my job starts to feel like the impossible job. As I get older, however, I’ve discovered that I have less patience—especially for those aspects of my job that feel impossible, but shouldn’t be. There are aspects of my job that I expect to be difficult, even extremely difficult. But, there are other aspects of my job that are difficult, but really shouldn’t be—like when one person doesn’t like something and finds one other person who agrees with him/her, and then immediately the two of them make the leap to believing that they speak for a great many people. Even when there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.
In one of my former churches, much earlier in my career, I managed to help the church wade through an especially nasty conflict. It took months and months, and in the end, came to a reasonable resolution. Though it may not have actually been completely true, I remember being much more patient with the process of moving through that conflict. Although many aspects of the conflict made me angry and frustrated, I don’t remember ever “losing my cool,” or letting the unpleasantness get under my skin.
In recent months, I’ve felt much closer, on several occasions, to “losing my cool.” I feel much less patient with the impossible aspects of my job as a parish pastor, especially those things that shouldn’t be so difficult.
I am audience to a dizzying array of perspectives, opinions, life experiences, hopes, dreams and aspirations—and some of the ideas in this array are in direct conflict with each other. Yet, there seems to be, among a vocal few, little respect for the validity of differing viewpoints. A few parishioners want and expect me to actively bring in newcomers, but they want me to do that in such a way that ensures that nothing ever changes. There are those in the church who want me to say something meaningful from the pulpit, but not anything that could be construed as controversial, or something with which they disagree. There are those who demand that I refrain from saying anything that might be political, but there are others who expect me to offer guidance on the linkage between faith and daily life. There are those want me just to pat them on the back, to keep telling them that they are doing a good job, while others actually want me to help them become better Christians. There are those want me to pat them on the back, while also challenging the problematic views of other members of the congregation. I’m supposed to be a good listener, and I should always know the right thing to say. I should know what’s on everyone’s mind and I should certainly know what is bothering people (before they tell me). And, for each brave soul who shares an opinion, perspective, or idea, I am expected to follow their advice, even when I tell them that there’s someone else in the congregation who actually wants the exact opposite.
I never expected my job to be easy. But, there are days when the impossible starts to get to me. Not long ago, a long-time member of the congregation basically told me that I should be more like the ministers the church had in the fifties and sixties, that my job is only about helping people feel comfortable with whatever vision of God they already have, and that I should just be supportive and encouraging. In addition to that, I shouldn’t ever try to usher in any changes, but that I should do whatever I can to ensure that the Old South continues to be Old South well into the future.
Sure. No problem.
When I told this particular church member that there are others in the congregation who actually have a perspective that is in direct opposition to his, he seemed baffled. To the extent that people in the congregation could have such different views, then those people must be “new” people, and somehow those views should be less influential than the views of those who have been around longer.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I basically grew up with people who were just like that guy. But, my diminishing well of patience, I think, has a lot to do with the sense that the stakes seem so much higher. The average age at the church I serve is probably in the high sixties or low seventies. Although average Sunday worship is up a bit in recent weeks, it’s lower than it was a decade or two ago. The “church going” climate in Maine is weak, at best.
The church has many challenges—for its present and for its future. To expend a great deal of energy on those aspects of our life together that are relatively insignificant, is to distract our attention from what we are called to do in living out the mission of the church, in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We can’t afford to get wrapped up in small, internal disputes, where small groups are set up in opposition to each other. Instead, we must be more attentive to respect for the variety of opinions and perspectives, for the new energy and ideas of newcomers, and the ways through which the Spirit moves in our midst. We must always be open to the unsteady balance of comfort, nurture, and change. If we are feeling off-kilter, that’s probably exactly when we are living our faith.
We are a people of hope, new life, and, dare I even suggest it, salvation. We ought to take that more seriously, and live it, breathe it, be it—to find the courage to be about the building up of the church, instead of the easier work of keeping it in our own neat little box. We need to be about the wonder of what is possible, for each of us and for all of us together.