I’m about to return to church. I retired from pastoral work on May 31st of this year, 2020, after a 42-year ministry career. The agreed upon plan was for me to distance myself from our church for 6 months to allow time for the new senior pastor and the church to acclimate without me hanging around. This was even more important since my successor was my son, Barry.
Today, December 1, the “exile” is over. I can now participate in the church’s life again. That’s one of the impetuses behind the following reflections. Now, 6 months removed from what was a very long career and in light of the current state of things, I’ve been doing a lot of personal soul searching, looking back and remembering.
So maybe this is cathartic.
But there are more reasons why I share these musings.
Another motivation for these two blog posts is my fascination with leadership and the impetus behind the choice to lead. I’m devoting a good part of my life now to helping leaders of all kinds understand the “why” behind their career. What does it mean to bear a title that assumes leadership?
Also, I feel deeply for my former comrades “of the cloth”. Because of a unique combination of catastrophes including the pandemic, a political civil war, revelations of systemic racism and a precipitous rise of ex-vangelicals (former evangelicals rejecting the church), most pastors are under fire. They are hard pressed. They are worn. They are depressed. They are anxious. It may be that within the next 12 months we will be seeing an exodus of men and women from pastoral roles because they “didn’t sign up for this” and “just can’t do this anymore”.
All that said, I think the role of Pastor is the hardest leadership job in the world.
Has there ever been a time in which leaders have been more on display than right now? These last 9 months have been a study in leadership, some of it not so good. I reflected on that back in August. We’ve had front row seats to observe the leadership of medical experts, scientists, mayors, governors, a president and president-elect along with many education and business leaders.
All of them have tough jobs. Some have excelled. Others not so much.
But one type of leader stands out that may have the toughest job of all…pastors. Many dilemmas have kept them awake at night. “Do we stay open, or do we go virtual? How many people will leave if we mandate masks? How do we balance flattening the curve with meeting the demands for in-person worship? How do we manage the virulent ideological civil war that is dividing our church and our staff? How do we meet the needs of our increasingly isolated and depressed people? What can we do to stay financially viable? What if people never come back to church?” (One denomination is planning on a 30% drop post-COVID)
Those are just a few of the uniquely terrible leadership burdens pastors and religious workers are facing in this pandemic.
Then there are the everyday traumatic challenges.
Rather than list them, I’m going to tell you some real life instances from my own four-decade experience as a pastor.
- Helping a family and the church deal with the brutal murders of two loved ones.
- Comforting numerous families through the horror of suicide. Then, conducting the impossibly complex funerals.
- Arbitrating an untold number of cataclysmic marriage collapses. And bearing witness to the sordid stories surrounding them.
- Answering the question “Why did God allow this to happen?” more times than I can count. Never more difficult than the moment a TV reporter confronted me with it in the aftermath of the tragic accidental death of a beloved leader during a church event.
- Wanting to go home and take a shower after hearing too many confessions of revolting perversion.
- Agonizing with people and their loved ones as they lay dying. Sometimes holding their families’ hands as they made the decision to remove life support.
- Watching hundreds of people, many of them my dear friends, leave the church for questionable or ridiculous reasons. By the way, nearly every loss of a family from the church was like a dagger in the heart.
- Responding to hundreds of emails of aggrieved church members. Being called every name in the book. Facing lies, accusations, physical intimidation and even death threats.
You’re wondering why I stuck with it for so long? Oh, there are plenty of reasons, which I’ll share in my next blog post. Being a pastor is a high calling, despite being a full contact sport. It is full of delight and wonder even as it generates, daily, the low-grade-fever of sadness.
If you are a pastor or a church staff member, please let me know how I can help you. I feel a deep responsibility for you. And feel free to direct other pastors my way.
For the rest of us…please figure out ways to show love and respect to your pastoral leaders. They weep over you. They believe in you. And they will lead you through this unprecedented time. They are heroes too.