Pastor Notes #1
So, I’m sitting here in the coffee shop, looking at a jumble of a “to-do” list and pondering what I’m supposed to be doing. “Is that what you get paid for?” you may well be asking. Well, that’s a good question — one that I ponder often. Am I doing what I get paid for? For that matter, what do I get paid for?
That’s a question that I’ve never been brave enough to ask the people of the church’s I’ve pastored. Though, that might be an interesting experiment. How many different answers would I get? My guess is that I’d get as many different answers as people whom I asked. If that sounds cynical, I don’t mean it that way. If the people I pastor are unsure about what it is that I’m supposed to be doing for my salary, that isn’t entirely their fault.
Early in my life as a pastor, an older pastor — a sort of mentor to me — that it was my job to teach my people what a pastor is and does. I don’t think I ever really followed through on that advice, but now as an older pastor myself — probably about as old now as he was then — I can recognize the deep wisdom in his advice. If the people of the Church have confused or misguided expectations of their pastor, we have to admit that much of the cause for that lies in the fact that churches are very rarely ever taught about what a pastor is for.
Mostly the people of the Church are left to figure it out for themselves. So, if they have been in the Church for a while, they will think back to the various pastors they have known. Based on what they’ve seen other pastors do, they arrive at their own understanding of what a pastor is for and should be doing. There are obvious problems with that approach to learning about pastors. One is the unavoidable fact that a very great deal of what a pastor does is done away from public view. Many of the most important things a pastor does, he or she does alone or with a very few people. For a person who has not had much close contact with a pastor, a person who comes to worship most Sundays and attends some of the big events, maybe occasionally serves on a committee — that person will have a hard time comprehending what pastors does with their time.
It’s been my experience that casual church members will typically press their pastors to do more and more visible things — attend more meetings, visit more people, initiate more programs, be more involved in the day-to-day management of the church organization. The result of that pressure is a kind of caricature of the pastorate in which one aspect of pastoral work — the public part — is inflated to the point at which is begins to consume all other aspects of the pastoral work.
Now, to some extent people arrive at this misconception of the pastorate out of honest, if lamentable, ignorarnce. They simply don’t know very much about what pastors do. They assume that what you see a pastor do is all that pastors do. If your pastor is to be a good pastor, he or she should do more of the things that everyone can see.
But another factor might be our natural tendency to be suspicious of things done out of the public eye. I suspect (because I, too, am sometimes a suspicious sort) . . . I suspect that sometimes people assume that when pastors are not in public view they must be goofing off . . . or worse. Unfortunately, that suspicion is sometimes true, and every time news of some lurid misbehavior of another pastor comes to light, that suspicion is hardening in people’s minds.
But the fact remains that much of what pastors do must be done apart from the public eye. Sermons can never really be the product of a committee meeting. I simply cannot wrestle with God in prayer for my church and my people if I have to accommodate spectators while I’m doing it.
And then there are some things I do that I plainly must not bring to public light. Three days ago, for example, I sent several hours with a family as they tried to cope with an absolutely catastrophic crisis — one of the most complicated and wrenching I’ve encountered. But I can tell almost no one anything at all about it beyond what I’ve just said. Because of that private crisis, I missed about half of one of our congregation’s main community outreach events. I was supposed to be there meeting people and being a visible presence. It was a big event with lots of people. Some of my people probably didn’t even notice that I wasn’t there. But fortunately over the past seven years, my people and I have come to trust each other, so that those who did notice my absence were willing to trust me when I told them vaguely that a crisis in someone’s family required my presence for than our outreach event. If there are some who aren’t satisfied by my sparse explanation, well, I’m just stuck. I’ll have to live with their doubts about me.
And so, it appears that an important part of educating a congregation about what a pastor is for will always also involve educating the congregation about who I am as a pastor, as person of God, and as a human being. A pastor, as long as he or she is treated merely as a slot on an organizational chart, will always be a mystery and a disappointment. But in the context of that triangle of relationships — pastor-God-people — the rich, beautiful thing God intends for his Church can come into being.
© 2009 Gary A. Chorpenning