The Strangeness of Being a Pastor

Being a pastor isn’t the hardest job – not by a long shot. I can think of many, many jobs that seem far more demanding. Even so, it is a strange vocation without much cultural equivalency. It’s only after ten years in the ministry (as we pastors call it) that I don’t dread the What do you do? question. I’ve come to expect the awkward silences and unpredictable follow-up questions. (But what do you actually do? So, that’s a real job?) I kind of like the questions now; telling people what I do seems to give people who don’t often get to talk about such things permission to share their opinions and questions about spiritual things.

IMG_0015_2So being a pastor isn’t the hardest job but there is a strangeness to it that is hard for people outside vocational ministry to relate to. And that’s OK, but it does mean many pastors feel lonely and isolated.  A quick internet search of “lonely  pastor” makes it plain how widespread this is. There are a few reasons I don’t typically feel this: a supportive family, friends who don’t care all that much what I do and remain interested in me for other reasons, and a kind and gracious church.

There is another reason I don’t experience the isolating effects so common to this work: other pastors. This might seem obvious but I’ve come to appreciate the camaraderie of other women and men in the pastoral guild only recently. In my earlier years in ministry I found it difficult to relate to most other pastors. And to some extent I still do: rooms full of pastors can be strange places filled with high-sounding jargon and not-so-subtle comparisons; many pastors seem unable to talk about anything other than their churches. But in more recent years I’ve noticed that people I highly respect share this pastoral work: my dad, my aunt, and my great friend and neighbor, Michael, for a start. These are all good, admirable, and normal people- normal in the sort of way close friends must be.

In his memoirs Eugene Peterson devotes a chapter to his friendship with a group of clergy in the Baltimore area. The Company of Pastors, as they called themselves, were diverse in many ways: age, theology, and the locations of their many different churches.

This diversity did not divide us. This is a rare thing among pastors, maybe a rare thing in general. But it came from our common assumptions of our common vocation – not temperaments, not politics, not theology, not reputation. We were pastors, a Company of Pastors. And we were pastors in a culture that “did not know Joseph.” Our identity out of which we lived was unrecognized by virtually everybody, in and out of church.

This group of pastors proved indispensable as Peterson worked to be a pastor in culture with little memory of what such a vocation looks like or why it might be important. Such a cultural location “meant that we were lonely, and sometimes angry that we were lonely.” If that collection of pastors felt that way so many decades ago, how much deeper are those emotional shadows today?

But Peterson found his companions and thus not only lessened the loneliness – some of it is probably unavoidable and also good – but also found a living compass that pointed him toward a vocation that had become fuzzy and open to endless interpretations. Peterson was beginning to pastor at the time when churches were adopting the language of business and markets in order to grow congregations. The pressure was strong to set aside older assumptions about pastoring and to pick up new, more legitimate-seeming personas: entrepreneur, CEO, specialist. The Company worked as an anchor that kept them against the constantly changing tides of new methods, strategies, and programs. (Any of Peterson’s readers will know this didn’t mean isolation from the world of ideas or cultural engagement.)

The three men in the picture above are pastors and we have become a version of Peterson’s Company. Last year we gathered from around the country – Minnesota, Washington, Chicago – for a retreat. I knew one of the men well and the others not at all. We spent our days describing our churches and our neighborhoods and, to the best of our abilities, our sense of the Spirit’s work among the people to whom we’ve been called. We talked about what was good and what was hard. We asked one another many, many questions. Some about tactical concerns. Others about the shape of our spiritual life. We went on some walks, told stories, and ate well. I took notes of the many new and fresh thoughts that came to me during those days. When the retreat ended we committed to stay in touch and we have- quarterly conference calls lessen the distances and allow the good questions to continue.

Like Peterson’s group we come with our diversities: three have planted churches; three are pastoring larger churches; two of us lean to the city, two toward the country; personalities and perspectives are as different as could be expected. We belong to the same denomination which provides a nice starting point and the familiarity of history.

A few months ago we agreed that it was time for another retreat. Frequent flyer miles and a borrowed vacation home made it possible to spend another four days together. As before our conversation topics ranged widely – ministry dilemmas, questions about the future, preaching challenges, family – but circled back to our shared vocation. For those few days we got to be pastors with other normal pastors. My temptation to justify the vocation faded; the loneliness around the fringes dissipated. I have pastor friends – good friends – in my neighborhood, but schedules are hard to coordinate and time unhinged from tasks is almost impossible to find. So these times away take on added meaning, special in part because of their rarity.

It’s a strange thing, being a pastor. I thank God for the friends who have been called to this strange vocation and who so willing share themselves with me.

Recent Articles

Things have been relatively quiet on this blog; a seminary class and work-related travel have squeezed the margins lately. But I’ve still found small spaces to write, including for other sites. Here are two short pieces that were recently published.

First, a book review for Christianity Today:

[United: Captured by God's Vision for Diversity] is about a tricky and somewhat discouraging topic, considering how segregated U.S. churches remain. Yet [Trillia] Newbell focuses her attention in other directions. Not that she ignores the challenges or ugly histories that typically hinder attempts at reconciled community. It’s just that she chooses to highlight the appealing elements of diversity, whether theological or relational. Many readers will find this approach inspirational, an antidote to what Newbell calls “the difficulties of genuine diversity.” But lacking from this approach is much analysis of why Jesus-loving, Gospel-believing Americans have contentedly attended segregated churches for generations. Embracing “genuine diversity” means we must also get our arms around the privileges and prejudices that have kept us apart.

And then a blog post for our denomination’s Commission on Biblical Gender Equality:

I can forget that our normal is exceptional for others until I overhear someone mentioning how grateful they are for the women who lead our church. They are remembering times and places where these leaders’ voices, experiences, and gifts wouldn’t have been welcomed- not in the same normal way they are within our community.

White People Get Cold Too

Credit: Chicago Daily News, 1911.

Credit: Chicago Daily News, 1911.

“I thought white people didn’t get cold.” The young elementary school student directed his observation to his bemused principal while looking skeptically at my down jacket. I assured him that I definitely get cold and that I needed a warm jacket just like he did to stay warm through Chicago’s cold winters. I was smiling as I drove away from his school, tickled by his innocent assumption that my lighter skin color somehow kept me warmer than did his darker hue. The student’s school and neighborhood are predominately black and while I don’t know the origins of his hypothesis it also wasn’t that surprising. I could imagine my younger self saying something similar.

My son had joined me for this school visit so my first thought as we drove home was about him- how thankful I am for the diverse community to which he belongs. His church, school, neighborhood, and friendships make it hard to hold blind assumptions about others, no matter how innocent the assumptions might be. He will, I pray, grow up within environments that make plain the gifts of cultural uniqueness and the countless commonalities shared between individuals.

A second thought followed and it wasn’t nearly as hopeful.

The isolating cultural dynamics that caused the student to wrongly assume that my race kept me warm are at work elsewhere with much costlier effects. A 2013 Associated Press poll found that racial prejudice had increased during the previous two years. The poll showed that 56% of Americans hold implicit anti-black attitudes while 57% hold anti-hispanic attitudes. Political polarization and implicit segregation contribute to a culture where, contrary to what many believe, prejudice and stereotypes are gaining ground. And unlike the harmless assumption about my insulating skin color, the biases toward black and brown people have devastating implications. One’s likelihood of being stopped by law enforcement, imprisoned, turned away from available housing, denied promotion, or sold shoddy financial instruments are all tied to one’s race. Not my race, by the way. In all of the previous examples my race (and gender) make it unlikely that I will experience any of this ugliness. (See the Ta-Nehisi Coates article I recently linked to for links to many of these examples and check out the This American Life story about housing discrimination.)

The student’s social location led him to assume wrongly, but harmlessly, that white people don’t get cold. The social location of many other people – older and more influential – can lead to equally wrong but far more harmful assumptions about brown and black people. Assumptions that work their way into media norms, policing policy, and a nation’s collective subconscious.

Diversity is no panacea nor is it a guarantor against injustice. However, those of us with the choice to live in relative segregation must acknowledge that our decisions are about more than preference or comfort. A child’s assumption about my light skin’s protective properties is one thing. Colluding with forces that malign and marginalize is something else entirely.

“America’s heritage is kleptocracy…”

“I’m not the president of black America,” Barack Obama has said. “I’m the president of the United States of America.”

Precisely. And the President of the United States is not just an enactor of policy for today, he is the titular representative of his country’s heritage and legacy. In regards to black people, America’s heritage is kleptocracy–the stealing and selling of other people’s children, the robbery of their fruits of black labor, the pillaging of black property, the taxing of black citizens for schools they can not attend, the taxing of black citizens for pools that will not have them, the taxing of black citizens for police who do not protect them, the marking of whole communities as beyond the protection of the state and thus subject to the purview of outlaws and predators.

The bearer of this unfortunate heritage feebly urging “positive habits and behavior” while his country imprisons some ungodly number of black men, may well be greeted with applause in some quarters. It must never be so among those of us whose love of James Baldwin is true, whose love of Ida B. Wells is true, whose love of Harriet Tubman, and our ancestors who fought for the right of family, is true. In the fight to preserve the black family, America has rarely been an ally. Very often it has been an enemy.

-Black Pathology And The Closing Of The Progressive Mind by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The View From Here

I spent portions of last week with new church planters who had come to Chicago for training with our denomination. On Sunday evening Maggie joined two other church planter spouses to talk about their experiences and what the pastors and their families should consider as they go into this unpredictable work. She was, of course, her typical thoughtful and keeping-it-real self.

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Chicago-area Clergy Call on Sen. Mark Kirk to Help Illinois’ Unemployed

Thanks to my friend Zach Schmidt at Bread for the World I’ve had the chance to add my name to the following letter to one of my senators about supporting the extension of emergency unemployment compensation.

March 7, 2014

Dear Senator Kirk,

As religious leaders, we are tasked with ensuring the needs of our communities—both spiritual and physical—are met. The long-term unemployed members of our communities—those who have been jobless longer than 26 weeks—are especially vulnerable as our nation continues its slow economic recovery, and there remains only one job for every three job-seekers.

In late December, the U.S. Congress allowed emergency unemployment compensation (EUC) to expire. When unemployment rates are high, lawmakers have always made provisions to help Americans until the economy returns to full employment—namely, by passing EUC. Today, the long-term unemployment rate remains twice as high as any time Congress has previously let EUC expire. Since December, the Senate has tried and failed twice to extend EUC, and you have voted “no” both times.

When you first voted “no” in January, you said the bill needed to be paid for and that you would vote for it if such a pay-for were included. Last week, you again voted “no” on extending EUC, even though the bill was completely paid for. At 8.9 percent, Illinois has the third highest rate of unemployment in the country, and so far 109,000 of our neighbors have lost these modest but vital benefits that help them put food on the table. Hundreds more are losing benefits each week.

For these reasons, we are saddened by your “no” votes on emergency unemployment compensation, and we ask you to vote “yes” next time—for the good of our communities and for the good of Illinois.

Visit the Bread blog to see the other clergy who have signed and let me know if you know of any other clergy or religious leaders who might be interested in signing.