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.
So 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.
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.
A couple of weekends ago New Community had the chance to host, along with some other neighborhood churches, my friend Ed Gilbreath. I reviewed Ed’s new book, Birmingham Revolution, a few months back. For the Chicago Revolution conference Ed spoke about Rev. Martin Luther King’s time in Birmingham, paying special attention to his time in jail and the resulting letter that is now so well known. He then traced Rev. King’s time to Chicago and pointed to the challenges he faced here. The entire conference was thought-provoking, challenging, and encouraging and I’m including Ed’s talk here because I think it’s very worth your time.
The Church is dying. Or maybe it’s the churches that are dying. I’m not sure which it is, but a consistent and dire theme within the literature written about church would have one believe that it’s all but over: Churches are closing their doors; Young people are choosing vague spirituality over congregational identity; Christian Faith can’t keep pace with the rapid change that defines our culture. And on it goes.
Surely some of this is true. But what is patently false is the idea that church is somehow on shakier ground today than it was during some idealized time in the past. Not only that, there is plenty of life within the churches in our towns and cities- if you know where to look.
Over the past few days I drove around our corner of the fly-over states visiting some of these churches. (Maybe that’s part of the problem. Some of the naysayers need to cease with the flyover pronouncements, walk away from their statistics for a minute, and visit some real live churches.) I sat in on a pastor’s meeting where a Hispanic pastor talked with his white colleagues about the many opportunities for ministry in their state. I had dinner with a couple who live in the city that had the country’s last documented lynching; they hope to start a multi-racial church in this segregated place. I met with a Kenyan pastor in St Louis whose church welcomes new immigrants who know almost nothing of the country they’ve landed in. The next morning I had breakfast with a bi-vocational pastor- he does construction work part time and pastors a young congregation of university students and professors with his remaining hours. From there I drove to Champaign where I was given the opportunity to preach at an African American congregation whose ministry to the marginalized has caught the attention of the city’s politicians. My trip ended in Bloomington, in the small sanctuary of a 2-year old church. On Sunday evenings they turn their space into a warming center for their neighbors who don’t have homes. I watched and listened as these men and women talked, laughed, and slept before moving on to the night shelter.
The Church is dead? I don’t think so. Long live the Church. Long live the churches.