Thank You, Pastor

Jason Micheli —  March 6, 2013 — 7 Comments
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What he said.
James Rogers has this reflection in First Things. I think he overstates the difficulty pastors have in forming friendships within the congregation. At least, that hasn’t been my experience. But his thoughts here are good ones.

Pastors have hard lives.

Paul’s experience of pouring out his life into a congregation is shared, I think, by almost every pastor, no matter the size of the life or the size of the congregation.

The pastoral burden must be tremendous.

The author of Hebrews writes that pastors “keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.” What a huge responsibility. The flip side of this responsibility is that layfolk are supposed to “obey your leaders and submit to them” so that our pastors may keep watch over our souls “with joy, and not with grief.”

And yet how often do we grieve our pastors?

Part of this seems to be built into the way pastors become pastors, at least these days. It is not a surprise that young men who show some enthusiasm for God and the gospel are encouraged to become pastors. This encouragement may come in the form of what these young men (and, one hopes, wise Christians around them) discern as an inner call from the Spirit. For others, the encouragement may come from those around them as they discern the man’s gifts.

Whatever the source of the encouragement, however, it is usually young men most zealous for God and the gospel, those who are most aware of the grace they received from God and who have responded most deeply to God because of that grace, who are encouraged to become pastors. Think of Paul’s Damascus Road experience (though calls of course do not need to be so dramatic).

This seems an obvious point: that men who become pastors usually have an exceptional relationship with God in one dimension or another.

What would be the alternative? Men becoming pastors who have little interest in God and the ministry?

But consider the implication: the same thing that draws men to the ministry also separates them from their congregations. They have experienced a richer relationship with God than those they lead; they have, as the Psalmist puts it, “tasted and seen that the Lord is good.”

The upside is that their only aspiration is for their congregations to taste of the life, blessing, and joy that God offers us through the gospel. But what frustration, also; it’s so often like pushing a rope. We congregants are hard of hearing, we stumble, we are distracted by the world. The pastor implores those in his charge merely to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” They know, they know, that if only we taste we will, like them, want more. It’s sitting there, right before us. They would love for us to share what they have. But we don’t even taste.

They teach, they preach, they baptize and feed us. They plead, they implore, they even cajole and admonish. But so little for so much. They are poured out as a drink offering on the service and sacrifice of their congregations. They empty themselves, yet, so often, no one seems to get filled.

To be sure, God sees and rewards. But it would be nice every now and then to receive some appreciation from those of us they serve.

But too frequently we call upon them only when we’re in desperation, and ignore them when we’re not. We don’t bring our children to catechism class, and then blame the pastor for our children’s ignorance. We treat gathering together with the church as a burden, and the Eucharist as something that only prolongs the service, and then blame the pastor when our children drop their faith in college.

Pastors see the wreck that sin makes of human lives in their congregations, and the hindrance it creates for receiving God’s love. Yet we accuse them of meddling should they attempt to minister to us—until we’ve made such a wreck of it that there’s no one left to turn to. Then we wonder that the pastor is of so little help and comfort.

There’s so much to do in the church and so few layfolk willing to help.

So the pastor steps in to do the needful things, and is soundly thanked with the accusation of power-grabbing.

As if filling a vacuum he’d be more than happy for someone else to fill is power-grabbing. But we’re all satisfied enough to criticize from the sideline.

And then there is just not enough time for all the demands. People do the right thing for the wrong reason, and the wrong thing for the right reason. It would be great for pastors to have time to disciple us properly.

But we are so hard of hearing that it takes so long just to get through to one of us, and then we’re just as apt to misunderstand as to understand. It seems as though pastors empty themselves into broken cups that cannot hold what they offer.

It is a struggle as the pastor only wants his congregation to share the passion prompted by the love that he’s received from God.

But all of this also comes along with the pastor’s struggle with his own sin. Little could be more isolating for a pastor than struggling with his own sin when knowing that his congregation, often unfairly, looks to him as model of right behavior. We sometimes, unfairly, expect them to exemplify fully the life of the age to come rather than recognizing that no man can do that on this side of the eschaton.

It is little wonder that pastors seek out each other for fellowship and consolation; few layfolk understand the fine line between honesty with God and with one’s congregants, and desire not to disappoint, and a hypocrisy that can threaten one’s soul.

All of this on top of the pastor being poured out as a drink offering while keeping watch over the souls of the flock that God has given him.

Thank you, pastor.

Jason Micheli

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7 responses to Thank You, Pastor

  1. I might have an axe to grind with First Things in general, but this smells like a case of using a false “we,” in which you give yourself cover for saying harsh things about other people by pretending that you’re part of the ungrateful, wretchedly sinful “we” that you’re describing. Golf-clap for the self-deprecating piety expressed by the author. I get too many thank-you’s and it’s hard for me to trust them. I see them as poison pills that feed the monstrosity of my narcissism. Genuine friendship has more to do with not feeling a responsibility to shepherd however invisibly the person you’re in relationship with rather than their gratitude or lack thereof.

    • Well, A) I think First Things is great. Makes Christianity Today and Christian Century look like board books. And B) I didn’t read it that way at all but now can see your point. You just might be- horror- more cynical than me:)

      • I guess the only stuff that I’ve ever encountered in First Things is sanctimonious crap that gets forwarded to me by overzealous Catholic in-laws about the evils of birth control and that sort of thing. I could almost be a conservative Catholic; it’s much more attractive to me than being a Protestant fundamentalist, because to Catholics, conservatism is a respect for history rather than a disdain for anything intellectually complicated. What makes me throw up a little bit is this kind of toadyism that I see in zealously pious “daily morning mass” laity toward the beloved Holy Father and his hierarchy that remains unimpeachable despite everything that’s happened. I guess I saw some of that toadyism in this piece.

  2. A toady? Ouch! Well, I don’t think that many of my pastors would call me a toady for all the grief I give them. I thought of the column more as a confession than as a self-righteous Nehemiad. But I suppose your point could be a fair cop these days. I resonate to Ignatius of Antioch far more than I have a right to as a Missouri Synod Lutheran. So it might be fair to characterize me as an *aspiring* toady. To be sure, I wouldn’t recommend it as needed by everyone – cleric or layperson – but I do nonetheless think that it is good for my own spiritual life.

    That said, I think that there are constructive ways of challenging one’s pastors as well as destructive ways. In this short column I was thinking of the ways pastors feel isolated from their congregations, which is not good for them or for their congregations, IMHO.

    • You’re not a toady. I’m just projecting my own inner conflicted-ness onto your piece.

    • Morgan’s conflictedness aside, Jim, I’m just grateful for someone to post the words ‘Thanks’ in reference to the pastoral ministry. While it’s true most are quite kind, appreciative and cooperative in churches it’s also the case that the outliers, squeaky wheels and country club type Christians can consume a pastor’s time, attention and inner monologue.

  3. Hey Morgan – Not a problem. Really. If the worst thing I’m called today is a toady, then it really is a pretty good day. :- )

    That said, mixed motives aside, my primary goal was to acknoweldge with gratitude what pastors do among us and for us.

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