For this month’s Herald, I asked a group of pastors what they wished their congregation understood about a pastor’s job. Their answers were similar. The bottom line? “We wish people understood that we can’t do everything!”
On its surface, the statement seems glaringly obvious. “I know my pastor isn’t Superman!” But how many of us bemoan the fact our pastor isn’t accessible enough? Or doesn’t visit our care group on a regular basis? Or doesn’t preach the way we’d like? Or doesn’t have a clear enough vision for outreach? Or isn’t bringing enough change or fresh thinking to the church?
Perhaps these unrealistic expectations are vestiges from a time when pastors really did do everything. I remember dear old Pastor Jake regaling us with stories from his ministry days, when he preached every sermon, visited every congregant, conducted every funeral service, made his own coffee, and reproduced weekly church bulletins [by hand!] on a mimeograph. Come to think of it, Pastor Jake probably was Superman.
But this type of Superman ministry is difficult – or even impossible – to sustain over the long haul. Pastors can’t do everything. They can’t be everything. They can’t solve everything. They can’t change everything.
Eugene Peterson, in The Unnecessary Pastor, describes the toxic effect of these unrealistic (and even unbliblical) expectations: “[Cultural forces] turn us into replicas of our cultural leaders, seeking after power and influence and prestige. These insistent voices drum away at us, telling us pastors to go out and compete against the successful executives and entertainers who have made it to the top, so that we can put our churches on the map and made it big in the world…. Congregations get their ideas of what makes a pastor from the culture, not from the Scriptures: they want a winner; they want their needs met; they want to be part of something zesty and glamorous.”
“Only when we realize how unnecessary we are,” writes Peterson, “will we be free to do the ‘one thing needful’ – the gospel necessity laid upon the glorious but battered life of the pastor.”
This freedom described by Peterson allows pastors the grace to just be – not do or perform or succeed or influence others.
Because, after all, it’s not really about us. Whether we’re pastors, lay ministers, or congregational members, the gospel is God’s work in us and through us.
Called to be
I learned the art of being early in my pastoral career.
In August 2004, baby Willow was born. Due to complications at birth, Willow died after only three days of life. At the end, Willow’s parents were forced to make the agonizing decision to shut down the machines keeping her alive. It was heartbreaking.
As children’s pastor at Bakerview MB Church in Abbotsford, B.C., I had the privilege of walking this journey with the family. I quickly discovered my inability to do anything. I prayed. I read Scripture. I presented a baby blanket dedicated by the congregation. I acted as an advocate for the family with the medical team. But I couldn’t change the situation. Or stop the grief. The best gift I could offer was my presence.
Jesus’ own life is instructive. In the garden of Gethsemane, as shadows fell and death loomed, Jesus asked his disciples to sit with him. “Stay here and keep watch with me,” he said (Matthew 26:38). He didn’t ask them to come up with a strategic plan. He didn’t ask them to evaluate their three years of ministry. He asked his friends to give him the gift of their presence.
Jesus’ request resonates with many of us. We all face some sort of death on a regular basis – death of a loved one, or perhaps the end of a dream, a job, a ministry, a marriage, a friendship. In those moments, our deepest longing is for someone to be with us. Not to do or say or act – just to be. The gift of presence is one of Jesus’ most profound callings.
So, this month, as we take a brief look at the blessings and challenges of pastoral ministry, let’s commit ourselves to holding more realistic expectations of our pastors. And let’s remember to simply be thankful for their presence among us.