Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Five Reasons I Should And Should Not Be A Pastor

Seminary has been both good and bad for me...

It's been good because it has challenged my perspective and disciplined my thinking. I have been given a good theological framework for a lot of things I'd picked up at some point but hadn't known where to place them. I've made some awesome connections and friendships which have been and will continue to be formative for me. I have read more in the last year than I read during my entire four-year undergraduate program... by a landslide.

It's been bad too (maybe in a good way... the jury is still out) because it has surfaced some real insecurities and a strong sense of inadequacy. Actually I am suspicious (and only suspicious) that at Princeton Seminary, everyone is operating from a sense of inadequacy and they are all dealing with it in different ways. That feeling of inadequacy, mixed with the various forms and levels of arrogance it takes to apply here in the first place, makes for a strange tension which makes for an odd if not hostile social context. The community here is great, don't get me wrong, but I can't help but wonder if everyone feels as threatened as I do sometimes.

It's only healthy for me to recognize these feelings and to deal with them in some way. I think that's actually one of the main reasons I've come to seminary--to deal with my doubts, work through my tensions, and discern more precisely the quality of my calling.

I am in the midst of that discernment, and part of that discernment involves the question of whether or not I should be a Pastor at all. Of course I want to be involved in the church and its ministry, but should I be a Pastor? Or should I do something else?

So to help with this discernment (or perhaps just to complicate things further) I have begun a list of reasons why I should and should not be a Pastor. I'm sure I'll be adding to this list as time goes by, but here are the first five reasons in each category:


Five reasons I should be a pastor: 

1. I can imagine myself doing it...
It may not seems like a very persuasive reason at first, but I actually think it's important. Being a Pastor is precisely that... it's about being not doing. Pastoral ministry is not about checking tasks off of a list, it's about learning to be human with other humans, to be human in the way of Jesus and to create space for other humans to be human too. This, I can see myself doing (or being). And while being a pastor is not about doing, there is some doing to be done. There's something to be said if you can imagine yourself preaching to a congregation, leading it in its visioning process and implementation, attending to its needs, and creating/engaging sacramental space in worship. I think there's something to be said about seeing yourself in that role... and, well, I've been there and I could keep doing that.

2. I believe in and care about the Church.
Although I still have a problem with so-called "organized religion" and with the church as "institution." I cannot get away from that beautiful idea called the Church. As imperfect as it is, I can't help but believe that it's pushing beyond itself and that the God to which it's pointing (even with a limp finger) is a God who chooses to be conditioned by and involved in the Church. God's up to something in those communities that gather in old buildings on Sunday mornings. And because I can't help but believe in the Church, I can't help but care about it. I cannot write off what happens in those worship services and I cannot be indifferent to the movement of those communities. As frustrating as it can be at times, I cannot stay away from the Church. I am frustrated, I know its faults, but I cannot stop being enamored by the church... maybe that's the best reason for me to be a Pastor.

3. I am equipped and able... 
Once again, I don't think pastoral vocation is primarily about tasks, so being equipped and able has less to do with ability than it does with demeanor and posture. When I am at my best, I am able to take up a posture which allows me to engage in productive dialogue with people from whom I am quite different and with whom I might have significant disagreement. I strive to be a bridge builder... to have a balanced perspective in order to converse with various ideologies and to find some common ground and points of intersection between them. At my best, contrary to popular belief, I am able to be attentive to those who are going through struggles. Because the pastoral vocation is less about tasks and more about being, no matter how great you are at preaching, at communicating, at leading a staff, etc... if you do not take a posture of humility and if your demeanor disengages you from productive dialogue or pastoral attentiveness, then you're not really equipped for pastoral ministry.

That being said...

4. I am good at communicating and leading a staff... 
My first two years as a Youth Pastor were more tumultuous than usual (as if there is a "usual" in the first two years of ministry). Our Senior Pastor of 24 years had just retired when they hired me and so for my first two years we had interim pastors, pastors who came in to help us transition to a new settled pastor. Our church had a hard interim period. It took a while for us to let go of our beloved pastor and to embrace something new. We didn't do a really great job of giving the reigns over to an interim pastor, we didn't respect the role very well, so there wasn't necessarily a lot of clarity about who was in charge or what was expected. I had to learn very quickly how to work on a team, how to communicate a vision, and how to deal with strong personalities. I have some natural ability when it comes to preaching, but communicating is a different ball game... and I had to learn it fast. I know what's involved in leading a staff, I know what's involved in guiding a visioning process and that's one more reason that maybe I should be a Pastor.

5. I have a sense of calling. 
Perhaps this should have been reason #1, as it's surely the most important reason for anyone to be a Pastor. When it comes to pastoral ministry, if there's no calling there's no vocation. Ever since I was in the seventh grade I have felt a sense that I was being called to vocational ministry.

I don't take that word lightly... "calling" is a big deal and it's rarely as clear as a voice from the heavens. It's usually much more subtle. For me it's been like a song stuck in my head, lingering persistently no mater where I am or what turn my life takes. It's always been there, a presupposition on my heart. It's there and it won't go away. I don't think God will leave me alone unless I'm participating in ministry.



So there are a few decent reasons for me to be a Pastor... but there are also a few reasons for me to do something else...

Five reasons I should NOT be a pastor: 

1a. I can imagine myself doing something else... 
I've heard it said that one shouldn't be a minister if one can imagine herself doing something else with her life. I don't know who said that, but it's mostly false. In fact, it may be a necessary evolution of the role of the minister that they are "bi-vocational" in a sense -- that they do "something else" in order to continue in ministry. There are some ecclesiologists and practitioners, faced with the enigma of where the money's gonna come from in the future, pondering the questions of entrepreneurial endeavors in the context of ministry... and one implication is that ministers might have to be a little bit more multidimensional.

...I'll leave those questions for another time... and for someone else...

But there is some truth in the suggestion that one should do something else if they can see themselves doing something else. The only reason that someone should go into ministry is that God won't leave them alone until they do. If I can imagine myself being happy in another vocation, I'm hesitant to think that I should be a Pastor.

1b. I might be able to fulfill my calling without being a Pastor.
Considering the fact that I could imagine myself being something other than a Pastor, I don't think I can imagine myself not being in some kind of ministry. I don't think God will leave me alone, wherever I  am, unless I am participating in God's ministry.  I can imagine myself being happy in another vocation and still fulfilling my sense of calling. I'm a one-trick-pony... so no matter where I go, I'll have to talk about Jesus, I'll have to think and dialogue about theology. So if I were a college professor, for example, I could still serve the church and share the good news of Jesus Christ.

2. What matters most to me matters for the church (definitely) but not necessarily to the church. 
I am a theologian at heart (amateur as I may be). And while theology, I believe, is essential to the Church, the people in the pews don't usually care so much about it. I wonder how happy I'd really be, constantly having to tame my vocabulary and keep my deepest concerns to myself. I experienced this as a Youth Pastor... indeed, part of what brought me back to the academic setting (Princeton Seminary) was my hunger to engage theology at a level deeper than that which can be reached in a Sunday bible study. If being a Pastor would mean having to shut off my theology switch, I don't know how long I'd last.

3. I have some very powerful insecurities. 
I think we all have them. But mine perpetually haunt me... in conversations, in meetings, whenever I have to deal with people. I am easily intimidated by people and I constantly have a voice in me that says that I'm not good enough, smart enough, articulate enough, or charismatic enough. These kinds of insecurities are uniquely exposed in vocational Pastoral ministry... and if they lurk in every conversation, every staff meeting, and every church service... I just don't know how healthy that can be for the church. And I don't know how healthy it is for me to be in a role in which those insecurities are so uniquely exposed.

4. Someone else could do a better job. 
I've never been in a pastoral setting in which someone else couldn't have done a better job. And, despite my aforementioned insecurities, I'm actually ok with that. Even if it's not true, there is someone else who at least thinks that they could do a better job. And I am content to let them at it. Indeed, I'm probably more interested in helping others be good pastors than I am in being a good pastor myself. The most fulfilling part of my ministry as a Youth Pastor in Ramona wasn't necessarily ministering to the kids in my ministry (although my relationships with those kids were and are invaluable to me). The most fulfilling thing to me was watching someone else minister to the kids in my ministry... and watching other Youth Pastors be better Youth Pastors with the help of other Youth Pastors. I am fine in the supportive role, and I believe that somebody else can usually do it better than I can anyway.

5. I don't like arguing with people. 
I know that some people think I love it... I'm somehow always drawn into it... but I hate debate and conflict. I hate having to justify myself or respond to someone else's defense. And although ministry is not defined by this, ministry involves a healthy dose of conflict and justification. You always have to justify your vision, your decision, your program, to someone who's not convinced by your good intentions. There's always someone who doesn't approve, and, at least in my experience, a lot of work has to go into arguing with people. With the stakes so high as they are in the church, I just don't know if I want to take on that burden. I can imagine a vocation where I am not always having to defend myself to everybody else... or at least where I am not so intimately accountable to my critics.


So there are good reasons on both sides... I feel I am at the beginning of a crossroads.

3 comments:

Shivonne McKay said...

Wess, this is well written. Trust and believe that you've opened up to some very much needed dialogue regarding one's call to ministry. Also, you eloquently highlight the ebbs and flows of the discernment process and overall experience of attempting to please God and oneself. Know that you stand in good company with those of us who are disoriented in order to be re-oriented in Him. Will we fully become comfortable with the 'offices' God is equipping us for? I think since the process is 'uprooting' our insecurities during this time, if handled and faced healthily we will be better equipped in serving and identifying w/those whom we'll Shepherd. Based on my interactions with some leaders in ministry, it is my guess that some tensions will persist as a means to keep us connected to Him...

Wesley Ellis said...

Thanks Shivonne! ...for the insight and the encouraging word!

Steve Swope said...

Wes, my friend, this is a powerful and revealing post - more vulnerable, honestly, than I would have been able to be at your stage - and exactly why the UCC has refined its process to encourage more discernment.

That being said, I think there are probably arguments on "the other side" of every one of your points; you probably know or can figure out most of them. Let me just offer a few that occurred on first reading.

1. Everyone of your "should" reasons is valid and correct, and I truly see you in them. The negative voices in our heads are always louder, so when you find positive reasons to continue with something, listen.

2. Re: doing something else. I think you'll find a lot of second-career pastors who used that reasoning (both a and b), and wound up coming back to the call, not being able to avoid it forever. Being able to be fulfilled in something else will give you somewhere to go when you retire, and in days off, and that's very important. Too many pastors don't even have hobbies or read non-religious books; they don't know what to do on vacation, and when they retire, their "reason for being" ceases. Be the well-rounded human that you are, and rejoice in it. It will make your ministry better.

3. Insecurities and conflict avoidance - that's all of us. You can't get rid of those things; you can learn how to cope with them effectively. In my opinion, not major stumbling blocks. And it's been a long time since the pastor was the most educated person in town; celebrate and facilitate the gifts of others, which will make your ministry all the stronger.

4. Finally, don't "tame" your vocabulary or your ideas! Instead - and it's an exercise that will take all your gifts - find ways to translate those things into language that your people can relate to. Yes, lots of ministers leave seminary, find they can't explain the Graf-Wellhausen theory to their members, and fall back on old pieties and platitudes - but it doesn't have to be that way. Your experience with youth can be valuable in this way. Be a translator - and this will take patience and effort, but you will have given your best, and the best of the Faith, to your people.