Monday, November 2, 2009

Take the Church Seriously But Not Yourself

I was given good counsel when about to begin my life as a Pastor of the Church. A wise Pastor with many years of service to the Lord told me to take the Church seriously, take the work of the Church seriously, but do not take yourself seriously. I must admit that when first told these words I was not so sure this was sage advice and proven wisdom. Now some thirty years later, I can see the truth and wisdom in it.

When we take ourselves seriously, everything is personal. And that is one thing a Pastor cannot afford to do -- to take things personally. It cannot be about me. I cannot afford to take personally everything that happens in conjunction with what I do as Pastor or every that is done to me or around me as Pastor. The tone of voice, the challenge that seems pretty personal, the upset... these are the things I must learn to look beyond or they will become the barriers and roadblocks to my ministry that will alienate me from the people and prevent me from serving them as I am called to do.

Often I have people who come into my study or call on the phone or email me with complaints about this or that in the Church. Implicit in their complaints is always the threat to leave and find another congregation. Often I have people who come to me wounded by this or that in life and work and somehow I end up getting the brunt of their backlash though it seldom has anything to do with me. Often I have been there when people exploded in anger, frustration, or sorrow only to find out that the trigger may have had some small connection to me but the cause was something unrelated to me or the Church. In those moments, a Pastor cannot afford to take it personally. Indeed, the challenge of the calling is to learn to look beyond the momentary outburst and extend to these wounded and hurting Christians, the love, forgiveness, mercy, guidance, counsel and Word of the Lord.

I do not always heed these words about not taking yourself personally, and when I do not, I always regret my failure to heed this good and wise counsel. When I fail to listen to this wisdom, I end up looking the fool I was trying to avoid and apologizing and begging forgiveness to clear up what my failed response did to exacerbate the situation.

Do not take yourself too seriously -- do not be too concerned about respect or authority or honor that should be due you. Instead focus your concern upon the Church and her work -- and your part in that work -- and these other things will probably come. Take the Church seriously - her image and stature in the community, her life flowing from and back to the Word and Sacraments, her mission of witness and proclamation to the world, her community of life as the baptized people of God who share a common life in Christ, her welcome to the stranger that walks through the door, her service to the poor and needy who are always with us, her doctrine and confession of faith that we receive from the fathers and profess with our own voice and then pass on to those to come -- these are the things a Pastor must take seriously. But not so much himself.

I understand this and even though I do not always heed the good counsel I was given, I accept this wisdom and truth as key to who I am as a Pastor of the Church and what I do in service to the Lord and His people. But, my family, well that is a more complicated situation.

It is very hard for a Pastor's family to not take seriously words and actions that are intended to threaten, wound, or demean their husband and father. It is natural for a family to circle the wagons around a family member who is hurt by the words or actions of others. It is a mark of love that we do this for those whom we care about. The old adage about how it is okay for a family member to criticize, mock, make fun of, or challenge another family member but not for others to do so -- it is true. The same is true when the Pastor's family becomes the victim of the slings and arrows of others. What I struggle not to take seriously when it involves me, I must take seriously when it involves my family. That does not mean that we cede all objectivity away and blindly defend those who have been wounded by truth. It does mean that what we work out in private as a family is different that how we stand together before others.

I do not fear personal slights or critical words or complaints or even attacks -- I do not welcome them or like them but I do not fear them. As a Pastor I will have to account for all my actions and for all my failures to act before the Lord. This accountability is of greater consequence to me that the understanding or appreciation of others around me. I have to separate me from the mix of things and make sure that I do not take myself too seriously or take things too personally. It is a wise man who can do this most of the time and it is something I struggle with every day as a Pastor.

It is also a difficult situation for my family -- who love me, support me, and who sacrifice a great deal for me so that I can serve as a Pastor. For this reason, I honor them in my heart and in public for their great love, patience, and encouragement to me. I am humbled by what they often endure from me and from others because I am a Pastor. Sometimes with great resolution and sometimes with tears they find themselves caught between circling the wagons around me to defend me against any and all -- and the knowledge that in doing this they may inadvertently make things more difficult so they bear the wound in silence and try to walk beyond it.

So today I sing a Te Deum Laudamus for my wife and children, parents and in-laws, who know me and all my weaknesses and still love me... who defend me and stand up for me always... who tell me what I need to hear when no one else will say it... and who endure the sometimes rocky road that belongs to a Pastor's family. I take them seriously. I take the Church seriously. I take the work of the Church and my calling as part of it seriously. But I do not make things personal to me or take myself too seriously or all their many sacrifices would be in vain...


OldSouth said...

And, as a parishioner(in another city and denomination), a word of wisdom to my fellow pew-sitters: Let's be careful out there!

A lot less gossip and whining, and at least a little more 'What can I do to help out?' would probably transform your situation, and keep your pastor from responding to inquiries from other parishes, or simply burning out on you.

There are points in life you're really going to need your pastor to do what only a pastor does.
Odds are, it's somebody else's turn this week, so it might be good to cut him a break, and at least tell him he's appreciated. If he's a good theologian and preacher, and you take his words to heart, you just may need less personal attention in general.

Just a thought...

OldSouth said...

...and really really really respect his family life.

He'll love you back for it.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

This is why I think God, in His wisdom, did not provide for me a wife until I was in the Office. Even as a PK, I do not know if I would have been able to make these distinctions until I first had practice in not taking things against myself personally.

I am still in need of learning - I pray though that God not send me more practice!

Pastor Peters said...

While this post was not a direct response to a particular situation, it was a healthy reminder that while I as a Pastor am in the cross hairs of many things, my family is caught on the sidelines -- my constant supporters and sometimes (too often) the ones who suffer more than me the slings and arrows that come my way... But I urge all Pastors out there to learn the wisdom of not taking things personally while loving those who take it all personally for you -- your family.