Pastoring in the Tension

I hate the profession of pastoring right now.  There, I said it.  I love being a pastor, I love caring for people, I love preaching – even when I must preach a difficult, prophetic sermon – I love the church I currently serve, I love this call.  But holy crap, we have found ourselves in a terrible time to try to pastor to people and the larger church.

Just open your Facebook account.  Today Iowa still has not declared a final count for the Caucus, President Trump gave the State of Union Address last night, and Nancy Pelosi ripped her copy of his speech in half after he finished – after he refused to shake her hand before he started.  Oh, and the impeachment vote will happen today.

What did your friends say about these things?  Or, for the pastors who might hear this, your parishioners?

I saw both Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump revered as the second coming of Christ and feared as the arrival of the anti-Christ.  I saw conservatives and liberals derided as stupid evil and deified as the saviors of our nation.  I saw discussion not happening and hyper-partisanship ending all dissent.

This morning, before I even got out of bed, I saw these things.  Long before I even got to the office to contemplate worship for the week and how I address another long list of unique things I have to address less some thought leader recommend people leave my church – or rather, I have to decide what gets addressed and what I cannot speak to – I saw all these things.

And, just by pointing out the hyper-partisanship, someone will inevitably accuse me of “Enlightened Centrism,” a code-word for complacence in evil by not choosing to fall in line with a side.  I cannot win; I will fail every purity check of the left and the right, and I will always be the “problem” despite my desire to do something right.

We live in a time were people celebrate a former moderator of the General Assembly publicly endorsing a candidate and publicly accusing other candidates of a whole host of evils – and publicly stating that people voting for any other party doom the nation.  And, when I say this, someone will accuse me of being an Alt-Right white-supremist.  How dare I question the actions of someone like that?

Pastors, I have a question for you: do you see any pastoral sensitivity in anything we do in 2020?  Recently, at a meeting where the group would vote on the proposed direction for the presbytery, a vocal activist equated being conservative with being evil to prove their point in a room of fairly liberal church people – and my parishioner, a moderate conservative trying to figure out her place in this church, sitting right beside her.

What the Hell should I do?  Do I stand up against the prevailing winds because I want pastoral sensitivity and for us to deal with our internal hyper-partisanship so we can more effectively reach out people who have loving hearts and misguided minds?  Do I just let the prevailing winds blow the church as they want because the ultimate goal lines up with the message of Christ despite its problematic language and method?  Do I even get to call it problematic when the problems come from isolating people the larger American church has largely coddled in decades past – and I see it as unhelpfully driving people away from the message instead of convicting them to change?  Do I just give up, sit in my little corner, do what I can to move the needle slightly toward love in maybe one person in the congregation I serve, and just be okay with that?

As I pain over that tension, I also have to provide pastoral care to people.  I know thought leaders say we worry too much about pastoral care, but I guarantee you the woman whose husband forgets who she is when he stands will not hear anything about whatever soap box the larger church demands I stand on today.  I guarantee the man who had to make the difficult decision to put his wife in a care facility because he could not longer care for her – and then had an appendectomy within two weeks – will not hear my prophetic message.  Or even make it to church.

Some people God called me to care for vote straight-ticket Republican, some straight-ticket Democrat, and they all need care.  My sermons, my social media presence, my speaking about politics will affect their ability to receive care from me.  I do not have a pastoral care staff.  I have some volunteers, but they are not trained in any real way.  They all have professional and personal lives outside the church.

When someone stares down death – either their own or a loved-one’s – I am it.  I believe they give me more leeway to accept my care when I get a bit feisty in the pulpit than I acknowledge, but I know a line of “too far for this moment” exists and I refuse to participate in pastoral ministry that does not at least acknowledge were my people are and what they can hear in a moment – and then receive the care God called me to give them afterward.

I find myself likening this profession to a tightrope walk, which itself just lends itself to the difficult beauty of this calling, but a thing has happened.  Thought leaders have demanded we do not spend time on that tightrope and only worry about staying apolitical for the sake of providing care or worry about having a prophetic voice and find someone else to provide that care.

You know where the tightrope is easiest?  On the edges, off the actual rope.  If you refuse to balance the multiplicity of this calling, of course you can just say whatever you want from the pulpit without any sort of sensitivity or just not rock the boat in your sermons because you always think about the hospital room and the funeral home.

I think the profession used to rejoice – if privately lamenting – the balancing act we must do and the tension we feel between all our callings.  Or, at least I thought that when I started seminary.  Now, though, I only see thought leaders and “important pastors” pretending that all pastors have staffs, budgets, and opportunities to do all the activism and prophecy – and condemning pastors who have pastoral work to do.

Pastors, I have another question: how many of you actually feel supported?  Hopefully your spouses, partners, and families provide some support, but who actually feels supported in their ministries – and their struggles in this soul-killing tension – by colleagues, regional ministers, or church leadership?  Or, like me and so many others that I talk to, feel like they have to do it all alone and no one cares about their struggles – and they do not even have a place to express those struggles at all?

Pastors, I have yet another question: how many of you have received the answer, “Find a Therapist, Spiritual Director, or Coach,” when you express frustration over your lack of support?  How messed up has the church gotten that we say that you need to pay for the support you need?  We preach in a time of hyper-partisanship, provide pastoral care for people we need to preach a prophetic message to, and then must pay for someone to care about our struggles.

We have to choose to pastor in the tension – or choose not to.  I just do not know how we sustain this.  Or is it just me?

Peace,
– Robby

Who Am I?

Who Am I?

New Year’s Eve.  A day to contemplate the previous year and try to discern the path for the next.  For me, and a few others, I suppose, this day provides a moment for depressive introspection.

Oh, just me?  Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool…

This really starts from a different question that invades my thoughts almost hourly: Am I enough?  I have immense gratitude for a few colleagues who have answered that for me resoundingly and loudly despite my inner being’s inability to hear it.

My car read me the first text below after I had just sent a friend “Thank you” for the unearned support and love she gave me.

Imagine the wall of emotions – while in a very emotionally raw state – when I heard the word “enough” instead of the “welcome” I anticipated.

Calling me Bobby Brown just made it clear she sent it from a place of authenticity.

Today Brian McLaren posted New Year’s Resolutions for Pastors and “Smoke What You’re Selling” really hit me.  I think, at some level deeper than just intellectual, I have started to believe I am enough.  I am starting to hear as I say it to the parishioners God sent me to serve.

Not perfectly – I will probably always struggle with feelings of vast inadequacy – but the message has started to go from my brain to my soul.

As I try to internalize it, another force starts working against me.  Thought leaders like John Pavlovitz instructing you to leave your church if your pastor does not speak out against (insert weekly atrocity)*, Will Willimon telling a room full of pastors to abandon pastoral care for prophetic preaching, mega-church pastors saying they understand the pains of small church ministry because they went down to 3,000 members instead of 10,000 while they say the pastors do not spend enough time crafting perfect sermons while sitting in their multi-staff ivory towers, William Barber demanding Christians actively protest and march against the atrocities of the world, and so many others who truly see evil in the world and want to actively change it while not leaving space for any path other than their own.

I have wrestled with this a lot this year, and I see the same evils in the world they do.  I have wrestled with how I walked along a path to overt white-supremacy and only found myself changing and healing when a couple of loving people showed me a different way – and how my path could not co-exist with my desire to care for and love all people.  I know this calling – the Rev. behind my name and pulpit I fill – require me to speak out against evil in the world and use a prophetic voice from time-to-time.

But I struggle to reconcile who I am when I see these demands by intelligent thought leaders – who I agree with largely in philosophy – conflict with the realities of my ministry.  I found myself needing to ask “Who am I?” to even begin the process of reconciling my call and the very vocal demands of thought leaders many of my colleagues blindly follow.

Who am I?

Quick cute break: Giselle is snoring – loudly – just a few feet from me.  Thought you could use a picture:

Aww!

This whole thought process started last night.  I watched the Season 13 finale of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and THIS SCENE HAPPENED and she says, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay…” and it just gut-punches you in the most beautiful way possible.  The whole scene comes from Mac’s season-long battle to figure out his identity and place in the world – and trying to express that identity to a father who refuses to understand. 

I sat there watching this beautiful scene, tears welling up in my eyes, and my mind just asked that question.  “Who am I?”  Now, my struggle for identity comes from a professional and spiritual place and not my sexuality – and I acknowledge my co-opting one thing for another – but in this time of identity politics, purity checks for advocates, allies, and politicians, and the constant demand for preachers to speak with a prophetic voice that mirrors the voice of popular thought leaders, I have wondered what the Hell my identity is.

I know this comes from feelings of isolation and abandonment, from not finding a community to join that wants the full version of me (I have so much thankfulness for a congregation that wants the full version of me to lead them, a thing I feared would not happen), and from not knowing which part of me I would need to change to find community.

When I get to this stage of thinking about my identity, all my wounds from bullying, isolation, and (insert deeper things I do not need to write about here) start bleeding all over the keyboard.  I look in the mirror and wonder to myself, “Who the Hell are you?  What about you is more than privileged milquetoast feeling sorry for himself?”  Especially when every theological and denominational battle becomes “Us vs Them” and I checked “Neither and Both,” I want to just start saying, “I have no identity and I want to find the community that requires no identity.”

But, in rare moments of self-loving clarity, an identity does appear in the mirror: pastor.

I look at myself and I have to say the things I do/have:

  • I am sensitive to the pains and struggles of others – and what words and actions do to others.
  • I desire to make the world better and do what I can from my position and calling to create feelings of justice in the hearts of the people I lead.
  • My heart and soul demand I care for the people whom I shepherd in their moments of deepest pain.
  • I preach – well – to a congregation that I know personally and have provided care for outside of the pulpit.

I am not a prophet – at least I do not think I am.  I have a prophetic voice that I use, I will speak justice to power, and I do address sin, but I cannot fulfill the role of prophet as thought leaders demand of all clergy.

I am not an ally.  I do not do enough.  I do what I can, but it falls short of what marginalized communities need to call someone a true ally.  I love, I teach, and I try to move my congregation in the right direction, but I do not do enough for someone else to call me an ally.

I am not a preacher.  I preach – again, fairly well – but I absolutely will let other tasks of pastoral care – and self-care – interfere with polishing and perfecting a sermon to speak the needed prophetic messages.

I am a pastor.  A lonely pastor, a pastor without consistent community, a pastor who does not make friends easily, a pastor regularly and constantly fails the purity checks – either of moral purity from the conservative side or justice purity from the liberal side – which makes him inadequate for almost every clergy group, a pastor who fails his congregation not infrequently, but a pastor who God ordained, a denomination ordained (after many years of hostile battle), and a church called to serve them.

I do not know how to reconcile this with the world and the church at large.  I do not know how to reconcile that with political trends in our broken, human expression of the Body of Christ.  I do not know how to make that identity work in community when my identity only opens doors of traditional community that wants nothing to do with me.

But today, I know this:

I am a pastor.  My pastoral identity demands I provide pastoral care.  Providing pastoral care for my entire congregation – not just those who agree with – require me to step lightly.  If I am enough, and God made me who I am intentionally, that must be enough.  Thought leaders will – and have – said it is not, but I am enough, so that must be enough.

My goal for 2020: internalize that and find a community who will accept me for that.

Peace,
– Robby

*I know I have linked and responded to this post before.  Still chaffs me a bit as I try to do what I can while still being a pastor to right-leaning congregation.