From the previous essay the answer to why I am still in parish ministry may seem obvious. For what else would I be suited? But there are aspects of parish ministry that I have found difficult at times—and still do. I am not comfortable in conflict. Indeed, it was unresolved/unresolvable conflict within a congregation that resulted in my quitting for a time. It was not that I was in conflict with anyone as much as I was—in my mind—responsible for ending it. This was nearly impossible as the parties had a great deal invested in continuing/winning. But I digress…
I am also not well-organized and therefore not an efficient administrator. This results in a congregation providing this and/or missing opportunities for ministry. (And on one occasion having to deal with a wedding scheduled on the same day as the Women’s Fellowship’s Craft and Bake Sale!)
I find parish ministry deeply disappointing at times. Both clergy and lay persons “let their guard down” and become emotionally vulnerable as members of a congregation. We lean forward, to draw a physical analogy1 and are sometimes slapped rather than kissed. It is a rare occurrence—or has been for me—but the sting remains. Part of parish ministry is loving people who, for whatever reasons, are simply unkind. Indeed, are sometimes malicious.
Perhaps one of the more difficult parts is the ambiguity of success/goals. Certainly one can articulate personal/professional goals for oneself and congregations have set concrete goals for themselves from time to time. But what defines “success” for an enterprise that is primarily that of being compassionate?
And as with all occupations/vocations there are aspects of parish ministry that are boring, depressing, trivial, etc.
So why am I still here? The answer is two-fold, having to do with what I receive and what I can give. I’ll only post the first.
I want to reiterate a bit of what I noted earlier about this vocation as an occupation. First of all, the tasks involved in parish ministry are wonderfully diverse.
Some of them take place in isolation such as the various writing that needs to be done and some administrative tasks. There are times I enjoy being alone. Some take place with small groups—meetings, tasks such as setting up tables or decorating for Christmas, adult education, etc. Some take place with one or two persons in pastoral calling and counseling. And some take place with the larger congregation in worship and fellowship.
Along with this diversity of company is an even broader diversity of tasks. Alone I read or write or (just?) think. Pastoral calls, counseling and conversations can range from the everyday to the life-changing. With small groups I move tables, pray, guide decision making and/or teach. And leading worship is a task with little or no parallel elsewhere–a combination of Yoga class, pep rally, lecture and sing-a-long.
In addition to the horizontal freedom of very diverse tasks, I have a great deal of vertical freedom, autonomy, with regard to the amount of time and energy I contribute to these tasks. Though I am always often I can, more-often-than-not, choose what I will be busy with. Yes, the widely held assumption that the pastor is always “on call” is true. But this means simply that I need to be accessible and available, not that I need to sit by the phone 24 hrs.
In almost all of these tasks I am regarded with respect, trust and affection, in part due to my position as pastor, in part due to my personality and in part due to my history with the congregation.
For years in talking about this work I have mentioned this: Once a week I get to stand up in front of a group of people I care about and who care about me, to talk about something important to us all while they listen with (varying degrees!) of trust and attention. And then I go stand by the door while they line up to shake my hand and say something nice to me. Where else does that happen??
And I have often joked that the reason I went into parish ministry for the potlucks. But no joke, especially one often repeated is “just a joke.” What this one says is that one of the most enjoyable aspects of ministry is fun and fellowship over food.
In nearly all of this runs a sense that what I do and who I am matters to other people. There is in ministry a deep sense of importance, meaning, significance in the lives of others. I am privileged to be present (in both senses of the word) at some of the most profound moments of people’s lives.
This is some of what I receive as a pastor, contributing to my staying in the ministry. What follows is what I give that reinforces my attachment to this occupation/vocation/position/relationship.
1Lifted, I believe from This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, Daniel/Coopenhaver– great look at parish ministry.