One of the aspects of this call is that it asks so much of those who practice it. To some degree the difficulty of what is asked is dependent upon the personality of the pastor. As I wrote earlier, there is much in my own make up that makes that “fits” this job, but even still there are aspects that are “satisfyingly demanding.” I will list them in no specific order as they change from time to time, except to say that the last is the most important.
Preaching. I’ll write more about preaching, but it is a challenge to not always talk the most central tenets of my/our faith each Sunday. Someone once said that preachers only have 3 sermons and they just keep changing the scriptures and illustrations. I think that’s close to the truth. But preaching from the lectionary readings helps. One of the more difficult aspects of preaching is being relevant to a congregation diverse in age, doctrine and education. Another is being “on” no matter what is going on in my life or what has gone on just before worship. I’m sure it is no surprise to anyone that some preachers preach when they just done feel much like preaching and sometimes when they themselves are no enthusiastic (even bored) by the text and sermon before them. To preach well and helpfully in spite of these can be trying and taxing but very satisfying. It is important for me to remember that what happens in preaching is not completely up to me. I once apologized the following week for what I thought was just a bad sermon. And one of my favorite parishioners said gently and somewhat chastened herself, “I thought it was a good sermon.” It’s not up to me alone.
Listening. I have no trouble listening to persons who are hurting. I have trouble listening to people who are enjoying self-pity, who are dissing fellow parishioners, who are angry at me, who are complaining about something I consider meaningless, etc. What I have learned and relearned and relearned is that quite often the most difficult people to hear are those most needing to be heard. What is difficult yet satisfying is staying present until the real person emerges beyond the defense. Sometimes this has taken a few minutes, sometimes years. I don’t know always know what I’m hearing.
Expressing anger. So much of being a pastor is maintaining a relationship in which care and compassion can be received. Because I value that so much I tend to swallow my anger rather than risk straining or severing that tie. The parallel to this, of course, is avoiding others’ anger to the point of being inauthentic. Blech. Neither of these positions is easy. But when I have (too rarely) had courage to share my anger it has been surprisingly well received.
Loving the unloveable. Some years ago when my son was in kindergarten I learned from his teacher that children act out where they feel safest. I think to some degree this is true for parishioners. It may also be true that persons who are neurotic (well, who isn’t, really?) are attracted to religion. In any event, some persons, sometimes are difficult, even dangerous, in the midst of a congregation. Some persons are just not my “type” (whatever that is). Some people are mean. Some of these characteristics are permanent and some a passing phase of life or the day.
These are exactly the people that draw me nearer to the Divine. They are the people that ask/demand that I be more patient, more attentive, more understanding, more accepting than I would choose to be. These are exactly the person that “stretch my heart.” It has taken me years to understand that following Jesus means costly compassion. And that through that portal of decision/action lies the Kingdom and a peace the world cannot give.
I cannot over emphasize this. This is the central practice of the Christian faith. Period. Because pastoral ministry is a calling to love a congregation of diverse personalities, temperaments, needs, etc. etc., it offers a unique setting for the practice of Christianity. I think lay persons often see the pastor as more of a “Christian” because she/he spends time in prayer, leading worship etc. No, it is loving the parishioners themselves that draws the pastor closer to God and neighbor.
It is this last demand of ministry, this last way of giving, that has bound me ever closer to this vocation.