I love being a pastor. Yet, we know it’s not always easy. There have been times when I’ve been burnt-out or I’ve let the church grow too dependent on me. Or (more likely) I’ve had some false notion that the church was dependent on me. It can be a difficult relationship, especially for pastors who are in the midst of revitalizing small churches. There are often times when we have to roll up our sleeves, and do a lot of hard work in order to empower people for ministry.
My friend, Jim Rosenberg, a Rabbi in Barrington used to tell me, “Being at my congregation for 25 years has been like being married to my wife. You fall in and out of love with a congregation. That’s just the way it is.”
That was good advice.
I’ve also gotten some really horrible advice over the years as well. Counsel that made me question if I ought to be a pastor at all. Here was the worst:
“You’ve got to grow thicker skin. You can’t let stuff hurt you. You’ll never be a good pastor, unless you grow thicker skin.”
I feel things. I always have. I’m sensitive and aware of what’s happening in groups and one-on-one. And that comes in handy most of the time, especially when I preach or I’m in the midst of pastoral care. It helps when I’m moderating a meeting and there are a thousand things that are left unsaid, I know how to draw that stuff out, and get things on the table. But I also feel criticism when people are angry with me. I feel grief when members die. I empathize deeply with people too.
My response to this advice was to try not to feel things. I tried to pack them down, ignore them, and pray they’d go away. But then I ended up with a stomach full of knots and a facial tic. It didn’t help. Finally, I learned that I had to feel things. I had to journal and go for walks. Sometimes, I just had to sit with the anger and grief and sadness, and whatever emotion that came over me. That was my only way to let it go.
Here’s another piece of terrible advice that I was given when I was in the midst of a difficult church situation: “Pastors have the same level of mental health as their churches. Unhealthy pastors are attracted to unhealthy churches. Healthy pastors are attracted to healthy churches.”
This was neither true nor productive for me to hear. It made me want to leave the situation instead of work through it. It made me think that I wasn’t good enough to lead a church through difficult periods. I have been in great congregational situations, and I have been in tough ones. Neither situation had to do with my personal mental health at that moment.
Of course, pastors ought to be aware and attentive to their mental health. And our health is certainly part of the family system. But our churches are not exact mirrors of our emotional health. There are times when we find ourselves in congregations that are trying to heal from the wounds of sexual misconduct, financial mismanagement, or chemical dependencies, which has nothing to do with the current church leadership. There are times when the best thing to do is look in the mirror and say, “It’s not all about me.”
I’ve seen things work the other way as well–sometimes dysfunctional churches get their act together when their pastor’s falling apart. I’ve seen really wonderful pastors in the midst of very unhealthy congregations. It is an interesting dynamic, but we don’t have to assume that a church’s dysfunction is a perfect reflection of who the pastor is.
So, let’s hear yours. What’s the best advice you’ve heard as a church leader? What was the worst?
photo’s by whitneybee