Whenever I try to explain what being a pastor is like to someone, I have a go-to analogy I use. “Being a pastor,” I begin, “is a lot like being a parent. In both cases,” I continue, “the role isn’t like a job where you clock in from nine to five (or from birth to 18). Being a pastor and parent is an identity that you wear 24/7.”
There are several other ways the roles are similar. You will hear many more of those ways in coming days.
Why am I using that analogy to kick things off?
I say this to set up my first reason for contemplating leaving parish ministry: many of the people with whom you minister lack filters in what they say to you. Much like a child will say some of the most hurtful comments to their parent in any given moment – ranging from “I hate you” to “I wish you were dead” – so too can we pastors be on the end of comments that boggle the mind.
Why do some folks feel like it’s okay to say hurtful things to parents and pastors?
There are many reasons, I suppose.
Some have told me that it’s a backhanded compliment. “You only say awful things to those whom you love the most. That’s because you know it’s safe to vent around them and be yourself!”
If that’s the case, then I wish some folks didn’t love me so much.
Another reason is that people think that pastors and parents have their hands tied behind their back, to some degree. Both groups are expected to be mature, rational, and loving at all times. This means a person knows she or he can come out swinging – and the pastor or parent can’t fight back.
So what kind of things do they say to us pastors?
I (like any pastor) could give you any number of examples. I’ll use one conversation that I considered to be the most hurtful conversation I’ve had during my entire ministry.
The conversation happened on the Sunday that came just five days after I put the first dog I had ever owned down. The experience was completely devastating.
I had pulled myself together in order to conduct the service – and was standing in the Narthex waiting to process down the center aisle. Just before I started walking, a woman came up to me and asked how my dog was doing.
“Not well,” I said. “I had to put him down last Tuesday.”
“What happened?” she asked.
I explained that my dog’s health had declined rapidly. The vets weren’t sure whether it had been an aneurysm or stroke. They said they might be able to figure out what had happened if they did a CAT scan that would have cost $2,500. Even then, that would have just told me what had happened. Then there would have been the matter of paying for the subsequent treatment: IF there was a treatment available.
“I couldn’t afford the spiraling expenses,” I finished, “so I had to have him put down.”
When I finished explaining, the woman said, “If you had saved your pennies, you might have had enough money to have him treated and he’d still be around.”
The remark was difficult enough on the surface. It was made even worse by the fact that it was delivered just moments before I walked into the sanctuary to lead worship.
There were so many things the human part of me wanted to say in that moment. I could have told the woman that the exorbitant cost of living in the area meant that I was paying nearly 60% of my salary in rent. That figure was twice what was considered affordable by national standards. I could have also said, “Maybe if my salary were higher, I could have afforded the care too!”
I said neither of those things, however. Instead, I did what so many pastors and parents say when hurtful comments are lobbed their way: I kept my mouth shut and took it.
I’ve done a lot of work on myself since that incident. I have grown to understand that being a loving and supportive pastor (or parent) does not mean one is a doormat or an enabler. My 12 Step work suggests that I could even be thankful for those painful moments – since they helped me grow into that understanding.
Still, those moments hurt.
Moments such as those are just one reason why I considered leaving parish ministry …