Reason #2 for Wanting to Leave Parish Ministry: My Overdeveloped Sense of Responsibility

Before I begin, I want to say I had a revelation yesterday after I hit the publish button and sent out My Reason #1.  I don’t want to spend the entire summer talking only about the reasons why I considered leaving parish ministry.  I also want to share my reasons for staying.  I can’t promise that the reasons for wanting to leave and stay will be perfectly balanced.  There may be more on one side than the other.  I just wanted you to know that at some point this summer I will switch gears and share the other side of my discernment process.  With that said, let me turn to Reason #2 for wanting to leave the practice of parish ministry.

This past Sunday afternoon I was watching a movie called Hotel Artemis.  The film was based around a fictional hotel that was set up in Los Angeles to treat criminals – people who perhaps wouldn’t seek treatment otherwise due to the things they had done that had gotten them wounded.

The central figure in the hotel was a nurse (played by Jody Foster) who doled out the care.  The character is called simply Nurse throughout the movie.

The film gives you a little of Nurse’s backstory.  Her primary reason for helping criminals was because she had a son who had developed a drug addiction.  As a result of his addiction, he had led a lawless life.  Sadly, he eventually overdosed.  Nurse felt guilty about his death – as if she were somehow responsible for his troubled life and premature death.  Her way of managing her guilt was to treat others like her son who needed help.

One day, a former neighbor and childhood friend of Nurse’s son showed up at the hotel needing treatment.  Nurse treated the woman’s injuries but resisted any conversation with her because the woman reminded Nurse of her son.

My favorite scene in the movie was the one when the woman finally reached out to Nurse over a speaker.  Here is the conversation they had.

Woman:  “Mrs. Thomas.  I’m sorry about earlier.”

Nurse: “That’s okay.  You just got to keep moving.  So …”

Woman:  “Yeah.  I just need.  Yeah, I need to say something to you, okay.  You couldn’t have changed anything.  And none of that is your fault.”

Nurse: “You got kids?”

Woman: “Yeah, I got two.”

Nurse: “Then you know.  It’s always your fault.”

I loved that scene because it was a powerful reminder of yet another parallel between pastoring and parenting.  In my experience, both pastors and parents struggle with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility about what happens for their “kids”.  They feel responsible for everything.

Some of that stems from their interactions with “the kids”.  If a child fails a spelling test at school, for instance, in the child’s frustration the child might lash out at the parent and say, “It’s your fault I failed my test.  If you had just reminded me about the spelling test, then I would have remembered to study and passed the test!”

So too are there moments when congregants try to foist their responsibility onto the pastor’s shoulders.  “I know I missed the event.  If you had sent out a reminder – or let me know sooner – I would have been there.” In saying that, they overlook the fact that the event had been in the church newsletter, bulletin, and website for several weeks and that regular reminders had been sent.  Nevertheless, the accusations hook us in.

To be fair, however, it’s important to realize that not all of the guilt stems from interactions with “the kids”.  There is a huge part of the role of “parent” or “pastor” that plays into the dynamic.  In both cases you feel such love for “the kids” – and feel such an awesome sense of responsibility to care for those precious beings with which God has entrusted you – that you do it to yourself.  You accept responsibility for everything that goes wrong – long before anyone even thinks of blaming you. It is exhausting – and completely demoralizing – to feel responsibility for everything that happens: especially the shortcomings or “failures”.

That overdeveloped sense of responsibility for everything that happens is beyond crushing – and it was Reason #2 for why I considered leaving parish ministry.

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 53-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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3 Responses to Reason #2 for Wanting to Leave Parish Ministry: My Overdeveloped Sense of Responsibility

  1. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    It’s not the same, but I can empathize with this one a little bit from how I felt being a manager. My employees sometimes felt like my “kids” (to the point that one would say “Yes, Mom” when I explained why I needed him to do something he didn’t want to do, even though he was older than I was!). I was constantly worrying about whether they had everything they needed, whether their assignments were challenging them too much or too little, whether they were able to achieve work/life balance and advancement toward their career goals, whether they were happy. I celebrated their successes as their own but blamed their failures on myself. That took so much time, energy, and emotional labor for just a relatively small team that I can’t imagine trying to do it for an entire congregation or with the heightened pressure of feeling responsible for their spiritual growth and character instead of their professional growth.

  2. Stevie says:

    You’re a pastor and I’m a parent of long-grown-up children. And I can tell you that the best thing you’ve ever done is “do your work.” And the best thing I ever did was do mine when my kids were teens. It makes me cringe when a parent says, “Oh, she’s just being 13”. No. She’s just being a brat. She needs a parent. Being a parent or a pastor doesn’t mean we have to “take it”. Bravo to you for learning that.

    • I like what Stevie said. And yes, good on you for figuring it out. I’m still learning. But it’s liberating to know it’s possible. And then, when I feel things too deeply, I’m having compassion for myself. I look at it like 3 A’s: Awareness/Acceptance/Action. I need the first two in order to do the 3rd. Enjoying these blogs!

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