Reason #6 for Wanting to Leave Parish Ministry: One-Stop Shopping

Today is Part 11 in a series dedicated to helping readers understand the dynamics that can push a pastor out of parish ministry – and the things that ultimately keep a pastor in parish ministry. I alternate each entry between reasons for want to leave, and reasons for staying.

So after two days of intense thought and prayerful discernment … I’m back.  Back with a spirit that I believe can transform my writing and reflection from a desolation into consolation.  Back with the hope that I can provide comments that can be used as a jumping off point for important conversations in many different ministry (and life) settings.

How did I make that relatively sudden shift?

By working my program of recovery in Codependents Anonymous.  With the help of my sponsor and my friends in recovery, I am not responsible for how others respond to my observations.  If I want to overcome the fear that can so often trigger me and bring greater health into the life of faith communities, I have to start by overcoming that fear within myself.  Please know that I won’t continue to write every day.  I will write only on the days and times when it feels like a consolation.

So with that, I will return to my reflections by talking about Reason #6 for Wanting to Leave Parish Ministry. 

At the outset of this series, I talked about a few of the parallels between parenting and pastoring.  Today, I want to pick up that comparison again. Another of the similarities between parenting and pastoring is that people are often compelled to come to the parent-figure with literally all of their questions and concerns: regardless of whether or not the parent-figure has knowledge in – or responsibility for – a particular area.

I remember when I was in my late teen years that I would come to my parents and ask them about literally EVERYTHING.  I would ask them, for instance, how long I would have to boil an egg for it to be hard-boiled.  I would ask them what insurance company was best to cover my car.  I would ask them what would happen if I changed my major in college.  You name it, and I asked them about it.  Because I felt as if I could get everything I needed from that one stop; I started to think of the time I spent with my parents as “one-stop shopping”.

Many parents love that stage of development – for they know it won’t last forever.  They know a time will come when their children never ask them about anything: so they make the most of those interactions.

In parish ministry, however, things are a bit different.  In the early stage of your ministry at a particular site (after they have trained you about how things are done around here), you reach a stage when many members of the congregation come to completely depend on you as the pastor.  It doesn’t happen immediately. It happens gradually – until one day, relatively early in your ministry, you wake up and find that people are coming to you with every question under the sun – most of which have nothing to do with your call – or job – as pastor.

They will ask you why the drip in the Sanctuary ceiling hasn’t been fixed yet.  They will ask you about what time the AA group is done with their Tuesday morning meeting so they can schedule their meeting.  They will ask you what company hosts the church’s website?  They will ask you if Taletha’s birthday is on the 12 or the 17th of the month.  You name it, and people come to the pastor and ask about it.

Here is where being a pastor is a little different than being a parent.  Many people don’t automatically move on from this stage of dependency to the next stage of self-sufficiency.  If they find a pastor who will answer all of the questions for them, they will get stuck in this stage of development and never leave.

So how do you break that stage of dependence?

I’ve learned the hard way that there is only one way.  The pastor has to set a clear and consistent boundary with the “kids” and refer them to the right source to answer that question.  If they ask about the roof in the sanctuary, for instance, you say, “That’s a great question.  Maybe if you call the head of the Maintenance Team – Mabel – she can help you out with that.”  Or if they ask about what time the AA group finishes with their Tuesday meeting so they can start their meeting, you learn to say, “That’s a great question.  I think our Office Administrator can help you with that.” This is the only way to break the cycle of over-dependence.

Sadly, due to my codependence it took me years and years and years and years to learn that simple lesson.  I was so desperate to please people by providing them with what I call “one-stop shopping” that I practically burned myself out.

The hardest part of this lesson is that it’s not a lesson you can try to teach just once and then assume people have mastered it.  Virtually every day of my ministry, I have to say a half dozen times, “You know that’s a great question.  Why don’t you give [fill in the blank] a call and see if they can help you with that.”

Of course, I don’t always have the time and energy to remember that.  Sometimes, I think it’s just easier to do the legwork for them and give them the answer they are looking for.  And every time do that it kills a piece of my soul by fostering their continued overdependence upon me.

This constant pressure for a pastor to provide the “one stop shopping” feature by answering every question was my sixth reason for wanting to leave 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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2 Responses to Reason #6 for Wanting to Leave Parish Ministry: One-Stop Shopping

  1. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    My grandma was the membership secretary at her church for decades. Her pastors (she served under several) seem to have solved that problem by saying “I bet Margaret would know who could help you with that.” It became part of her job to be the “operator” who connected people with such questions to people with answers, and so many folks would come up to her after the service that my other grandma often had time to cook an entire family Sunday supper from scratch by the time Grandma Margaret could get there to eat it with us!

    Even if you’re just being the “operator” instead of digging up answers for folks, I can imagine it would be hugely taxing to be filling that function AND dealing with all the questions that are legitimately pastor business. (Though it probably helps that you have a smaller congregation.)

  2. Sharon says:

    I have read everyone of your blogs and have found them interesting. At first I thought maybe you were defending your actions of wanting to leave and then not wanting to leave. As time has gone on, I realize that is not the case. I can relate to a lot of what you are saying, because of being the wife of a man, who was an elder, in a small assembly of people. He always handled things well, but there were times he would just shake his head. One instance I recall is when a man came and told Wayne there was a burned out light bulb in the basement. Wayne asked him if he knew where the light bulbs were. This man did. Wayne dropped the subject. Someone changed that light bulb and it wasn’t Wayne. It is interesting what the people expect of the pastor (or elders in the case of where we attended). I know that is a small incident but certainly illustrates what can transpire.
    Also, on another note. We have been doing NarAnon via ZOOM. The participants have been whining about not being able to meet face to face. So, I asked if there was a room, at the church where I go. There was. It would be big enough to social distance, I would do cleaning, and we have insurance, etc. I presented it to the group. The excuses were plenty. So, I thought, but didn’t say, quit complaining. LOL.
    You are amazing Craig Peterson and I just pray you will be appreciated wherever the Lord leads you and in whatever capacity.

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