Today is the last entry – Part 14 – 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 today I want to bring my series to a close. At the outset of the series, I said I would share my thoughts in random order. None of the reasons would be ranked. Up until today, that has been true. The things I’ve shared have NOT been given in the order of importance. As I finish today, however, I will break that pattern and conclude by sharing the most important reason I chose to remain in parish ministry.
As I prepare to do that, I realized that it was incredibly appropriate I started the series by talking about the parallels between parenting and pastoring. I’ve already alluded to a few parallels. Today, I want to share what I feel is the most compelling parallel.
Like a parent, being a pastor is an identity – NOT a job. It is an identity that stays with you 24 hours a day/7 days a week. It is an identity that doesn’t end when your circumstances change. Once you are a parent/pastor, you are always a parent/pastor. It changes the way you see the world forever.
Of course, I know there are some who would question that statement. They know some parents who struggle with their children and become estranged from them. Some parents even disown their child or kick them out of the house. Likewise, they know some pastors who leave parish ministry and never look back. I get that.
I suppose the reason for the difference has to do with what leads an individual into the role of parent or pastor in the first place. Some individuals, for instance, become parents because the role is suddenly thrust upon them through unexpected circumstances such as an unintended pregnancy. In such cases, some people hunker down and decide to simply “get through” the process of raising the child so they can eventually get their life back. Their investment in the process is primarily functional rather than emotional.
Similarly, some individuals go into parish ministry as the result of circumstances as well. Perhaps the church was the center of their social life when they were growing up and they always felt affirmed there. So when it came time to pick a career, such a person might have chosen to become a minister because it was a comfortable thing to do.
For others, however, they enter into the roles with a deep sense of call. These folks are parents (or pastors) because they feel most complete as a human being when they engage in their role. There is a part of them feels as if their identity as parent – or pastor – is why they were put here on earth.
It usually doesn’t take me long to tell the difference between those who are in a role because of circumstance versus those who feel truly called. I’ve even developed different language I use for myself to distinguish the two. I think of mothers and fathers, for instance, as those who biologically produce a child. I think of moms and dads as those who cherish and nurture the children in their charge. My friends who have fostered or adopted helped me grow into that understanding.
I use a similar thought process to distinguish between reverends and pastors. Reverends (at least to me!) are people who have completed the academic coursework and have the institutional authorization to lead a congregation. Pastors, on the other hand, are people who are called to cherish God’s people and embody God’s unconditional love and grace as much as humanly possible.
Those who know me well know that’s why I do a double-take whenever some-intentioned person refers to me as reverend. (Much like when I hear someone cry out, “Mr. Peterson”, and I find myself looking for my dad.) While I know I have completed the academic coursework and have been institutionally authorized to lead a congregation, my identity – to my very core – is that of pastor.
I know my distinction between mother/father vs. mom/dad (and reverend vs. pastor) might trigger some who see things differently. That’s okay. I’m not offering my understanding in a pejorative way. I’m simply sharing with you how I experience these words.
So when I thought about leaving parish ministry, I was forced to realize that no matter what position I sought out – whether I was a barista at Starbucks, sold shoes at Payless, or worked as an intake counselor at a recovery center – I would always be a pastor.
That because I’ve learned something important in my adult years. It doesn’t matter where I go, or what I do in life: people relate to me primarily as a pastor because that is who God has called me to be. I can be standing in line at Ralph’s (my local grocery store), sitting in the waiting room at the Kaiser Pharmacy, or flying on an airplane – you name it. Within one or two moments, people are sharing with me their deepest secrets and desires for healing.
And you know what? I absolutely love that!
Of course, being called by God to be a pastor can be a challenging reality to live into. For I believe a true pastor can connect with nearly anyone on the planet, feel their pain, empathize with their suffering, and want to facilitate their healing.
While those things may sound good on the surface, I’ve learned not everyone appreciates a pastor’s approach to the world. I was reminded of that over the weekend when I was talking with a friend about the recent George Stephanopoulus’ interview with Mary Trump (President Trump’s niece who recently wrote a tell-all book).
Anyone who knows me at all, knows that I have SERIOUS objections to most of Donald Trump’s policies as President. And I can honestly say that Donald Trump has the most consistently objectionable public behavior that I have ever witnessed in any elected official. Whenever I think of the phrase “What would Jesus do?”, it is safe to assume that Donald would do the opposite of that (which makes my Evangelical friends’ unwavering support of him baffling to me! – but I digress).
With that said, as I listened to the interview last Thursday – and heard stories about how Donald Trump was raised – my pastor’s heart immediately kicked in and made me feel badly for Donald. My spontaneous prayer for Donald (given how he was consistently treated by his father) was that Donald could find his way toward healing that seems to have alluded him for his 73 years on the planet. That way, perhaps, he could stop taking out his unresolved pain on our country and world.
While I tried to make it VERY clear in the conversation that I was NOT using his personal background to excuse his troublesome behavior and policies, I still felt badly for him.
My friend could NOT understand how those two things went together. In her mind, if I felt badly for someone and empathized with them, that meant I was letting them off the hook for their policies and public conduct. She let me know in very unkind words that she did not think it was possible to dislike someone’s way of publicly conducting themselves AND feel for them.
Unfortunately, those kinds of moments happen to us pastors a lot. Our unusual ability to love and care for ALL of God’s children often angers and frustrates some – who demand that we hate the people they hate. I have lost some significant relationships in my life because of my ability to love those whom the other person could not. This is probably the most personally challenging aspect of being a pastor.
And yet, at the end of the day, I realized I wouldn’t trade my call for anything. And the best place for me to live out my call to be pastor is in the parish (or in a denominational role designed to support the life of our local churches).
The thing that I have discerned over the past five months is that in the past I have been too quick to minimize my role as pastor in order to assume the role of administrator when others tried to thrust that identity on me. In the future, I will work hard to resist those pressures.
Of course, being in parish ministry requires that a pastor does do a certain amount of administrative duties. I get that, and I will not shy away from performing those administrative duties. But my prayer as I step back into parish ministry this September is that I will never confuse the performance of administrative duties with embracing an identity as an administrator. I was, yesterday; I am, today; and I tomorrow, I will be – a pastor to the core of my being. That is my call. That is my identity. And while I will work to achieve a healthier balance between my personal and vocational lives (this is actually my number one goal for the years leading up to my retirement), it is up to me to hold on to that identity and celebrate it for what it is: a beautiful gift from God.