Friendship: A Forgotten Remedy for the Stress and Fatigue of Ministry

Friendship: A Forgotten Remedy for the Stress and Fatigue of Ministry

 The Apostle Paul was physically and emotionally wore out. Fear thunderstormed his soul. Conflict awaited him. He had no rest. Rather than hide this fact, the Apostle gave voice to it.  As pastors, the idea of giving voice to the hurricane that batters against the boarded up windows of our souls feels dangerous. But God has a help in mind.

(more…)

Why are we Lonely in Ministry?

Why are we Lonely in Ministry?

The Bishop Cover Picture“Ah, look at all the lonely people,” the band sang in the old song. “Where do they all come from?” This question hums with haunted melody, as the song searches out the lonely lives of a priest, his congregant and the church they both serve. Why is it that those who give their days to a vocation charged with the enjoyment, love and glory of God remain so vulnerable to the loneliness and isolation that any human being can feel? Anton Chekhov’s short story, The Bishop, helps us. Without spoiling the story, I’d like to tell you why. (more…)

Anxiety Ridden, I Minister to Others

Anxiety Ridden, I Minister to Others

Anxieties are agitated things; thoughts that pace the floor, feelings that bite their lips, a right thumb pressing deep into the left hand to push and scrub into the skin. Anxieties found me before I was a pastor. As my Pop says, “I got them honestly.” Bouts of anxiety dapple the biology of my kin. Add to that my own share of providential trauma along with ordinary cares proportionate to my age and calling and  both body and soul contribute plenty to these ants-in-the-pants-moods that crawl about with their jitters and creepers.  Getting ordained did not un-anxiety me.  In this short essay, I simply want to try to describe some of what we the anxious experience and begin to hint at the grace Jesus brings. Haunted Houses When I was a boy I pleaded with my Pop to let me go into a haunted house. The last room was doused in strobe lights that bounced off of checkerboard floors, ceiling and walls. Awash in disorientation a hand reached out from an unseen cove and grabbed me. Instinctively I ran . . .straight into the wall. I knew I had to get out but I could not see the door even though it was right in front of me. My Pop yelled, “run for the door!” I got up and ran again and this time I hit the wall again and came crashing down. Anxiety is like standing in a haunted house, awash in strobe light in a checker board box with a haunted hand and a voice telling you to run for it.  It doesn’t matter that the strobe light was bought around the corner in the daylight nor that the checker board floors were painted on, or that the hand was just a dude trying to make a living. Anxiety makes it scarier than it is. No matter how simple it seems to get to the door and no matter how clear the directions someone gives you, you find yourself on your rump feeling a welp on your forehead. Flies, Restless Legs, Palantirs and Illusory Images  Anxiety makes a distraction out of ordinary moments that otherwise would bless us. Like flies at the dinner table, we must swat and throw our hands as we try to share with each other about our day.  Our dog bites the air and clinks its teeth because these gnats can’t let a piece of bread crumb or pork chop, go. Anxieties also harass our attempts to rest like mosquitos do. The bloodsuckers bomb the skin when all we wanted was a moment among the breezes at dusk. We run back in for shelter red welps stinging on the legs. Speaking of legs, anxieties makes a mess of them at night.  They can push and shove into a quarrel behind the back alleys of my knees. They take their fight into the shoulder blades and throb there. These harassments in ordinary moments, times of rest, and at night can act like those Palantirs in fantasy stories. We try to see into the future and they tell us that the future is hopeless and full of doom. Anxiety alerts us to fear. A threat, real or imagined, hides behind the bushes of our night thoughts and stalks them.  Finances, reputation, expectations, sins-real or imagined, kids, wife, imagined enemies in the community, the church, real enemies in the community, real traumas, foul memories. Felt vulnerability with nothing to provide an illusion of control stomps up and down on the steps of our minds.  The sun shines outside where friends smile and being loved is real but the hurricane pounds the inner coasts of our being. Anxieties in care-givers expose our ideals.  I hate knowing that at lunch the next day I will likely hold my Bible with hands that tremble. I will speak prayers out of haywire feelings and seek to offer the presence of pastoral care on less sleep than I want. “A pastor doesn’t struggle like this,” I tell myself.  With such thoughts, I invite condemnation and shame to join the party and the spiraling continues. Held Together Anxieties shout at us that everything that exists, whether virtual or non-virtual, is rioting, and no one can hold it or us together. Anxieties tempt us to believe that we must panic in the water and thrash about for any life preserver of relief that we can find only then to show us that every buoy we reach for is weighted. This feels miserable. What a blessing it is to have a pastor who understands or a friend who sticks by. Paul testifies that it is Jesus who holds everything visible and invisible together. Everything real or imagined, foul or tricksy, obeys Jesus. This includes what ails me. What I need is the one through whom everything was created to bend toward my little pile of jittery thoughts and achey bones. Sheltering me He can look into the red-eyes of every looter in my being and with plain strength say, “Enough!” “Be Gone!” “Be Still!” And in my being grace, not as the world gives, can in Him kiss my soul and say, “shhhhh . . . be at peace lovely one. Rest now.” The Gill Giver Everything in us wants the waters to subside. For some, they graciously will and do! For such a one, testimony has to do with being pulled onto the beach and chest thumped into breath through the CPR of Jesus’ grace. Anxieties like this never return. But for others of us, we are meant to learn that the presence, and not the absence of our anxieties will teach us the grace we offer others. For us, our ministry flourishes as we receive the fact that grace can hold its breath in the deeps, or better yet, grace has gills, it breathes under the waters that seek to overtake us. For us, we begin to declare to others, “Under oceans in this fallen world I am learning to breathe!” Jesus air tanks our lungs. Sometimes we realize it and we begin to laugh. We realize that we are learning to float! Shouts, and praises, and thanksgivings of deliverance bubble up. We smile under water. It’s like being given fins or flippers. If we were on land it would be as if Jesus’ grace was putting dancing shoes on our feet. Imagine that, dancing shoes for my Presbyterian-hands-to-my-side-slight-nod-of-the-head, old soul! Ha! From there, He bids me, “Go and Preach!” What? Drenched with sea stink and fins, these dancing shoes of mine, I announce the good news. “In the world we have tribulation” I say. “But Jesus has overcome the world!”  And all of those dear one’s stinking of sea, lung-tired and treading water, with no fins or gills say, “Really?” “How Can this happen?” “Jesus!” I say. “Let me tell you about Jesus!” He is the gill giver. The surprising result is that we anxious pastors are becoming makers of psalms; poets able by gracious experience to write songs of deliverance. We have stories, real stories, of rescue! We are veterans of a certain kind of labor, a particular kind of fight. We tell of the times Jesus met us in the deeps and on his back he swam us, showing us the beauties of coral and created nobilities that landlubbers hear about from people like us, but rarely see for themselves.

Finding our “Game Speed” as Ministry Leaders

“I want you to practice at game speed!” the coach shouted. As his voice echoed and bounced off of the gym walls my third grader was wide eyed and full-eared. This was his first basketball camp. “I don’t care if you make mistakes!” the coach bellowed. “But I do care that you don’t lolly gag around! Ten minutes of practice at game speed is better than thirty minutes of casually shooting and dribbling!” The coach’s point is a good one. We play the way we practice. We should practice the way we play. This is how teams win games. I got to thinking. How does this principle apply to trying to succeed as a pastor? Asking the question a problem rises. A tension challenges us.

The Problem and the Tension

Why? Because the business of the pastor is our neighbor’s interest and growth in Jesus along with the way of life that Jesus recovers for us. The problem for us is that as a norm Jesus reorients us to Himself in a slow and simmering kind of way over the course of time among an ongoing acquaintance with the means of His grace. This slow advance in likeness to Jesus requires that pastors possess the kind of skills requisite for such gracious plodding.

And this is where the tension challenges us. Most of us have trained for pastoral ministry as if the “game speed” of the pastorate requires a quantity of results all at once. We’ve learned languages in thirteen weeks, skimmed books in thirteen minutes and mastered divinity in six semester bursts of adrenaline, reddened eyes, missed time with wife and kids and breath that both smells and depends upon coffee or mountain dew. Many of us also find ourselves in organizational ministry structures that likewise measure our daily ministry output on this same value of doing the most amount of work in the least amount of time for the biggest amount of influence.

We are prepared for a “game speed” that values results large and fast only to find that most days require our patience and our ongoing presence among unfinished people whom we can neither fix lightly nor heal quickly. Praying quickly, loudly and once doesn’t mend most things. Ours is a repetitious visitation of prayers and presence through the tragedies and triumphs of the handful of neighbors with whom we are to live as their pastor. This game speed needs players who are practiced in stamina, waiting, self-control, patience, listening, slow pacing, perseverance, silences, unfixed dilemnas and uncontrollable circumstances in Jesus.

Practicing a Jesus Pace

What kind of practice do we pastors need in order to equip us with those kinds of skills necessary for what a pastoral “game speed” often requires?

Jesus paces slow with us. He long suffers, waits for the right timing in our lives, bears us up and even though He has said something to us He teaches it again as we delay to understand His meaning. For most of us, Jesus has chosen a “game speed” that is generous in its mercy and strong in its ability to take a long view with us. Our souls are different than our events, programs and sermons. By their nature they require tending over a long period with frequent visits and lots of grace.

Trying to find a pastoral way of life

“We learned how he lived.” Reading these words gave me pause. They were written by the famed poet, Donald Hall. Donald wrote these words about his pastor. (Life Work, 6) His pastor’s name was Jack.

The words gave me pause because I had never heard of Jack or the small New Hampshire church that he pastored for years until he died. Unknown to the world and flawed he was nonetheless known by Donald and his wife Jane and a small community of people who came to follow Jesus. “Unknown to the world.” “Hmmm,” I ponder. “This fact is never a good measure of a pastor’s worth or place. Known by God. Known by those he served and loved where he was called. These, more local and mundane relationships and labors are truer measures of the pastor, the man, the call,” I think to myself.

The words also gave me pause as Scripture words plunge and splash into the pond of my thoughts.  “Remember your leaders . . .consider the outcome of their way of life . . .imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7) “A pastor’s way of doing a day is meant for apprenticeship,” I think to myself. “My way of life is supposed to promote thought and to invite imitation among those I learn to serve and love in Jesus.” Pastoral ministry is a vocation of apprenticeship in a way of life.

At this point, Anxiety began to pound its fists upon the door of my pause. “But I live a split life” I protest. The “way of life” that people encounter with me is public and oriented toward the strengths and surfaces of my days. People have my strengths to imitate: I preach Sunday, I teach on a weekday morning, I answer questions or offer counsel in my study, I lead monthly leadership meetings. People have my surfaces to imitate: how I smile or don’t, the music or movie I listen to or don’t, the way I hold my wife’s hand or don’t, the way my kids behave or don’t in the hallway after the service. “But these are moments of public doing, not personal and daily ways of being, not daily rhythms for doing a sustained life,” I counter within myself. “Is it just my moments of strength and surface that are meant to promote reflection and imitation among those I pastor?,” I ask. “Surely it isn’t less, but what about my daily weaknesses and depths?” “But people don’t want or respect a pastor’s weaknesses, ordinary rhythms or personal depths,” I counter. “To invite them there is to drop church attendance or to invite pain,” I say. “But what if people respond this way because they’ve been poorly apprenticed?”

At this point, frustration and self-righteousness crash into my pause. “What about me?!” I shout almost out loud. “How can I serve as an apprentice in a way of doing life if the pastors and leaders I’ve had offered their strength and surface, their pulpit and their handshake, as the thing I’m supposed to imitate and strive to make a norm?” “No wonder I’m hollowed out, emphasizing and chasing strengths and surfaces as a way of doing pastoral ministry! This is the normal model!”

A sense of quitting now joins the crowd of thoughts and questions and self righteousness that have infiltrated my pause. Somehow Paul offered those he served not only his teachings, but his patience, his sufferings, his daily life and his daily way of doing work for their view and imitation. (2 Tim. 3:10-11; 2 Thess. 3:7) “It had to be grace right?” I ask. “I mean, the One who let the disciples live with him and then said at the end, “love as I have loved you;” this One offers more than strength and surface for us to learn how a day can be inhabited, right?”  “Jesus paid and purchased this kind of apprenticeship for pastors and people at the cross and by His grace didn’t He provide this for us?” But what will it mean if I start to order my day in such a way that I account for more than strengths and surfaces? What will it mean if I view, not just my public performances, but my daily ways of doing life as an open book for imitation?

I will freak out and enter a kind of detox for a while. Yep. I will lose some church attendance too perhaps. For many of us, giving not only the gospel but our very lives; teaching not only by offering information but also by invitation into relationally and actually practicing the work itself, is a foreign category. Since surface and strength is what we’ve been apprenticed in, some of us won’t know how to recognize the gospel health of weakness and depth that is being offered to us. Slow, steady, authentic, incomplete, imperfect, spiritual practice amid the actual alteration of the way we approach a day isn’t sexy, quick, or noticeable. It fidgets us and there is a church down the street that likely won’t require of us this discomfort of health. I will grow, so will others and so will the way pastors pursue their vocation. But those who stay and who want to learn a way of life . . . consider its outcome . . . and imitate it, will encounter a way of life with Jesus that they never knew existed beyond the strengths and surfaces.

In order to move toward this idea of apprenticeship and imitation as a pastoral way of life, I think I’ll have to reconsider the way I currently structure a day and the way I teach,” I say to myself. “What does that look like?” I think I’ll try to begin to address that in my next couple of posts. There is a lot here to think out and learn. What do you think?

Life, ministry and “wasting time.” HELP!

I’ve become confused about what it means to waste time. This confusion is making a mess out of my ability to do life as a human being, as a family man and as a pastor. To waste time means that we squander what we’ve been given. Careless with seconds we prove inefficient through misuse of minutes.

Clock-Time Anxiety and Guilt

And this, I think is where my agitation begins. I find that I habitually measure waste by the ticking of a clock. Too many clicks and anxiety pounds upon my door demanding to be let in. Guilt sees me driving too slow. Highways are made for fast transit so guilt bangs on its horn. It tailgates me. It rolls down its window, gives me the finger and hollers, “Get off the road you %*# turtle!” Speedy completion equals well used time. Slow completion equals misuse and waste. Being on the move equals making progress. Busyness is focus. Slow advance is distraction.

Don’t get me wrong. Getting things done fast by using a hasty deadline-frenzy to motivate us makes sense when the task before us involves making sales calls, or changing diapers, or getting to surgery in the ER. Likewise, we have to “get a move on” as my people used to say, when getting the cows in, or staining the deck, or completing a building project, or finishing our homework. Waiting too long before getting a sleeping bag to the homeless in winter, or before mobilizing a swat team in crisis or before rousing a battle squadron amid ambush can have fatal consequences.  Act too slowly to roll up your car windows and the afternoon rains will soak your seats.

I Want to Get There Quickly

But right here a dilemma confronts me. Moral, psychological, physical, vocational and relational growth, by their very nature, often require massive quantities of time. This is where my confusion comes in. As a human being, unless I’m a prodigy, learning the piano is going to take years of awkward mistakes and uncomfortable practice. When we say “I do” at the altar with our spouse this does not mean that “we are done.” The trust required to say “I do” is substantial. But things await us in life that will require that our trust grows even deeper. Growing trust rarely happens hastily. If I ask my eight year old to carry the container of juice boxes from the car into the house its all good, but physically he isn’t able yet to carry the sound system speakers for worship-team set-up on Sunday morning. Not because there is something wrong with him but because there is something right. He has to be eight before he can be twelve. Likewise, my first sermon can make a huge difference in God’s hands, but that doesn’t mean that I can apply the Scriptures the way a pastor of twenty five years can. And just because I can start ministry programs and build a church building in two years does not mean that the spiritual growth of the congregation (or our own spiritual maturing) will go at the same speed.

Haste and the Pastorate Cannot Co-exist

I’m trying to say that most of what I do as a person, a family man, and as a pastor, involves entering the kinds of things that require years and lifetimes to complete. The nature of love, growth, sanctification, thought and skill requires that I give hospitable room to the time commitments these worthy depths require of us. When I try to apply clock-time measures of waste to these slow-advancing treasures I get flustered, I impatiently pressure others, I feel like a failure and incompetent.I quit way too soon. Speedy measures of accomplishment cannot mentor us in the skills of waiting, persevering and longsuffering. Without these skills we will rarely experience the abiding joys and satisfactions that only a long labor can produce.

Many of those in our congregation can do their jobs with the motto, “Speed equals value and success.” But the nature of what we are called to do as pastors will require us to throw this motto out. It cannot work for us. Human beings simply do not grow in their love for God and each other in this way. And no matter what our job is, it is a damaging thing to translate this motto into the way we make a home and make love with our spouses, the way we parent our kids, or the way we personally relate from our hearts to God. Maybe we’ve been giving up too soon on weighty things because we’ve tried to use haste as our means of accruing weightiness. A life or ministry of substance cannot happen quickly. Dear friend, using your days to give people the hospitable room that their growth with Jesus and each other will require, is no waste of time! It is a noble way to spend a life. 

Do Not Be Discouraged

With this in mind, I’d like to share an old story with you. It is told by an old hermit.

A man had a plot of land. Through his carelessness, brambles sprang up and it became a wilderness of thistles and thorns. Then he decided to cultivate it. So he said to his son, “go and clear that ground.”

So, the son went to clear it and saw that the thorns and thistles had multiplied. So, his resolve weakened and he said, “What alot of time I should need to clear and weed all this.” So he lay down and went to sleep. He did this day after day.When his father came to see what he had done he found him doing nothing. He said to him, “Why have you done nothing until now?”

The boy said to his father, “I was coming to work father when I saw this wilderness of thorn and thistle and I was too intimidated to start and so I lay on the ground and went to sleep.” Then his father said to him, “Son if you had cleared each day the area on which you lay down, your work would have advanced slowly and you would not have lost heart.” So the boy followed his father’s advice and in a short time the plot was cultivated.

The hermit then spoke about the grace of God and added, “do a little work and do not be discouraged.” (The Desert Fathers, Penguin Classics, 72-73)