After being a fulltime pastor for over thirty years, I took some time off to catch my breath and get my bearings. To tell the truth, I had gotten lost in the job.
Just yesterday I was telling my wife that I had given my heart to my last church, and somehow I lost my heart. The emotions swirling around the position of pastor, especially when denominational politics got involved, was more than I could take. I needed to step back for a while.
After 1½ years of true sabbatical, I am returning to fulltime ministry next month. I have already had a foretaste of it before I step foot on my parish turf. I am already a part of the joys and sorrows of my new congregation via telephone, Facebook, and email.
In his book, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile,” John Shelby Spong reflects on what it meant for him to go through the stages of professional Christian ministry – to be a university student, a seminary student, a pastor, and then a bishop. Regarding being a pastor he writes:
“One who has not walked in the shoes of the ordained pastor will never understand what it means to be wrapped in the images of antiquity, to be related to by others out of experience that you did not shape, to be loved and trusted far beyond any deserving on your part, and to be hated and feared beyond any cause to which you have contributed. People invest their lives in their designated spiritual leader, and the responsibility is awesome.”
Bishop Spong describes the experience of being a pastor well. It is a whirlwind of images and expectations over which the pastor has no control. It is certainly true that no one but a pastor can understand the pastor’s life … except the pastor’s spouse!
When you are a pastor you are not yourself. You are the projection of all the ideas and emotions that people have about clergy and church – both good and bad. Seldom do people really see you. They see who they think you are or who they want you to be. The danger is that you begin to see yourself the way that others see you.
In speaking about his role as a bishop, Spong goes on to say: “I discovered that I lived inside God-sized expectations that I could never fulfill, and simultaneously I recognized that no one else could deal with those realities but me….”
This reminds me of the plaque that a pastor got from his congregation for “Pastor Appreciation Month.” It read “Pastor: The reason that you mean so much to me is that when I look at you, it is Jesus whom I see.” After worship a little girl once shyly stared at me at the church steps and asked her mom, “Is that God?” Just for the record, I’m not God; I’m not even Jesus.
For more than a year, I have simply been me – sitting in a pew, preaching occasionally, writing a lot – enjoying being a husband, father, grandfather and friend. Soon I will be a pastor again.
This time I will try to remember who I am. Not the reflection I see in the faces of my parishioners, but the reflection I see in the depths of prayer. Just a sinful man, a wounded healer, trying to fulfill his God-given ministry the best I can.