Joy In the Heavy Lift

Note: this one is about the job….

The cry of people who study such things in the modern church is that there is a terminal lack of connection and personal friendship among it’s leaders.  I’m not talking about the sort of back slapping pseudo-connection that often passes for friendship at our tribal gatherings, but genuine community.  The word ‘koinonia’ has been lifted from the relative obscurity of the original Greek and used as a sort of universal ideal of Christian family, but there is a grave problem with it’s modern application – it only works well for those who are walking the same path.  For all the protestations of ‘team leadership’ and being ‘first among equals’, the simple fact is that the pastor has unique responsibilities, challenges, and needs with which the rest of the church doesn’t have to deal on an ongoing basis and of which laity is generally unaware.  That is in no way meant to diminish their unique struggles, but to highlight the distinctive pressures of spiritual oversight.  While we labor to build community among the people we serve, our own personal isolation is generally the rule rather than the exception.  This is a positional truth, not one of value, worth, or merit.  It would be foolish in the extreme to suggest that the pastor is somehow more important to God than the Sunday School teacher, worship leader, or custodian, but the position of ‘overseer’ of the flock is distinct in many ways.  I would say that most of our burden is self-loaded in a culture that is enamored with heroes and that holds personal ambition as a virtue, but it is real nonetheless.  The studies point to the fact that the majority of vocational pastors don’t have one genuine friend in ministry with which to share the intricacies of their journey, and that loneliness and feelings of inadequacy define the emotional condition of a large majority of men and women in this role.  Often pastors would protest that they share everything with their spouses, and that provides the cover they need, but there is a glaring problem with that conclusion – it’s not biblical!  There’s not one single place in the scripture that conflates the role of spouse and vocational paraclete – the accountability structure and spiritual dynamics are vastly different.  The biblical pattern is friendship – most often intimately held friendship between two or three on a common course and with the same calling, yet distinct from the covenant of spiritual union.  I fear that in our rush to placate the self important voices of cultural nominalism we have lost that very key distinction.  There’s just some things that need to be carried in tandem alongside someone with similar bruises, and without that the buildup mimics the behavior of an untrimmed emotional candle.  The bottom line is, Pastor, YOU NEED FRIENDS!

Here’s the rub…most pastors have heard about this problem and are intrinsically aware of it’s truth, but the remedy has proven elusive.  I believe I have an idea why….it’s all about trust!  I suppose there’s not a single person in pastoral ministry that hasn’t suffered the ignominy of betrayal or being misrepresented or misunderstood, often by colleagues and even occasionally by those in authority.  Those things are par for the course and to be dealt with as long a fallible men occupy those positions, but I believe the emotional walls erected in such circumstances are the real Trojan horse purpose of the enemy in the attack.  If he can get us to withdraw into our own bunker and to see others through the sullied glasses of unresolved wounds and/or disappointments, he has effectively undercut the plan of Christ himself in the process (John 17:21). 

I love history, because some of the great lessons we need to apply today have already been learned by those who have gone before.  One such lesson comes to mind from the French response to the losses of World War 1.  They decided to build a fortified line – a wall, if you will (sound eerily familiar these days?) to prevent the enemy from being able to just roll right on in again.  A major part of the French economy was tapped in the 1930’s to finance it’s construction, and it’s features seemed impenetrable.  The problem was, when the time for the invasion came, the Nazi’s simply went around the Maginot Line through the Belgian Ardennes and forced one of the most miraculous evacuations of troops in the history of recorded war (Dunkirk) – a colossal defeat traceable to one simple miscalculation – they were defending against the wrong kind of attack!  I fear that much of the might of the local church has been squandered by just such self obsession, and that our pastors have unintentionally become garrison commanders of a line designed to fight yesterday’s battles.  This is all traced back, I believe, to our lack of interconnection to one another, and ultimately our isolation from the true work of the Body of Christ.  Busyness is not necessarily God’s business, but men who are standing on their own beachhead and not in communication with the rest of the force are easily confused between the two.  The opulence of some of the provisions of that defended line, the strength of it’s armaments, and the infrastructure of the overall plan consumed the vast majority of the budget of an entire nation for almost a decade.  The day before the invasion it is quite probable that there was much back slapping and self-congratulation among those with a false sense of ease in it’s shadow – maybe even some strategic name-dropping and credit scrounging – and that those who were garrisoned there felt the assurance of what turned out to be a gossamer shield.  That’s not unlike many of our pastors who have fortified their own positions only to come to the realization that one rampart, one outpost does not a war win nor a people defend.  We are integral parts of a much larger effort, and we simply do not have the time to waste being isolated in our own insecurities.  We NEED one another, warts and all.

So, a few suggestions from a journeyman pastor:

  1. Be intentional about building friendships with other ministers – especially those of your own tribe!  Those men and women are not your rivals, nor are they out to take advantage of you (for the most part – back to that fallible men thing).  You need someone to help you ‘keep it real’ and to hold you accountable.
  2. Prioritize opportunities for fellowship with other ministers.  Often pastors feel guilty using up the finite amount of time they have on something so seemingly unproductive as fellowship with other preachers, but that is a trick of the enemy.  The truth is that often the word we need to hear or the encouragement we need is in escrow with that pastor friend that you aren’t making time to hear.  Almost everything on the pastor’s calendar is timed at his or her discretion, and short of a real emergency (not one perceived by others’ impatience) there is room to carve out time to be intentional and include significant time interacting with others who are carrying the same or similar burdens.  We’ve got a lot of Marthas carrying credentials and banging pots, and missing moments of true spiritual connection and enrichment in the process.
  3. Deal with your own insecurities!  This one should have probably been first on my list.  There’s no place for paranoia in ministry, but we seem to have more than our fair share.  Do as scripture says and give the benefit of the doubt to your peers rather than always looking with those untrusting eyes for ulterior motives.  And by the way, the next time you hear someone in a position of authority or influence resort to that ‘preacher-speak’ and try to manage you, don’t play along!  Look past it and see the man or woman for who they really are – just another man or woman trying to make it work – and try to find a way to connect with them on that level.  It won’t always be possible, but they will be the ones that lose out if you are unsuccessful, so try to plow through the jargon and touch the man.  YOU might be the one who’s holding escrow on THEIR next word from God, after all.  Even ‘Napoleon’ needs Jesus and friends.  Here’s the deal – we need each other!
  4. Refuse to be intimidated and don’t be a bully!  Wow, that’s harsh, but both happen far more often than genuine connections do.  A pastor who is faithfully in God’s will has absolutely no reason to feel emotional distress or to succumb to anxiety around others whose context may appear to be more significant.  As a matter of fact, the search for ‘significance’ for it’s own sake can be contrary to the very idea of servanthood and is often corrupted by vanity in church clothes — God has called us to be instruments, not trophies, and the very worst thing we can do is try to impress Him instead of serve Him!  Man’s favor is curried and sought, but true spiritual favor from the Lord is given in response to faithfulness and relationship.  As for being a bully, the very act of stratifying our relationships based on the temporary exigencies of our present position is a recipe for disaster when the wind inevitably blows the other way in your ministry.  You need friends in ‘high’ places and ‘low’ places (sorry Garth), friends with large responsibilities and friends with relatively few — in fact, true friendship is not based on station, but on intentional connection and compatibility.  We unintentionally become spiritual and emotional bullies when we rush past the outstretched hand of fellowship from that brand new pastor trying to find his place in the tribe in favor of others who are already in the loop who may seem more ‘important’.
  5. For heaven’s sake, if there’s something hidden in your closet, pray through and make restitution where possible!  We all know the stories….this preacher caught in adultery, this other preacher clandestinely carting away cash from the treasury or misallocating funds, yet another conspiring to hide his own personal misdeeds with lies and deception….it’s the case that often people don’t want relationships because it makes them vulnerable – the very thing Christ told us that we ought to be with one another.  Just because we are in ministry does not change the kingdom dynamics of our spiritual lives….sin still kills!  The thing is, when we don’t deal with it we hurt a lot of people in the process and for it we face a stricter judgment (James 3:1).  Pastors are just men and women.  Our position doesn’t legitimize rationalizing sin nor does it absolve us of it’s penalty.  The closer we are to others who fend off the same kinds of temptations we face the more likely that we can avoid succumbing to sin’s allure.  It’s been said that the first step to getting out of a hole you are digging is to stop digging.  I would suggest the immediate second step should be to hand the shovel to someone you trust!

OK – time to land this thing (sorry for the opus, but this is close to my heart).  Many if not most of the people who don’t finish their course in ministry are lost because they lose their joy in the heavy lift.  This is intended to be a corporate effort, and the only true and lasting impact we will have – the only truly ‘significant’ contribution we can hope to make – is in the service of the larger kingdom and not in singular reliance upon ourselves.  As I said before, God’s not looking for heroes, celebrities, or trophies – He’s looking for servants, and the outcome of the corporate lift is His responsibility, a burden we dare not try to place on our own shoulders, especially in isolation from others called to the task.  BLESSINGS!

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