Barbara Brown Taylor was not the first of my friends to leave pastoral ministry and she has not been the last, but she is the first to write a book about her decision to leave. Her memoir, Leaving Church, is such an eloquent and engaging account of her decision to leave that it has prompted me to consider again why I remain in pastoral ministry and why, in many ways, I still cherish this vocation.
I have been in pastoral ministry for 26 years now—surely too long to dismiss the challenges. Like most pastors, I can readily identify with many of the sources of Barbara’s frustrations: the sense of confinement, the relentlessness of the role, and especially the press of needy and quarrelsome people. I also recognize that some of the reasons she gives for leaving are, with the slightest turn of the kaleidoscope, some of the same reasons I am staying in pastoral ministry.
It is clear that Barbara experienced pastoral ministry as a kind of confinement. She felt hemmed in by the demands of the role and the needs of those around her. She remembers one bishop discouraging her from being ordained because lay people can minister anywhere, whereas priests “choose a smaller box.” Elsewhere Barbara likens wearing clerical garb to wearing the black and white striped outfits worn by prisoners. Her decision to leave pastoral ministry becomes a flight for freedom. It is an image that is captured on the cover of the book, which depicts a dove escaping from a wrought-iron cage.
To be sure, there are ways in which a pastor’s life is developed in confinement. It is anchored in text, font and table, and in a particular community of faith. Also, one can feel hemmed in on all sides by the range of expectations people have regarding what a pastor should be and do. As Garrison Keillor once observed, when you are a pastor people are always reading you literally.
Nevertheless, I have found that there are ways in which the pastoral vocation confers an extraordinary amount of freedom, if I am willing to claim it. Perhaps no other vocation allows for the kind of freedom in the use of one’s time as does pastoral ministry. My wife is an attorney, so her vocational life is measured out in 15-minute segments of “billable hours.” She is confined to an office, limited to a comparatively narrow set of responsibilities, with very little discretion over how her time is used—it is used in any way the paying client wants to use it.
By contrast, pastors do not need to think in terms of billable hours, quotas, or the number of patients seen or the amount of goods produced. To be sure, we must meet certain expectations and even perform routine tasks, but there is nothing approaching the constraints on the use of time found in other professions. Pastors who fulfill basic expectations are given remarkable freedom to interpret their own sense of call.
That is why the schedules of no two pastors are alike. How each pastor spends time can reflect, in part at least, that person’s unique gifts. So I have known pastors who have integrated their own interests into their ministries by writing hymns, producing plays, reading Calvin, or even making pottery. People in other professions can imagine having that kind of freedom only when they retire.
It is true that, in order to exercise that freedom, a pastor has to master the diplomat’s art of having a thousand different ways of saying “no.” It also requires the kind of clarity that does not confuse people’s diverse expectations with a job description, which means that it requires being willing to disappoint people.
I have been helped by the reminder that Jesus was a pastor who was always running away from his congregation. That is, Jesus’s life and ministry were marked by times of intense engagement with others in rhythm with times away, either alone or with his most trusted friends. Henri Nouwen often talked about the importance of a “ministry of presence.” But certainly there is a “ministry of absence” as well, not only for the sake of the pastor’s own health but also for the bracing reminder that God can be at work even when the pastor is not present. For reasons I don’t fully understand, there are more pastors reluctant to exercise that freedom than there are congregations unwilling to allow it.
In whatever ways that freedom is exercised, however, there still is no escaping the pastoral role. As Barbara so clearly testifies, the pastoral role follows you around relentlessly. Anyone who has spent time in pastoral ministry knows what it is like to covet the “off duty” sign of the cab driver or the established office hours of the therapist. The pastoral life is lived in the round. In a term used in the theater, there is no “blind side,” no side where there is not an audience. And to be sure, there can be something exhausting about always having to be “on.”
Even though this characteristic of the pastoral life can be a source of stress, it also can contribute to an integrated life. The church I serve is in a suburban town in which many people live remarkably fragmented lives: they have work lives, social lives, family lives, church lives. Those various lives may overlap somewhat, but more often they are each lived out in separate locations among different people, with little integration among them. Many of the parents in my congregation have to participate in “Take Your Child to Work Day” just so their children will have some notion of what they do with most of their waking hours. They long to have their lives gathered up into a more coherent whole.
It is telling that the old English term for person, parson, came to be used to describe a pastor, as though the person and the vocation were so completely integrated that they had become synonymous. Today we may not refer to “the legal life” or “the medical life,” but we can still speak of “the pastoral life,” because even in our time it is a way of life that can be more fully integrated.
Not being able to escape the pastoral role means particularly not being able to escape the people. William Willimon says he worries when seminarians report that they are going into pastoral ministry because “I just love people. I want to work with people.” Willimon responds by asking, “Have you actually met any of these people?” Saint Benedict, the same one who wrote about the blessings of community and gave instruction on how to live in community, also said, “Community is my penance.”
I appreciate the candor with which Barbara reports that when, in the baptismal service, she asked the congregation, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself,” she had to stifle her protest: “How could I possibly seek and serve Christ in all persons? Did the author of that [liturgy] have any idea how many hungry, needy, angry, manipulative, deeply ill people I saw in the course of a week?”
Throughout her memoir, Barbara reports in a variety of ways that her most frequent encounters with God are in the natural world. Given the demands of being in community with people, this should not be surprising. It is telling that the settings that we tend to describe as “peaceful” are invariably places with few, if any, people. So it’s not hard to offer an “amen” to Barbara’s elegiac testimonies to the immanence of God in nature. In fact, it’s downright easy, perhaps too easy.
A few months ago I spent several days hiking in the interior reaches of the Grand Canyon. To me it is a holy place, the most vaulted of natural Gothic cathedrals. It is not hard to feel close to God there, not only because of what is present, but also due to what is largely absent—the demands of living in community. The buttes don’t quarrel with each other. The California condors make no demands of the living. The rollicking streams offer only comforting words. There is no need to
raise money for a sanctuary roof because the blue sky has already supplied it.
To me, the affirmation that God can be found outside the church has never seemed like much of a claim. The true wonder is that God can be found inside the church, among quirky, flawed, and broken people who may have little in common and yet are bound to one another. What an unlikely setting in which to encounter God! But the Christian God seems to like to surprise us by showing up in the most unpromising places, like a Jew from Nazareth and in a motley gathering of people known as church.
God throws us together in the church and says, in essence, “Here is where you get a chance to learn how to live with other people, to forgive, and even come to see God in one another. After all, if you can find God here, you can find God anywhere.” It is not coincidence that Jesus said love your neighbor and love your enemy, because often they are the same person. Living in community is an essential Christian practice because it gives us such ample opportunity to learn how to receive the stranger and practice forgiveness. If we can practice the art of reconciliation long enough with one another, then we have a chance to let reconciliation mark our relationships with others as well. The church, like the family, is the place where we learn to live with people we are stuck with. And when we stick together, it is a living reminder of the God who is stuck with us all.
As a pastor, I am expected to care about people I may not particularly care for. It is assumed that I will act with compassion even when I may not feel at all compassionate. I am expected to forgive, when on my own I would be inclined to hold a grudge. Obviously, Jesus enjoined all of his followers to act in these ways, but in most congregations the expectations of a pastor in this regard are particularly high. And I am grateful for that. It is not easy to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” of course, but even attempting to do so has enlarged my capacity for compassion.
When, for instance, a church member who has been particularly critical of my ministry is seriously ill in the hospital, it is assumed that I will go and pray with that person. It is not something I would naturally choose to do on my own, but it is something that is expected of me by virtue of my vocation. Yet when that prayer is offered, the petitions for healing—which one might expect to ring hollow under the circumstances—can be filled withpower, and something in my own heart can be healed in the process. It used to surprise me when that happened. Now I look for it.
It doesn’t always work that way, of course, but it does often enough that I now think I understand why Jesus tells his followers to act in particular ways, regardless of how they feel at the time. He says turn your cheek, pray for your enemies, pray then like this. He focuses on actions, not because interior dispositions are unimportant but because most often we act our way into a new way of thinking and feeling rather than the other way around. So I am grateful that the pastoral vocation requires that I act in ways that seem beyond me.
Barbara seems particularly drawn to images of motherhood to describe her own ministry in the parish. She is the brooding hen, the single mother of a large and demanding family. At one point she says that her “breasts fairly leaked” when she would encounter people in need.
One does not have to be from a tradition in which the priest is called “Father” to find some resonances of the parental role in pastoral ministry. A pastor nurtures, feeds, guides, and teaches. There is a special bond between pastor and people. The pastor is charged with caring for the people in every circumstance, in and out of season.
Nevertheless, parenthood is not the most apt, or certainly not the most healthy, image for the role of the pastor. We could take issue with the image on theological grounds, of course, but in addition, as Barbara discovered, it is simply too exhausting to think of oneself as a parent to a congregation. The challenges of parenting my own two children are demanding enough without adopting the hundreds of parishioners who are a part of my congregation.
Instead, I have come to view my role as more like that of a midwife, someone who is trained to assist in the birthing process. A midwife performs her role in a whole range of ways, sometimes by coaching the parents and other times by providing some direct assistance, and often, when little needs to be done, simply by standing by in wonder and awe.
We pastors assist people in “giving birth” to a new or deepened relationship with God. We are not the center of the action, or even key players in the drama. Like midwives, our role is limited but can be quite important nonetheless. We perform our role in a variety of ways—for instance, by teaching, leading worship, and visiting the sick. We tell the Christian story, coach and encourage, listen and pray. What unites all of these roles and activities is that each provides an opportunity to encounter God.
It is a joy simply to be present at a birth. It is something even more—a real privilege—to play a role, however small or incidental, in that birth. Actually, in my work as a pastor, often I am not aware that anything so momentous is taking place. But then someone will report, fresh from a kind of birth, that a particular worship service helped her experience Jesus Christ as a living presence, as if for the first time. Or a young person returning from a church service project will tell the congregation what it was like to encounter Jesus Christ disguised as one of the poor. Or someone will tell me that my prayers at his hospital bed provided ongoing comfort because, when I departed, it was as if I left God with him. Or I will conduct a funeral and the congregation will be so obviously hungry for whatever word might sustain them that they resemble a flock of baby birds with beaks open wide. To be able to offer the words of promise that their souls are aching to hear at such a time feels like a privilege beyond deserving.
In each of these instances I am very aware that I did not make anything happen. My role, like that of a midwife, is limited. Nevertheless, something I did not provide, something clearly beyond me, that “something” called the presence of God, is at work. On those occasions I feel like a wick that is in awe that it can be used by a flame.
So, much of the time, I feel like an invited guest to special places where wondrous things happen. I am not invited because I am a special person, or because I have a particular set of skills, or because I have greater faith than anyone else does. Nevertheless, I am invited to those places in people’s lives because I have accepted God’s call to do this holy work.
I will also stay in pastoral ministry because the church is still the place that nurtures and forms people like Barbara Brown Taylor. She is quick to acknowledge her debt to the church, but she hardly needs to. Her prose is soaked through with images drawn from the church’s book and the church’s liturgy. One of the reasons that she can write like an angel is that, in some sense, she was taught to speak and write by the church. She did not learn the language of faith by sipping Assam tea on her front porch, as she says she now does many Sunday mornings. The birds that seem to flock everywhere in her memoir did not teach it to her. She did not learn it in the religion departments of her alma mater or of the college where she now teaches. She learned it in church, which is still the wellspring of the Christian tradition.
The Christian God is not confined to the church, of course, and the church is not the only setting for ministry. But other Christian ministries—including the ministries of teaching, writing, and speaking that now engage Barbara—are derivative of what happens in the church. And if the church can form and
nurture the work of someone like Barbara, then I am sticking with it.
A few years back I wrote an article that argued that the pastoral life is a form of the good life. I commended pastoral ministry as a uniquely rewarding way of life which, indeed, I have found it to be. I showed the article to a friend who is a pastor, who had only one comment: “Well, it is a good life, if you are called to it.” And of course he is right. Pastoral ministry is a job laden with challenges and in certain ways it seems to get more difficult every year. So it is not the kind of job anyone would likely pick out from the classified ads or at a job fair. Then again, if it were a job, I probably would have quit long ago.
That is why the reasons Barbara gives for leaving pastoral ministry do not need to be challenged or defended. Rather, her book can be placed alongside other witnesses that may differ in key respects. My friend’s comment on my article captures an essential reason why people can have such different experiences of pastoral ministry. It still comes down to the matter of call. So I am able both to affirm Barbara’s decision to leave pastoral ministry and to reconfirm my own commitment to pastoral ministry.
On the occasion of his retirement, Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “If I had a thousand lives to live in this century, I would go into parish ministry with every one of them.” That is perhaps the strongest affirmation of a call to pastoral ministry that I know. I’m not sure I could go quite as far as Fosdick did. If I had a thousand lives to live in this century, I might use one or two to do something else, like become a jazz pianist or an NBA point guard. But, with just one life to live on this earth, I am grateful that God called me to be a pastor. And I am staying.