A large handful of my friends have left the parish ministry in recent years. It has gotten my attention. There are times when I feel a bit like a character in an Agatha Christie story. As people all around me are getting bumped off, I can’t help but wonder, Who will be the next to go?
Although each friend’s circumstances are different, there are commonalities as well. All were very able pastors; none left with bitterness. They have not ceased to believe in the church, but over time the demands of the pastoral life began to seem too great and the rewards too few.
When I shared this concern with a seminary president, he responded that in his view, the greatest leadership crisis facing the church today is not the number of under-qualified pastors serving congregations but the number of competent, faithful pastors whose congregations are prospering under their leadership, who are loved by their congregations . . . and who want out.
Indeed, a consensus seems to be gathering that pastors are a beleaguered lot—overburdened and underpaid, over-whelmed and under-appreciated.
I have spent 20 years in the pastoral ministry— too many years to be able to dismiss the challenges. There may be ways to make pastoral ministry significantly less challenging, but somehow I doubt it. Many of the challenges are intrinsic to the vocation.
What seems urgently needed is a revival of the pastoral imagination. I am convinced that only a deepened sense of call will enable pastors to fall in live once again with our strange and wonderful vocation, in spite of its challenges. Such a revival would help us see that those aspects of pastoral life commonly viewed as most demanding are the very ones that, when viewed and approached differently, make the pastoral life a good life.
The Last Generalists
Today pastors often feel a glaring lack of expertise. We are among the last generalists in a culture that draws people into ever narrower areas of specialization. For the most part, generalists are viewed as those who have neither the time nor the expertise to do anything particularly well. In the increasingly mobile employment world, expertise means job security because you can take it with you. But what is the pastor’s area of expertise?
Pastors’ lack of specific expertise may be felt all the more keenly because we are trained largely by experts. In seminary, we learn biblical interpretation from biblical scholars, pastoral care from psychologists, and preaching from those who spend more time on the preaching circuit than in a local church. It is not surprising, then, that when pastors serve their first churches they can feel inadequate in virtually every pastoral duty. For example, it is telling that in many congregations psychotherapeutic terminology has virtually overwhelmed the language of the church in descriptions of the human condition. No wonder, then, that pastoral care is often viewed as little more than the preliminary ministrations of those who arrive first at the scene of an accident. The best that can be expected is to hold on until the experts arrive. Likewise, after having been trained in the scholarly tools of the academy, pastors often feel unqualified to interpret Scripture in their preaching without recourse to commentaries by scholarly experts.
The generalist role, as practiced by pastors, may be increasingly rare, but that may be all the more reason to revel in it. Certainly, there is more variety in the tasks one performs. More than this, a pastor’s work is not simply distinct tasks performed at different times. Rather, the various tasks relate to each other in dynamic ways, setting each one into a richer context. In this way the pastor’s various roles—worship leader, preacher, teacher, prophet, administrator, caregiver—inform and enhance one another. The pastor’s work becomes not only more interesting but also more effective.
A Unifying Role
The lineups at most preaching conferences do not feature many local church pastors. But a sermon is not a general and disembodied religious discourse. A sermon is an embodied word spoken to a particular body—the congregation. So the most effective preaching usually is from a local congregation’s own pastor. The sermon may take its final form in the pastor’s study, but it has been taking shape all week long, in every encounter, in the midst of lives that are shared, as the pastor asks, What might the scriptural Word have to say, at this point in our life together, to these people I care so much about?
Pastors are given privileged access to the lives of people, but not in a mere therapeutic sense. Our interactions with parishioners are not confined to 50-minute appointments in a well-ordered office, on a fee-for-service basis. Our parishioners cannot be described in clinical, two-dimensional terms such as clients or patients because we see them in too rich a variety of contexts and relate to them in too many different ways. The pastor who listens to a parishioner’s account of his life also shares in that life in important ways. The person who is counseled by the pastor may be the same person who, later in the week, takes part in a prayer group and presides at a church meeting—not to mention all the other settings, from supermarket to soccer game to dinner party, in which the pastor may interact meaningfully with the same parishioner. The pastor knows the parishioner’s family as well, and in a similarly rich variety of contexts. Out of these interactions can develop a thickly textured relationship that is nothing short of unique.
It is because God cannot be confined to any one area of life, even the one commonly deemed the “spiritual life,” that the pastor cannot be anything but a generalist. The pastor brings unifying questions to every encounter and setting, as diverse as they may be. Those questions are, Where is God in this? What might God say to us here?
For similar reasons, the pastor is called to be a generalist by the wide range of concerns in which he is engaged. In addition to matters that are considered sacred or churchly, a pastor must attend to economics (on personal, congregational, and societal levels), politics and civic life, health, education, the workplace, family life, culture, and the arts. This is why most pastors read widely, across a variety of disciplines, in a way that is rare in our culture. Our reading is more than a mere foraging for sermon fodder. Rather, our involvement in this broad spectrum of disciplines is required for us to be faithfully attentive to God in everyday life. We do not seek to be experts in any of these realms, but neither can we do our job well if we are not attending to the ways they interact and shape the lives we live. This requires deep reflection and keen discernment.
To be sure, that is a tall order. So for a pastor, the role of a generalist is not an invitation to an intellectually languid life. Quite the contrary: intellectually, the pastoral life is potentially demanding and substantive.
If a pastor engages with this rich variety of roles and realms in a manner that is both reflective and discerning, she can develop a kind of understanding that would not otherwise be possible. Indeed, if only a specialist can acquire expertise, perhaps the gift that is given over time to the generalist is something like wisdom.
An Integrated Life
The pastoral life resists being contained in other ways as well. There are fewer boundaries between work and family and between one’s private life and public life. Pastors are not issued “off duty” signs when they simply want to pick up a quart of milk at a local store. There is no escaping the pastoral role. It follows one around relentlessly.
Even though this characteristic of the pastoral life can be a source of stress, it also contributes to an in
tegrated life. People observe “take Your Child to Work Day” so their children will have some notion of what their parents do with most of their waking hours. By contrast, the children of pastors know the people their parents work with and are known by them as well. Pastors’ children are familiar with the principal places where their parents work. Often pastors practice hospitality in a way that makes the household a site for ministry and engagement with the outside world. In other words, this way of life can offer a coherence between one’s private and public life that is extremely rare.
It is telling that the old English term for person, parson, came to be used to describe a pastor, as though the person and 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 still speak of “the pastoral life,” because even in our time it is way of life that can be more fully integrated.
Freedom in Space and Time
Inherent in the pastoral role is an unmistakable fluidity, even freedom, in time and space. In a given week the pastor will find himself or herself in many and varied settings: the office, the living room, the booth at a local diner, the parking lot, the hospital room, the sanctuary, and the classroom. All of these are natural settings for the work of a pastor. None of them could be considered “off site.”
Unlike people in other professions, pastors can seize any opportunity and use any setting to conduct their work. A physician who cannot be without her beeper when having dinner with friends and an attorney who must take a cell phone to the beach while watching his children swim may express resentment about the ways in which their work lives seem to seep into and overwhelm their personal lives. This is far from the kind of integration that is possible in the pastoral life.
Freedom also characterizes the pastor’s use of time. Most pastors work long hours, but in most instances they are given a rare freedom to structure their use of time. To be sure, a pastor 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. A pastor does not need to deal with quotas, billable hours, or the number of patients seen or the amount of goods produced. Pastors who fulfill basic expectations are largely free to interpret their own sense of call. The schedules of no two pastors are alike. How each pastor spends time is largely a reflection of that person’s unique gifts. I have known pastors who have integrated their own interests into their ministries by writing hymns, producing plays, reading Calvin, or even making pottery. Many in other professions can only imagine having such freedom n retirement.
Blessed by Confinement
There are ways, of course, in which the pastoral life is quite constrained. It is confined to the life and practices of the church. It is a life anchored in text, font, and table, and in a particular community of faith. Perhaps it is the communal aspect confining, at times even oppressively so. There is no freedom from the congregation—no escaping the people. Every day a pastor must live with the foibles, failings, needs, and demands of people. The pastor might not choose to associate with many of these people, at least not at such close range, were it not for the inescapable fact that pastor and people are tethered together in the community of faith.
What is sometimes experienced as confinement, however, provides a distinctive rootedness. Over time there can grow a depth of relationship, not only with people but also with God, which arises out of the very given-ness of the community of faith. It takes shape in serious, extended engagement with both the story and the people.
So we have reason to challenge any implication that the deepest theological reflection must take place away from the local church in seminaries and universities—a notion that would certainly seem strange to the likes of the apostle Paul. It is not a coincidence that America’s greatest Christian thinkers have all been local church pastors: Jonathan Edwards, Horace Bushnell, Walter Rauschenbush, Reinhold Niebhur, and Martin Luther King, Jr. This speaks to the ways in which theological engagement is more than a disembodied discipline. Rather, Christian theology is doggedly incarnational. It is in the church, as the story touches down in the lives of actual people, that theological engagement is deepened and enhanced. It is true that life in a parish—particularly among parishioners!—can be confining. There is no escaping it: pastors are stuck with this story and this people. But when one is not allowed to roam more widely, one is often permitted to dig more deeply.
Pastors are also expected to integrate spiritual practices into their lives—practices such as worship, prayer, the study of Scripture, visiting the sick, and aiding the poor. Christians who work in non-church settings sometimes struggle to find ways to fit these practices into their full lives; for pastors, these practices are our lives. We are supported by the church, both financially and otherwise, so that we may engage in them. Of course, we do so to build up the church. Nevertheless, as a kind of blessed bonus, these are precisely the practices that nurture a relationship with God.
The Gift of Preaching
Perhaps nothing is more central to the pastoral life than preaching. At the same time, perhaps nothing can seem more anomalous in a culture that prizes productivity and efficiency. The process of sermon preparation is inefficient, often in the service of indeterminate results. It requires that time and space be set aside weekly, if not daily, for a pastor to be immersed in ancient texts. Numerous hours are invested for a 20-minute oration that usually is delivered but once. The practice would probably not stand up to the scrutiny of a standard cost/benefit analysis.
Nevertheless, there is yet great power in preaching. For the preacher, sermon preparation can be devotional discipline like no other. As the pastor engages the text, she can find herself called to attention. The pastor’s life and thought become concentrated by the engagement. She can find herself attending to interactions with people and circumstances in the world with a heightened sense of awareness. Moments that might otherwise remain opaque or unnoticed become transparent and revelatory in surprising ways. This kind of work is unique to the pastoral life. That a community of people would ask someone, their pastor, to enter into this kind of engagement on a regular basis on their behalf, and make it possible for the pastor to do so, is nothing short of a great gift.
The ancient and odd practice of preaching manages somehow to be a gift to the congregation as well. There is still power in someone plainly telling others what has been seen and heard in that person’s engagement with the ancient story of God’s interaction with the world. Preaching still has the ability to nurture and nourish a congregation, in ways that remain mysterious. In fact, the preacher may be the one who is most aware of the mysterious power of preaching. The preacher knows what he has put into the sermon and also hears from the congregation how much they have gotten out of it—a loaves and fishes miracle reenacted on a weekly basis. On such occasions preachers can be overcome with something like awe that amid their own words something else, another Word, has been communicated. They realize, too, that they can no more take credit for what has happened than a wick can take credit for a flame or a cello accept praise for a sonata.
Nevertheless, the mystery at the heart of preaching means that it is efficacious in ways that are different to trace, particularly in a culture that demands quantification and efficiency.
The Benefits of Not Fitting In
I have come to delight in the realization that being a pastor makes no sense in a functional world. The pastoral life is not good for anything in any way that a consumerist culture might be expected to appreciate. We pastors do not produce anything that this culture would want. In fact, we don’t produce anything at all. Even the fact that pastors are highly educated and yet not notably well paid not only makes us something of an oddity in a materialistic culture, but also something of an affront.
So being a pastor is increasingly countercultural. That is one of the reasons it seems so difficult and also why it is worth doing. If, indeed, the pastoral life seems out of favor, there is great opportunity in that. It means that we no longer need to bear the burden of our culture’s expectations. No longer will we be tempted to pose as something that the culture deems more worthwhile—as counselors, managers, or agents of social change. Much of what is described as clergy burnout may be the result of pastors trying to assume roles and take on tasks that are not central to our vocation but that the culture might value. To be without prestige and power is to be free to respond to our unique call. This is not the kind of work one would choose at a job fair. The appeal of pastoral ministry is not evident, or even available, to all. Nevertheless, to those who feel called to this work, it can be the most glorious of all vocations.
Harry Emerson Fosdick, on the occasion of his retirement from the pastoral ministry in the middle of the last century, reflected on the unique joys of the pastoral life by saying, “If I had a thousand lives to live in this century, I would go into the parish ministry with every one of them.” That is the statement of someone who has an unassailable sense of call.
As pastors, we need such testimonies. We need to remind ourselves and one another that being a local church pastor is a difficult job—and can be a wonderful life.