A special privilege that comes with my work is the opportunity to meet and get to know a sizable number of pastors and rabbis. Whether these encounters have been only for a portion of a day or have stretched over decades, they have provided me an unending stream of glimpses into the full, complex, fascinating—and, at times, mysterious—lives of pastors. What other group of people read sacred texts, talk to a couple about the pain in their marriage, plan a mission trip to Appalachia, listen (again) to Mrs. Tetlinger’s complaints about her aches and pains, rush to the hospital to pray with new parents of an infant in the intensive care unit, and fix the boiler—all on a single day? Over the years I have heard inspiring stories from American clergy of guns taken out of troubled peoples’ hands, jobs created or found, homeless shelters opened, timid congregations inspired, large amounts of money raised, and city halls brought to their knees. And I have listened to the other kind—accounts of unfathomable cruelty, incredible smallness, lethal hatred, and life-altering betrayal. America’s pastors confront life at its best and its worst every day and in every form imaginable.
Most congregation members see only pieces of these pastoral stories—the parts that intersect with their own overloaded lives. The larger public that lives at greater distance from the congregations these ministers serve lives with outdated images and distorting caricatures that do not begin to capture the drama of pastoral life. And most pastors are too busy, too modest, or too tired to give us bigger and better pictures.
A year ago, Jackson W. Carroll reported the findings of the largest study every undertaken of pastoral leadership. Under his supervision, researchers looked at how pastors used their time, what their incomes were, and how they felt about their seminary educations and the denominations they belonged to. Clergy were asked about their health, their sense of competence, their family lives, and their overall satisfaction. The researchers concluded that there were two basic readings that pastors had of their own lives. Some felt they belonged to “a troubled profession, perhaps even one in crisis.” Others saw the ministry as “a deeply satisfying calling to which it is worth giving one’s life.”
But even the painstaking work of teams of scholars does not tell the whole story. Once in a while an individual pastor pulls back the curtain and writes about his or her own life. It is when I read these accounts that a richer picture emerges. Over the centuries, a few intrepid priests, prophets, rabbis, and pastors have been brave enough to share their journeys. As they hold their experience up for examination, we have a chance to marvel, evaluate, and discern, and to let their lives illumine our own.
When I have heard too much of the problems with congregations, the trouble with denominations, or the tragic flaws in our national culture, turning to one of these kinds of stories gives me a glimpse of hope. In the midst of so much chaos and struggle there are these lives that continue to light up the darkness that surrounds them.
Three recent examples come to mind. The first, which I have mentioned once before in this column, is Richard Lischer’s fine book, Open Secrets (Doubleday, 2001). Lischer takes his readers into the world of a mid-western rural church and reveals the hidden richness and intricacy that exist there. As he shares the quiet mysteries of New Cana Lutheran Church and its non-flashy members, he also shares his life, letting us ride the emotional and spiritual roller-coaster of a young minister who comes to his first call only to meet a congregation that seems wrong for him. As he tells of pastoral calls in country homes, taciturn trustees, and the powers of congregational grapevines, we see how life happens, how it unfolds, how it surprises, and we watch the transformation of a pastor in the thick of it all.
A more recent book is Heidi B. Neumark’s Breathing Space (Beacon Press, 2003). Neumark invites readers into a very different kind of life as she recounts her spiritual journey in the South Bronx. This story of urban ministry has blood on the streets, graffiti on the walls, crack cocaine on the street corner, and gunshots in the night. Neumark also shows us how a pastor’s life unfolds over 20 years in one place. She tells of transfigured lives, including her own.
Last year, Barbara Brown Taylor revealed a different part of the pastoral life in Leaving Church (Harper, 2006). Unlike Lischer and Neumark, who focus on beginnings of ministry and the paradoxes of daily pastoral work, Taylor takes us into the relatively uncharted territory of exodus from pastoral ministry. She reminds us that each pastor is on a personal spiritual journey that unfolds before, during, and after one assumes the public role of pastor or rabbi.
These three well-written books reveal how full, how deep, how contradictory, how painful, and how wonderful pastoral lives can be. Each presents a life with moments of breakdown, revelation, grace, and adventure. When one considers that there are hundreds of thousands of clergy in this country, the power and drama in all these lives is incalculable—even if it goes largely unnoticed. All too often we see those people as functionaries. We know them for what they do for and to us. But if we take the time to know who they are—to enter their lives—we might find much more than we ever imagined. We might find that their lives are icons, windows into all that is going on in this world.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute.