Aw, darlings. How good it was to spend a day with many of you on Wednesday of this past week for the 2030 United Church of Christ annual conference, Shepherding the Shepherd. I gave a keynote address that was lots of raucous fun and I look forward to your being able to view it on YouTube (perhaps some kind person will edit it for the juiciest bits?). After the keynote, I led a workshop for a large group of you called “The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Ministry: Showing Up When You Don’t Want To Or Think You Can.”
Ouch, was that a tough one.
It was tough because there was not one among us there who didn’t have multiple stories of having been the walking wounded in ministry, and showing up while carefully trying to hide our limp or the flow of lifeblood from our guts from the congregation.
The stories flowed fast and hard and easily. Everyone had a tale of being abused, beat up on, or simply taken for granted. No one disagreed with me when I said, “You’re all working TOO HARD. No one in the church has any idea of what you really do, how much of it you do, and what it costs you, body and soul. 96% of ministry is invisible to the broader community, so don’t even try to explain yourself or ward off criticism. It will come fast and furiously no matter you do, unless you keep your head down, your mouth shut, and your face all smiles all the time — and if you do that, you’re not doing the work of ministry but the work of indulgence.” I have said this so often in other settings to both lay people and clergy alike: if you’re not making some people uncomfortable, you’re functioning as a social director, a museum curator or a babysitter. I switch around my expressions, but you get the idea, and this sentiment never fails to get an AMEN from the participants. They are, after all, the ones who are devoting their time to the mission of the church!
The work of ministry requires boldness, challenge, and the ability to tolerate a LOT of discomfort in a community that probably has a very low threshold for it. It means being out front as a leader when most people would rather have you step back and support them in being and doing exactly what they’ve been being and doing all their lives. “Always have your bags packed,” I said. “We cannot do anything worthy in ministry if we’re worried about job security.”
We talked about how the energy centers of our bodies take hits at times of crisis and sorrow. I urged each one present to find a care TEAM — not just a supportive person, but a care TEAM, to help them mend and repair their body, heart and soul on an on-going and constant basis. We talked about psychic vampiring, people with no boundaries who want to be the minister’s friend, or favorite child, or spiritual mistress/affair. We talked about the projections to which we are all subject as clergy, and the relentless demands on our time and attention. We talked about the fact that we can never do enough, that most of our advice and counsel is ignored, and that we still live in an era where clergy are seen as benign irrelevancies — quaint vestiges of the past — rather than as professionals who are trained and have achieved competency in leadership, systems theories, organizational development and non-profit management.
When I broke you up into small groups to talk about the worst moments in your ministries and how you responded, and to reflect on what tools you had in your toolkit to help you function in the midst of crisis, I overheard several of you say that you were currently in the worst moments of your ministries. I heard words buzzing around the room like “abuse” “jail” “bullying” “acting out” “scapegoating” “depressed” “alone” “backstabbing” and “violation.”
We reviewed the times when it is hardest to keep showing up:
during times when the minister is depressed
is ill, or has been diagnosed with a disease that is not immediately evident or debilitating
having marital problems
has suffered a crime to body or property
is having serious trouble parenting
is overwhelmed with family concerns in the extended family
is under financial burden that he or she cannot discuss, such as supporting a friend or relative
is being stalked by a church member or someone in the denomination or former lover
is painfully lonely and isolated
is struggling with sexual identity issues
can’t get pregnant/miscarriage
has memory loss or some other new, invisible disability
It is always hard to get together with clergy and tell the truth of how hard it can get, and how exploited ministers can be (and this is true, I think, especially for the young and/or new clergy who will take ANY call for the thrill of experiencing their first parish settlement). The flip side of that is to be treated as a shining saint, a perfect darling of a community who can do no wrong… and to be held so high on a pedestal that no one remember that you’re flesh and blood and not alabaster.
It’s a conversation that I hope will encourage more conversation and better self-care, fairer expectations, and thicker skin. Remember, they killed Jesus at a young age and you’re hoping to last for a lot longer. Don’t be a savior and don’t kid yourself that you have a saintly disposition. Work hard, be well supported so you can give generously of yourself without becoming bitter, spiritually contorted and resentful, and buy a few Teflon bras or BVD’s, if you know what I mean.
PeaceBang’s Five Steps to Showing Up When You Don’t Want To Or Think You Can
PeaceBang’s Five Steps to Showing Up
1. Put the oxygen mask over your own face first, no matter what. Don’t make a phone call or send an e-mail before you do. Consult frequently with trusted, respected colleagues and mentors and more than frequently during times of crisis.
2. Take the transition time you need, even between events (from the hospital to the meeting, or from the meeting to the pulpit, for instance). Rushing from one event or conversation to the next is sure way to make serious emotional and professional mistakes. The intensity of our work makes it very dangerous for us to zip from event to event or encounter to encounter without processing and considering where we have been and where we are going.
3. When you most feel like crap, you have to look like gold. Do NOT ever fool yourself that the congregation wants to minister to a vulnerable pastor. They will deeply resent you. As a dear friend once told me, “We run TO pain, most people run away from it.” Do NOT BLEED ON YOUR LAY PEOPLE. TRY not to. If you must, save it for once in a rare while. Like once a decade.
4. Know your energy centers and repair them frequently through prayer and body work.
5. Get help. Make that a priority. Do not think you can do this alone or that your spouse/Sig Other can do it all for you. Do not rely on one measly monthly prayer meeting to sustain you in the work of ministry. One of the reasons you must advocate for fair compensation for yourself is so you can pay for good therapy, body work, a gym, a massage therapist, a Reiki practitioner, chiropractor, juicing machine, healthy food, a decent vacation, a housecleaner, a Spiritual Director, or whatever other caregivers and service providers you feel you need in your life so you can function as a whole and loving human being.
Even looking out over that sea of sweet pastor faces and reading the pain there, I saw such love, such desire to serve faithfully, such resilience, such hope and such humor. I was honored to be with you and bless you with all my heart in all that you do for God’s church, and for all that you are.