At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Sunday, March 9, 2014

One of the Many, Part 2

Last week, I looked back on my brief but painful tenure in pastoral ministry of a local church. It was a time that bore fruit in the sense that I recognized, for the first time in my life, that I could bomb out on something and still be okay. But much of the time went over me with the force of an avalanche down the Matterhorn.

I had referred earlier to the site Ex-Pastors, a resource long overdue for those of us who still have a passion for shepherding others but find it difficult to trust the local church as that vocational arena. I re-read the article on "Why Do So Many Pastors Leave the Ministry?" Of course, the road of ministry train wrecks is littered with moral failure, and of course there should be discipline for those pastors who can't keep their sexual hockey jerseys on and keep shooting their pucks into nets where they shouldn't go. But there's a parallel streak of vocational shock that is extremely unsettling. So I thought I'd take these matters one by one and reflect on them from the perspective of my time in North Carolina.

Why do so many pastors leave the ministry?

1. Most pastors are overworked. Ex-Pastors asserts that ninety percent of pastors are working between 55 to 75 hours a week and at least half feel inadequate to meet the job's demands.

My take: I try to hold back from judging "overwork" based on hours. I don't want to get into a situation like France where anything over 35 hours a week is considered overtime (pause here to shake your head in disbelief at the nation who helped up in our own American Revolution when their soldiers worked at least double that amount per week at the time). Some pastors can work long hours and much of it is stupid busy work that a good administrative assistant or group of elders could shoulder. I tried to be a very efficient worker so that when emergencies came up, I had some gas in the proverbial tank.

But regardless of how many hours, I think what many pastors suffer from is a lack of vision on the part of their church about what the role of a pastor should be. This will depend on the size, history, and identity of the church as well as the vision a church has for reaching their community. If a church has a clear understanding about the pastor's on-scene role in preaching, evangelism, discipleship, assimilation of new attenders, etc., then that frees up the pastor for directing his energies in specific areas where he is gifted, and he can negotiate with the church about where he would take a lead role and where the laity would have to shoulder a good bit of the ministry burden.

In my case, the church enjoyed being a church (one of 850 churches in a county of 100,000 people…another demographic reality that made no sense to me), but we were hampered by a disconnect of vision regarding my workload. There was no sense of shared ministry because most of the parishioners came from a background where the pastor (and his wife!) did everything. So I don't think it's a matter of hours as much as it is a failure of communication of vision and fidelity to that layout.

2. Seventy percent feel grossly underpaid. I have no idea how to parse this one. Almost everyone feels underpaid. We'd all like to have a huge chunk of discretionary income (and one that the IRS knows nothing about!). This might have something to do with cheapskate churches and their budgets, but it can also have to do with pastors and their families refusing to live within their means. Unless we have a better understanding of average salaries and how they jive with cost of living in an area, we really can't plumb the depths too much on this one.

3. Most pastors feel unprepared. Ninety percent of pastors state they're ill-quipped/inadequately trained to cope with what goes on in their ministry and also say the ministry was completely different from what they envisioned.

My take: There's a lot to be said here. It depends what sort of "training" one received in preparation for the pastorate. If there wasn't much to speak of, I hate to say it, but the pastor kind of has himself to blame for that. Now if it's at the seminary level, we're whistling a different tune. If seminaries are glutting their faculties with professors who have spent much time in research but little in church life as pastors, they do their students a disservice. I was blessed to be at Covenant Seminary where my professors averaged about ten years of experience as pastors in a church. That helped greatly in terms of training and what to expect.

By far, though, the greatest training and managing of expectations came from my father, who has been in the ordained ministry for 45 years. Not only did he teach me well, I was able to observe what he went through in very difficult church waters and how he reacted. But I realized at an early age the church was no picnic and no utopia. I figured out the parishioner lexicon of what people say to their pastor and what meaning is cloaked behind those words. My cynicism blew up years later in North Carolina when I was a pastor, but I was at least going in with my eyes open.

And finally, if the ministry is different from what you envisioned, get in line behind a lot of other people. The church is full of sinners, of hypocrites, of pigs. Get over it. This one is for the seminary students out there: If you are looking forward to your first pastoral call like rose-colored glasses-wearing German youth marching off to the Western front in World War I, I'll pray for you, but I know what's coming. Brace yourselves.

If anything should be said here, potential pastors do need deeper training in what to expect when they get "on the field". This is not to scare off future clergy, but rather to take off the veil. And there needs to be a long, hard self-scouting look made by every potential minister, asking if they have the perseverance and personality to cope with what is coming. The longer someone takes to consider this, the better off they are.

That's a lot to digest, and there's more to be said in a future post. Yes, there are things future pastor should consider more, and there are some matters which present pastors should think about in the midst of voicing their concerns. But there is a reality lurking in the perceptions voiced. Next time, I'll deal with more of them.

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