The first church I served as pastor was difficult. No, impossible. At least that’s how it seemed at the time. I realize now it was as much my fault as theirs. I was twenty-four when they called me to be the spiritual shepherd of their flock. I learned immediately that just because sheep pick you as their shepherd, that doesn’t mean they will follow you.
The biggest problem was my lack of compassion. There are three rules for ministry. Any pastor who masters them cannot fail. They are as follows: Love the people. Love the people. Love the people. This approach works whether or not all the people love the pastor, love the pastor, love the pastor. (The ego-shattering truth is pastors are sometimes as difficult to love as sheep.) Jesus was often moved to compassion when he looked upon his sheep. I was – and still am – too often moved to anger and resentment.
My parishioners in that first church could never be as dedicated and virtuous as I thought they should be. Then again, I could never be as dedicated and virtuous as I thought I should be. Whoever said “people rise to the level of your expectations” never tried leading a church. Most people already have their hands so full trying to meet the expectations of their bosses and families, and often failing to do so, that they have no emotional resources left to try to meet their pastor’s expectations or even figure out what they are. As cynical as it may sound, one key to being a successful pastor is low expectations. Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed. It doesn’t mean I give up on my people or assume that God has. It means I love them enough not to ask them to jump through my hoops.
Another problem was that I believed ministry functioned the way seminary did: work hard and you’ll be rewarded. You’ll make A’s and earn awards. I worked hard in seminary. I made A’s. I earned awards. I went to my first church and failed. Why? Churches aren’t seminaries. Most of the lessons I learned in the seminary classroom didn’t apply directly to pastoral ministry. When I went to my seminary professors for advice about what to do with my failing ministry, the best they could offer was that I should leave my “preacher-killing church” before I gave up on the ministry altogether. I liked the advice because it allowed me to shift all the blame to my congregation. But it didn’t help the congregation or me. An opportunity for growth on both parts was squandered.
Becoming a pastor is like going to the foreign mission field, especially if you grew up in the suburbs and you’re called to a rural parish as I was. A pastor has to become a cross-cultural expert. In order to be effective a new pastor must learn the language and the culture. That takes time. In my first church I never stuck around long enough to learn what made them tick. I was too impatient. When they didn’t follow my lead, I bailed.
Monks take a vow of stability, meaning they promise not to leave the monastery they first join. There’s a story in the Lives of the Desert Fathers about a monk who told his abbot that he was troubled by thoughts of leaving the monastery. The abbot said, “Go and sit down, and entrust your body to your cell, as a man puts a precious possession into a safe, and do not go out of it. Then let your thoughts go where they will. Let your mind think what it likes, so long as it does not drive your body out of the cell.” Pastors would do good to learn a lesson about stability from monks. To put it in non-monastic terms, you have to be more stubborn about staying at your church than the people in your congregation who want you gone.
Twenty plus years after my failed pastorate I find myself serving a congregation that reminds me a lot of that first one. It’s in a small town and most of the older folks grew up on farms. The church was in a full-blown crisis when I arrived as interim pastor. I had just left active duty with the Navy and a plum job teaching at the Naval Academy. I had no intentions of staying. I just needed a place to hang my hat for a while until I found something better. That was two and a half years ago, and I’m still here.
There’s no guarantee things will turn out any better than they did at my first church. True, I’m no longer a naive twenty-something out to save the world. I’ve learned that I can’t save myself much less anyone else. I’m also a little more patient and a little less demanding than I was two decades ago. Still, at some point I may get frustrated and bail. In the meantime I’m going to do my best to take my own advice: Love the people. Love the people. Love the people. That’s not always easy but I’ll keep trying, because love covers a multitude of sins.