A pastor in California tried an experiment which cost him his job and made him rethink his vocation. You can read his blog here.
At the end of his year of trying to be “Godless” our “atheist” pastor friend names what he misses and doesn’t miss:
I don’t miss being a surrogate for people’s relationship to god. I don’t miss needing to believe difficult-to-believe things on behalf of my members. I don’t miss never having a weekend or the sheer exhaustion of Sunday mornings that was worse than any hangover I’ve ever had (remember, Adventists have church on Saturday). And I definitely don’t miss the experience of not having any real, mutual friendships—that every single relationship is made unavoidably complicated by my role as the person’s pastor.
I do, however, miss being involved with people as they navigate the momentous twists and turns of their lives: the joy and the pain, the celebration and mourning of significant life events. I miss the look of “Aha” in people’s faces as they let go of an old destructive idea and embrace something life-affirming. If I’m honest, I miss preaching, but not because it put me in front of a group of people. I always feel a little nauseous as I step up to speak in front of people. I miss it because I enjoyed weaving narratives together to shape a story that could give direction to the communal experience of a group of people in a particular social situation. I miss the prophetic role of speaking and acting for justice in my city. And I’m sad about the death of my dream of forming a community of resistance to the dominant narratives of our time…
I have a certain sympathy with him. As his year progresses he becomes more aware of and describes the tension created by being a faithful person working in an institution that is often less about faith and more about keeping the show on the road and meeting people’s unrealistic expectations. By no means is he the first to identify this tension. Eugene Peterson wrote his fantastic book Under the Unpredictable Plant because he wondered what had happened to that on fire person who existed before becoming a pastor who would settle for smouldering on the best of days. From my experience, if you have been in ministry for more than a couple of years and haven’t felt this tension you are either outrageously blessed or you are lying.
A few years ago in our team ministry, my colleague and I were invited to offer our team council an insight into what really gave us life in our ministry and what took life away. We submitted our thoughts and the response was really a blessing:
“We always thought vicars loved everything they did. We didn’t realise you sometimes wake up in the morning and feel the same about going to work as we do.”
The best thing about that exercise was the opportunity to talk about our real lives doing real work in the real world. I appreciated the recognition that we are people too and as such we’re susceptible to the same pressures and joys as everyone else. I am very fortunate to work in churches where people understand that vicars are human too. But that isn’t everyone’s experience.
Brian McLaren outlines in his book The Church on the Other Side another tension that comes from pastoring in a situation that requires having a foot in a dying past and a rapidly encroaching future. I was ordained just at the turn of the century and I feel that split acutely. There are many in the Church who want everything to return to the “good times” (sometime before the 1970’s) and want little to do with the actual world the church is called to serve and love and evangelise in. As the ground shifts and the signposts become unfamiliar we in the church are increasingly tempted to allow ourselves to become strangers in a strange land. The more we refuse to recognise and act on that, the stranger the land and the gospel becomes to us.
So before we dismiss our Adventist friend’s experience too lightly, perhaps we need to see and appreciate that serving God has a cost to all who attempt it and that serving God within human institutions can have an even higher cost to the well being of those who stick with it.