Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Even pastors need grace

I suppose this post should actually be titled "Especially pastors need grace". I had a very humbling moment last week, not crazy over the top Debbie-how-on-earth-could-you-do-such-a-stupid-thing, but still a humbling moment.

To be fair, I was exhausted and was getting sick with flu-like symptoms as I tried to make my final exit from the Sunday scene (but that's an explanation, not an excuse). I was headed down the hallway to my office (my last stop on Sunday mornings) and was stopped by a member for a quick question.

She pulled me aside to share some of discomfort and unease about the new ministry she was helping with. I validated her concerns and the reasons for her anxiety and told her that it might not be the right ministry for her, that she might be called to do something else and that that was ok. And then I added, but if you discern that this is your call, "then you need to put your big-girl panties on and get to work".

Now, in retrospect, that was not the most pastoral thing to ever come out of my mouth. We sort of tied up the conversation and I said I would pray for discernment for her as she decided her place in that ministry (or not). But as the week wore on, that conversation irked me. I couldn't believe I had said such a casual or crass thing to a very real concern. I felt like an idiot.

So late in the week I sent the following email (details eliminated to maintain anonymity)

Dear _______________,

I wanted to check in with you after Sunday's conversation about the (X MINISTRY). As I've thought about it, I've felt like I wasn't very helpful for you and that I didn't hear your concern well. (XXXXX ISSUES) clearly hits a tender spot in your heart, and I think it is important that you take those emotions seriously. What you feel is tremendously important in where you decide to do ministry.

What I wanted to convey (and did not do a good job with) is that sometimes those emotions are the sign that we should not be in ministry in that way at that time, and sometimes it is simply a challenge out of which we will experience greater spiritual growth. So, a part of your discernment in this time is figuring out which it is for you.

I'm not sure if that's super clear, so I'll use an example from my own life to try and clarify. At one of the churches where I worked, I was sent to lead Bible study with some staunch conservative folks. It was not a comfortable place for me and often I felt like it was theologically abusive (though they had no idea I was on such a different page from them....). To say it was hard is an understatement, it was tremendously difficult and made me reconsider ministry as a vocation. But, I definitely felt called to be there, so for me, those emotions of "get the heck out of here!!" were not a reflection of my call, they were a reflection of the challenge I needed to face in order to grow in grace and in understanding of other theological perspectives. The outcome of that time was positive, I learned a lot from them, both personally and theologically.

It was important for me to have people I could confide in at that time so that i wasn't journeying or struggling alone, and if you choose to stick with (X MINISTRY), I'd recommend you have a couple of people to journey with you, who understand your struggle and are willing to support and uplift you when you are struggling. If you choose this isn't where you feel called right now (or ever), THAT'S OK! Choosing away from this ministry is not a failure, it's faithfulness to your true call...and that's a good thing.

I hope that helps. My prayers are with you for further discernment and if I can help, please let me know.

This parishioner got my email over the weekend and responded with a thank you for my email and the truth that telling her to "put on her big-girl panties" was not terribly helpful....bothersome even.

I was thankful for her honesty and super frustrated with myself for saying such a thing to a church member. I don't like making mistakes, especially those that are potentially hurtful. As I reflected, I realized I haven't had to face this reality too many times in ministry, and then it struck me....that doesn't mean I haven't hurt/offended people, only that I didn't pick up on the inappropriate nature of my words, or that they weren't willing to tell me I had hurt/offended them.

I fear this will happen many more times in ministry, that this is only just the beginning. I have learned not only that I will say/do stupid things at times, and that I need to proactively apologize, but I have also learned that when I hit my limits of fatigue my conversation censor is not very active and I should better identify when I've hit my limits and bow out for some rest before something REALLY idiotic crosses my lips.


Teri said...

Great story. I'm a lay person, but could relate to your Bible study experience. I have a bunch of conservative folks in different parts of my life and it challenges me. Athiests, too. I feel frustrated sometimes. I'm coming to a place of seeing the growth from those contacts. We all need to be challenged. And it's in those discussions that we grow. Thanks for the story. Don't be too hard on yourself. We all make say things we wish we wouldn't have. I think you responded beautifully. Blessings.

Tennessee Methodist Man said...


Great answer. But remember you rock even when you mess up... and you are moving on to perfection... you wont be perfect until you are bishop!

johnsue said...

Sounds like you need to be praying for your own discernment as well as the parishoner's. It's great that you "caught" this one... and it's not just pastors or those in ministry that need to be sensitive, perceptive, and considerate. Any of us seeking God's will and following Christ's example want these things. This past week I had of couple days of my illness that I knew left me grouchy and unrealistically self-centered. I believe I was compassionate toward my husband because I was intentional about saying nothing because I was pretty sure if I said something it would be the wrong thing. One of the best things God shares with us is grace. PTL! BTW what does it mean to put on my big girl pants?