A recent blog post by Philip Wagner on "The Secret Pain of Pastors" has created some good--and really necessary--conversation about the challenge of pastoral leadership today. I'll add my two cents with a few re-posts of blogs I wrote after the NY Times ran a similar article in 2010. These posts were written right at the time that I started coaching pastors and working on a book on leadership development. Today, after 200 conversations with pastors, I'm more convinced than ever that there is a clergy leadership crisis that is only increasing.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a priest drinking a beer.
It was at my grandmother’s house and I was maybe five years old. The local priest had stopped in for a visit and he was enjoying a late afternoon refreshment with my grandmother and my uncle. His collar was slightly askew and his top button of his cassock was undone and he smiled when he saw me. But I think it was an awkward moment for both of us.
I’m a Presbyterian in a pretty informal beach town. So, although I am a “man of the cloth” I rarely wear anything that distinguishes me as clergy. I don’t wear a clerical collar (although some Presbyterians do), I don’t even wear a clergy robe or hoods or even a stole while leading worship (though I have some pretty great robes with stripes that I trot out for ordinations and such) The truth is that I barely ever wear a suit and tie. In fact, there is very little that distinguishes me outwardly as a pastor. And I like it that way. I like looking and feeling like a “regular” guy who is just like everyone else. Honestly, I take pride when people meet me and are surprised that I am a pastor. (“You don’t seem like a pastor,” one person said to me, “you seem normal.”)
But sometimes, that is part of the problem. Because I look and even feel like I am just like everyone else, I forget that, really in most people’s eyes, I am not. No matter how much I might want to escape being seen in my role, I am always “on.” After thirteen years pastoring at the same church and the same small town, most everybody knows that I am “the pastor”. It’s the way I am introduced to friends, it’s the reason I am the biggest party-killer in town. It’s also the reason why my neighbors were all nervous when we first moved in (“What if the pastor hears my wife and me arguing?”) It’s the reason why kids who have been Facebook friends with me for years “unfriend” me when they go to college. Even my wife and kids know that others look at them differently and that’s because of me too. (“They are ‘the pastor’s wife’ or the “P.Ks”.)
When I take a political stand or I post a status update on Facebook, it reflects on my church and even some would say on God. I am the host of every gathering making sure that others are included. I have to break the ice and remember names and be cordial or someone will tell someone that “those Presbyterians” sure are (fill in the blank with favorite derogatory remark spoken when feeling slighted.)
I’m not complaining. I really do know that I signed up for this. It comes along with everybody in my church knowing my salary and me knowing that someday I will have to leave this community after I leave the church. But bluntly, there are some pretty great things that go along with this role too. We pastors are really significant to people’s lives. We get invited into holy moments where others are asked to stay out. We can walk into emergency rooms and bedsides and family gatherings. We are handed babies to bless and are told family secrets.
And pastoring comes with some great perks, too. I have enjoyed wonderful dinners, great bottles of wine, thoughtful gifts and some amazing opportunities to meet people because I am someone’s pastor. I have met ambassadors, CEOs, celebrities, political figures and college presidents. I sat at the head table of a gala event with a presidential cabinet member just because I was giving a prayer before dinner. (A pastor friend of mine was whisked away to a Caribbean Island to perform a wedding for a big movie star.) On top of that I am prayed for by literally dozens of people every day, I am always greeted warmly when I arrive at church, I am introduced to everyone’s friends and family members, I have a key to every room in the church. I can walk into any meeting in our church, any conversation on our patio and interrupt whatever they are doing to say something…and they thank me for doing so.
Now let’s be clear here. And this is the thing most of us forget. Tod Bolsinger cannot do any of this. Tod Bolsinger, the person, isn’t all that interesting and really wouldn’t be invited to much of this. Tod Bolsinger, the person, can’t interrupt anyone without being a rude, inconsiderate boob. (If I try that at home, my 13 year old daughter says, “Daddy, you are interrupting.” ) But “THE PASTOR” can. The Pastor is invited into all those places given all those perks and treated with such respect because of our ROLE and NOT our self. While in order to be authentic I have to bring myself to my role, I can never forget that I am not my role. When I confuse my role and my self, I inevitably take too much too personally and bear burdens that are meant for God and not any human.
When people get angry or hurt, either mad at God or mad at the church, who do they focus their rage upon? The Pastor. When as Pastor of the church I have had to fire staff members, work with Session to cut budgets of key ministries, make decisions that others didn’t like or implement change others didn’t want, who gets the brunt of the attack? The Pastor. Only when I am clear about the difference between my self and my role can I protect myself from taking the disappointment, anger, awkwardness, projections, and distance of others personally.
We pastors are only going to develop the staying power to stay in our positions if we first admit that this is really OUR problem. Not only our congregants and the public-at-large, but WE continually confuse our “self” with our “role.” And until we get clear that “I am more than my role” nobody else will either.