There's a lot of things I like about being a pastor. I like the fact that mainly what I do is try to help people. Help them make peace with God. Help them when their down on their luck. Help them face that which fills virtually all of us with anxiety. Help them lift their eyes above the muck of this world, to something grander. I help people, and that I like.
But over time this job takes it toll. It's about the most political position you can have other than maybe being a politician. The constant navigation between those who like this, and don't like that, or want this and don't want that makes you wonder, some days, if this whole institutional church thing was really what Jesus was thinking of while he walked this earth. Bishops want something. DS's want something. Conservative parishioners want you to preach on certain things, while progressive parishioners want you to preach on something else (usually mutually exclusive). You're always trying to balance the boundaries of behavior that are set up biblically with people's need for grace and understanding. And when you are the senior pastor, all of this just kind of multiplies.
But at least 99 days out of a hundred, I can deal with all the above. What gets you down one day, generally doesn't seem like all that big a deal days, or weeks, or months, or years down the road. Yesterday's crisis, becomes another piece of wisdom that informs today. That's generally what a life led on the premise of trying to see the world through Christ's eyes does eventually: He turns, as Joseph (from the Bible, not the former senior pastor) told his brothers after his father died, into good what other might intend for something less than good. But there's one thing about this work that never gets easier. In fact, the longer you do it, the harder it becomes.
Burying your friends.
Four years ago my friend and mentor, Dick Lyndon, died unexpectedly after a short illness. Tomorrow will mark the fourth anniversary I led about 1000 people in saying good-bye to him.
I miss Dick terribly. Numerous times over the last year, especially, I've just wanted to give him a call and pick his brain. You see after making it in the picture/yearbook business, Dick entered the ministry as a second career. His life was hijacked by a kindly pastor who came to Dexter, Michigan to serve Dick's family church.... which Dick himself, wasn't all that active in at the time. Dick went from being the guy church leaders told the pastor he needed to talk to because he was sitting on a pile of money, to being the guy who was starving with a young family as a seminary student/part-time local pastor. I think because he had been successful in the "secular world", this drove Dick to strive toward a similar kind of success leading his churches.
This need to produce and willingness to take chances to do so made Dick unusual in the world of UMC pastors. Since he liked action, he wasn't really all that "pastoral". He disliked making visits to long-term lay-people. He wasn't all that interested in kissing up to Bishops or DS's in the hope of someday getting a bigger church. Instead, his dreams were more entrepreneurial, involving people accepting Christ, and then moving, as he had, from a secularly-oriented life, to one increasingly focused on living for God. Thus, Dick grew churches everywhere he served, and he was also good at being able to break down how and why that happened... hence he being sought out by so many pastors looking to be entrepreneurial as a consultant and mentor (and my wishing he were still alive to pick his brain).
He was the rarest of senior pastors.... a man with no ego. Go to a gathering of large-church pastors and you'll find a contest going on to (this is the nice way of putting it) find out whose shadow is cast the longest. Their triumphs and milestones are tossed to and fro the same way my boys battle with Nerf baseball bats... forcefully enough to get your attention, and let you know that you are just getting a taste of what they can really do. But Dick wasn't that way. Few other pastoral leaders in our denominational could say that they took a high-steeple country club church of 250 folks in worship attendance, to over 700 people from all walks of life and all points on the spiritual journey, in ten years. Few could point to the plethora of discipleship ministries, the raising of so many new leaders, and the sheer number of adult baptisms that Dick could boast upon. But he wasn't into boasting or building himself up, which in a strange, wonderful way, made him more accessible to others looking to do church in a new, exciting, fresh sort of way.
It was his uniqueness, though, that confused a lot of long-time church members. Certain lay-people thought Dick held training conference and did all the consulting he did so that someday he could write a book and free lance as a church consultant. They thought the constant calls to make things better, more efficient, more accessible, were just feathers he was trying to collect in his cap at the church's expense so his track-record would look that much more impressive. They just didn't understand a pastor who was more concerned with those who didn't have a relationship with God, than those inside of a church who already did. And in turn, by missing this, they missed the best part of the man... his willingness to give up absolutely anything that might keep him from reaching and making new disciples. What he had done in own life, giving up the house on the golf course and six-figure salary, he expected the church to do also. To him it made sense to let die senseless traditions that mattered little to anyone except those few people who hated change and wanted everyone to know about their unhappiness. Dick would have (and did) gladly sacrificed those traditions, and those people, because their cause, was not his cause. Their cause was honoring the past. His cause was honoring Jesus. And sometimes those two causes are mutually exclusive.
Thus, his willingness to try and fail made for a perfect situation for me, a young pastor who really wanted to learn and try new things. Learn and try new ways to reach people whom the church hadn't seemed all that interested in reaching... kids from unchurched homes, people emerging from broken relationships, people with drug and alcohol issues, hard-core atheists and agnostics, those burned by the church, or those who thirsted for some thing more than a glorified social club that did a limited number of social programs. Dick indulged me (sometimes to his own detriment) because he thought it good for the kingdom, and for his guidance, patience, and willingness to question and correct I'll be forever grateful.
I just wish I had expressed that more while he was alive.
I only hope that at some time in the future the staff and laity I lead will become as obsessed with doing their best for God as we were are Goshen First UMC. That would be the only fitting tribute to a man who never felt like the church as a whole took the Great Commission or Great Commandment seriously enough.
But I digress....
It hurts to bury people you love, and I suspect that someday this, along with the gradual erosion of my skills, will drive me from the ministry. Because you can only pretend for so long that you can see past the despair death brings everyone else. A good-bye is a good-bye, for me as it is for everyone else. And while I try to share my pain with Jesus, and let him turn my mourning into dancing, it still doesn't stop me from wanting to call somebody to bust their chops, pick their brain, or just catch up while I can't.
Four years ago, I buried my friend. I love him, and it still hurts.