My Facebook newsfeed has been saturated with updates of seminary classmates beginning their first calls as pastors in the parish, or are in process of working towards that. It’s hard to believe that about one year ago, I was going through the same thing. In some ways, it feels like a lifetime ago….and it feels like I’ve aged about 5-10 years in the last year alone.
That’s due in part to the fact that I’m stubborn, headstrong, and at times arrogant. I believe in what I’ve been called to do, and in the places that I’ve been called to do it. I believe in the vision of church I hold…and that it’s faithful to the timeless gospel and God we place our faith in, and that it’s a relevant vision for the world we live in today. I’m willing to push that a bit harder than most, and because of that, I know I’ve made a ton of mistakes this past year.
So, what would I say to myself now, if I could talk to myself a year ago today? What would’ve been nice to know then that I only now have just figured out? Well, let me write a little letter to myself…and hope that when time travel gets made possible in the next day or two, I can send it. Or more realistically, maybe those of you reading this will get something out of it.
Dear One Year Ago Me,
Well, I hope you’re doing well. I’m sure you’re excited, anxious, and well uncertain as you await for the final decision on this call thing. Well, it works out. (Shoot, it always “works out” – this is God we’re talking about)
But, you should know a couple of things. I want you to know them because man….I’m tired. I’ve worked harder – in an emotional and spiritual sense – than I’ve ever worked before. Here’s the thing: you know this too….you’ve always been one of those people who goes into things with a well, sober sense of reality. Nothing’s ever easy. That’s the wrestler, the farmer in you who knows that.
Well, I want to offer you a couple of thoughts that might help you along the way. Because maybe there’s a few mistakes you can avoid….because I know you. You’re greatest strength is also your greatest weakness: your resolve to “strive for the greater thing,” because God demands it, and you want people to experience the gospel as you have – a powerful force in your life, life-changing in fact. But there’s a few things you should know:
People will not want it as bad as you do. You have some notions in your head on how you see this all playing out. But the reality is this: people aren’t in the same place as you are. They have other interests, other desires. They’ve been a part of these congregations a lot longer than you have, and likely longer than you will be. They’re not going to see the “forest for the trees,” they won’t always get what you’re talking about, and honestly, they won’t always be that interested.
It isn’t because they’re lacking faith, it’s just that they haven’t spent the last 4 years or more thinking about this stuff like you have. And maybe they don’t want to. Life is hard enough as it is; maybe what they need is simply a word of grace that’s relevant to their lives, and helps them make sense of God in the midst of it all. Shoot, sometimes they won’t even want that; and what they’ll want will have nothing to do with the gospel, at least in your estimation. And it won’t just extend to your congregations….it’ll be your colleagues too. They won’t understand where you’re coming from, they’ll try to marginalize you, they’ll insult you, and they’ll try to draw you into their little cliques of meaninglessness. It’ll drive you nuts.
But you are there for a purpose too. You’re not there to cater to their whims. They don’t “own” you. That’s going to happen….they’ll say you’re “their pastor.” And what they mean by that is you are there to keep them comfortable, to meet their needs, to keep their church going. They’ll think you’re there to bring young people in, give them a new evangelism strategy, start new programs…and that’s not their fault, because that’s the way it’s always been done. But remember why you felt called to be a pastor in the first place, and remember what your mission as a pastor is: not just to them, but to the gospel and the church universal. That means there’s an integrity in the role you serve in that gives you a purpose greater than to just be “their pastor.” Part of that integrity is that you will be “their pastor” in those times they need to know the grace and love of God from someone who knows them, who cares about them. But part of that integrity is to tell the truth – even when it’s hard.
Speaking of hard, be prepared to take a few “punches.” You’re going to take them. Anyone who puts their convictions to the test, and actually gives a damn about what they’re doing is going to get beat up along the way. And while I’d like to say they’ll be minor, that’s not always that case. If you have a spouse, you’ll fight with them. If you have family, you’ll be separated from them. Get used to less personal time for “fun.” You’re not an intern anymore – the stakes are higher. And then there’s those times when it feels like you in the boat by yourself. It’s going to feel like everyone’s jumped ship, and you’re wondering if you were called at all. You’ll preach sermons that it’ll feel like no one cares, you’ll conduct worship you’re not too excited about. You’ll get bogged down by things that have nothing to do with anything. And you’ll get frustrated, even pissed off along the way. But that’s the job; and you gotta take the punches if this matters to you.
But then will come the knockout moments….when Grace completely blows you away. Baptisms. Funerals. Conversations when people reveal the human side of themselves. Moments where you make mistakes and people are gracious with you. Moments where only one person “gets it” but it’s a conversation that humbles you. Moments when a bunch of people show up to help an older lady move her things into an assisted living home. Outsiders who have no background with the church, but have the same notions, dreams, and visions about the church you do….and some of them will be even greater.
And then there’s going to be those moments when it’s going to seem absolutely hard, but you’re going to know it’s exactly where God wants you to be. It won’t be comfortable, but God’s grace and call will make it seem like well…it’s all worth it. It’s all life-giving. And you’ll know exactly what being a pastor is all about.
Care for all. Care for their humanity. And call others to do the same. That’s the thing – all the theology, all the Biblical interpretation, all the other “churchy” stuff, it boils down to “love God, and love your neighbor as Christ has loved you.” It’ll seem easy some days, and hard on others for all the reasons I mention above. But it really boils down to this. Doing the “right thing” is sometimes easy, but often it’s doing the hard thing. That’s the burden of leadership. But so often, even though it’s hard, the right thing is simple, and it’s no different here. Care for all. Care for their humanity. It’s ultimately not about you.
The result, the vision of “success” it may not look like you envisioned it. Heck, you might just outright “fail.” But if you care for all, care for them in their humanity….you’ll be just fine. You’re gonna have to be honest about yourself on that one; especially when you screw up. Knowing you, that’s gonna happen. And you’re gonna have to be upfront and honest with people about that when you do. But if you tell the truth in all things…..you will be caring for them all…and they’ll get that.
And on a final note: establish that “inner circle.” You might laugh, but the dude from “Meet the Parents” was right: the circle of trust is important. For some, that circle is really big, for others, it’s small. Knowing you, it’s gonna be tiny. But no matter, establish it. Have those few folks who you can share your battle scars with, your war stories. Have folks who can offer wisdom, but more than that, will simply pick up the phone when you call. Heck, some of those people won’t even be pastors. They won’t even be Lutheran. Knowing you….some of them won’t even be people of faith. But they’ll restore your faith in humanity….and restore you in other ways too, like friendship. And they’ll renew your faith along the way.
And because no letter to you would be complete without it: Here’s a motivational “Rocky” video clip. I know you man….I could’ve boiled this whole letter down to this clip, seriously. And also….you’ll be just fine bro. Because I know you do give a damn….about God, about God’s people, about what it means to follow Christ….and that’s what matters.