Friday, July 26, 2013

What do you expect from your pastor?

A friend of mine posted this link recently and it got me thinking again about an issue I wrestled with in all my time as a pastor: meeting the expectations people have of you as their pastor. The article frames the discussion in terms of given hours in a work week but I've found it can also easily extend to other things like personality traits (Is he friendly enough? Is she a strong leader?).

At different times I've wanted to identify the problems in different ways. Sometimes it has taken the form of "People expect too much of pastors." That's true in a sense but it is also true that we should have high standards for those in ordained ministry. Other times I've thought of it as "People expect the wrong things of their pastor." There is probably truth in that statement as well but I think what this article helps to point out is that a lot of it has to do with the accumulation of expectations from a whole congregation of people. For one parishioner, the most important trait they look for in their pastor is that he or she be personable. For another, the pastor must be a prayer warrior. Others want a great preacher or a visionary leader. Its not that any of those desires are bad. It is just easy to see how expecting them all to be fulfilled by one person to everyone's liking is nothing short of impossible.

Of course, I think most people would recognize this in theory. The challenge is practicing it with your pastor. To be sure, there are unfortunate and painful instances when pastors really are failing to live up to their calling but, in my experience, many of the complaints I've heard about other pastors haven't fallen into that category. They often come down to differing expectations concerning the role of the pastor within the community of faith. I think it is actually good news that, scripturally and historically speaking, that role is actually fairly limited. That is to say, the pastor is not the foundation of the Church, it is not the pastor's job to "build" the Church, and the pastor is not the savior of a struggling church. In my opinion, the role of the pastor is nothing more and nothing less than to nurture the spiritual growth of those in his or her care. Surely this will take a variety of forms but that is essentially the pastor's role. If your pastor does this for you, be thankful. Anything else is just gravy.

It may be even more important and more challenging for the pastor to recognize and practice this reality for himself. I know that it was always a temptation for me to try to be everything that everyone wanted me to be and I suspect it is something with which most pastors wrestle at least occasionally. In this sense, the simple word "No" can be one of the most important words in a minister's vocabulary. While the pastor would do well to be aware of the expectations of those in her church, she will also do well to not always fulfill them. Given that we are finite human beings with limited time, energy, and resources, we can only say "Yes" to the things that really matter if we are able to say "No" to the things that are not the most important, even good things. Jesus knew how to say "No" the desires of the crowds and the religious leaders in order to say "Yes" to his Father's mission. Through long, arduous, and ongoing work, the minister of the gospel (and every disciple of Jesus, for that matter) must always be learning to do the same.

This idea always reminds me of the story of Mary and Martha in the Gospel of Luke. Martha is busy being hospitable, a good and important, even Christ-like activity. Jesus has just told a parable about the importance of loving and serving others in the previous story in Luke's Gospel. But when Martha complains because her sister is sitting at the feet of Jesus while she does all the work, Jesus responds "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things but Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her."

Whatever expectation others might have of us as pastors, our first task must always be to sit at the feet of Jesus, to delve deeper into the mystery of the Triune God, to nurture our relationship with our creator and redeemer. It is only by this that we will be of any help to others as they attempt to do the same.