I was not put on this earth to please you.
There, I said it.
Consider it the first salvo of a midlife crisis of a sort. Because I want to survive the next half. To have it full and joyful and healthy. And long. Well, long enough, anyway.
I am called to love you, but loving and pleasing aren’t even closely related. Slightly less close than say a purple gallinule is to a golden orb spider. (Hint: one of those has feathers). And as long as I am confessing: loving you is hard and I probably don’t do it as deeply or consistently or as commitedly as I should. But I am working on it. I have a lot of bad habit unlearning to do, but I am working on that, too. Forgive me if you can, and I am learning to forgive myself.
I have always been a people pleaser. An insecure, guilt-driven one at that. As a teenager and young adult I would call people up and apologize when after some reflection I thought I might have said something offensive. This happened about as often as breathing. It led to some pretty awkward, if not amusing phone calls.
ME: “I’m really sorry about asking you how you did on the math test. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
PERSON: “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
ME: “Oh. I felt bad about it all day, just horrible. I was afraid I might have hurt you. So I just had to call to apologize.”
PERSON: “Ummm…who are you again?”
Eventually people gave me a wider berth when passing in the hall or more often than not must have just assumed it was part of my personality make up and just ignored it. God bless them for that. I love all of you, still, for such grace and patience. Such is true friendship.
Being a people pleaser comes with a shit-ton of guilt that often follows one into adulthood where it marries its long-time friend “defensiveness” in an elaborate ceremony involving at least two choices of entrees at the reception and one drunk second-cousin trying to dance the electric slide. It foreshadows a difficult life fraught with risks to one’s health and vocation. At least it has for me and I imagine I am not alone in this. Not by a long shot. Voices in my head telling me I wasn’t working hard enough. Every time there was push back those same voices questioning every decision. Every change. So many temptations to be reactive instead of exemplifying leadership. Allowing the self-doubt to sit my butt in a chair and my eyes fixed off into space and my mind a circling gyre arguing with myself and then against a dozen critical phantoms. Arguments and counter arguments. Try to love people in the midst of all that. Try to pray. To keep faith. Try to keep one’s heart soft until it breaks wide open and all is tears and confusion.
Some people argue that every pastor should be in therapy of one sort or another. We wear down for bearing the burden of dozens and dozens of people’s secret pain, of watching marriages crumble, of parish betrayals, of facing one’s own limitations and the need for confession of private sins. There are so many unanswered questions we have been asked and failed to find a word of grace. “Why, pastor, am I dying like this?” “Why is mommy crying?” “No parent should have to bury their child.” The longer we stay and death builds an inventory of loved ones and saints and even when we have declared Christ’s victory over sin and death and the opening of the gates of heaven where God wipes the last tear from their eyes, still we mourn to our marrow, even for the persnickety ones whom we find ourselves missing and achingly so.
We harbor a need to be successful in the parish, but the metrics mock us. “Bigger!” “Disciple more!” Growth in every direction and/or every dimension and/or and so forth. Every book has a new plan to offer. Every conference a new program. Every person a new idea. And the church down the street always seems to be thriving.
Such realities eat people-pleasing pastors for lunch and reheat any leftovers for an easy dinner and give the scraps to the dogs. We struggle for traction. To keep people happy; to be faithful; to seek the vision that the Holy Spirit has planted in our hearts. If we only could find the time; give that vision our whole attention. If we only weren’t so distracted in things that didn’t matter, but always seem to matter more to the people who matter more in the measures that too often sadly matter more.
We are so very human, we clergy.
I say that not so much to pin prick my own ego which after 15 years in ministry is by now three sizes too small, but because it needs to be said for the sake of the countless people who believe us to be otherwise. I have met such people. And I am certain that I have over time managed to disappoint them in ways great and small.
We are so human and so we are often a mess, but hold it together for you. For the times in the ICU when your loved one has died and you are throwing yourself over their body in desperate grief and the doctor beats a hasty exit and says to us pastors: “You’ve got it now.” For the times you need someone to declare Christ’s forgiveness. Christ’s assurance of grace. Christ’s love. Even if we are struggling with such things for ourselves, we are strong for you. That is our burden.
As I prepare to turn the page to the far side of the mountain of 50 years of walking this earth (though I did crawl for the first of those years), being healthy is becoming more important. My wife deserves that. I deserve that. God deserves that. And health is more than fitness and food. More than yoga and yogurt. I’m guessing my therapist and pharmacist and I will be together for the foreseeable future and I am more than fine with that. I am learning to be OK with the who I am which interestingly enough leads me more deeply into relationship with the great I AM. The less I worry about pleasing others, the more capacity I have to love them and love authentically and deeply.
The second half of life awaits!