They say in ministry that the first fifteen years are the hardest; this Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of my serving as pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church. Now having reached the mid-century mark in age, I am roughly halfway through my full-time ministry, depending upon so many factors I dare not list them all, if I could even remember them. A good time, I think, to pause and reflect.
First off, by “they” I mean me, and in full confession mode, I just made up “that the first fifteen years are the hardest” out of thin air. Some have been hard and others harder. None were easy. However, some totally not made up facts suggest that being clergy puts one either the top or among the top burnout professions in our country and that clergy burnout is a growing problem. You know we ought to all be listening when the New York Times says, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.” Imagine if you would that as pastors our workload includes more than showing up on Sundays and eating doughnuts, especially chocolate ones. I’m guessing that most of you know this, but perhaps do not understand exactly what you know. You can read the Times article here (it does not mention chocolate doughnuts by the way): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html?_r=0
The article is from 2010, but trust me, the mental, physical, and emotional health of pastors isn’t getting better. My guess is worse and at an increasing rate.
When I begin this gig, most first-call Lutheran pastors (pastors serving their first congregation) usually served for a couple of years and then moved on. Piper and I promised the congregation that we planned to stay around awhile. They invested in us financially with a reasonable salary and took a risk by calling a first-call pastor like myself, the first time that they called a pastor of such limited experience in full time ministry. Piper and I both had served in the navy, having moved eight times in the previous ten years and now with three young children we wanted to give them some stability, put down some roots, and throw away those cardboard boxes with so many crossed out room designations on them. Two months after we arrived we supplied the congregation’s summer rummage sale with nearly our entire collection of winter clothes. We were that confident and honestly we didn’t have the room for them, anyway. Since arriving in Florida, I wear on average a sweater maybe three days a year. Piper encouraged me to get rid of every cardigan that when worn properly made me look like Mr. Rogers. I kept the blue one for comfort, like children keep a baby blanket. I still have it to this day. And if I could make loafers work for me, I would so be Mr. Rogers, but some things just aren’t meant to be.
The people of Trinity always clapped when I reminded them in those early years that Piper and I were sticking around. After five years, the time by which all but two of Trinity’s pastors had left, we were still there. After I had received my Doctor of Ministry degree in year eight, we stayed. After my first sabbatical (and then my second), we remained. Through the good and the bad, we stayed. Through countless financial crises, pay freezes, and one pay cut, we stayed. Through my mistakes, good decisions and poor ones, good health and bad, through three hurricanes, through years of no facial hair, a goatee and even, early on, a full beard, we stayed. When I was told that people were leaving because of me and the changes that I was implementing, we stayed. Through fifteen Vacation Bible Schools, through fifteen giant gingerbread man decorating events, through two thousand loaves of oatmeal wheat bread baked for communion, through untold number of baptisms, weddings, funerals, house blessings, pet blessings, confirmations, and healing services, we stayed. Through opening up the facilities to four different congregations, and a pile of community organizations and hosting for a number of years the church-based shelter program for the homeless and becoming the local home for an area food pantry, we stayed. When the roof leaked and the septic drain field failed and the treasurer wasn’t sure they could pay me that week, we stayed. When the phone rang and I was asked to interview for other churches in other places, we stayed. In all of these things, all of these times, in my best and worst as a pastor, when I came to God in prayer, in tears, with questions and uncertainties, God said “stay.” And so we did and so we have and will continue to do so. How do I know it was God’s will and not my own, my own need, my own fear, or the advice of another, for good or for ill? Well, the Apostle Paul says that now we see in a mirror dimly, then we shall face to face. I accept that in the dimness of this life, in the shadows, in the quiet of God in this life, where the still small voice or even the silences of God can speak, that I accept God’s “yes” or God’s “no” on faith when it comes in these inexplicable moments of peace, rare and pristine things, every one.
I will secretly admit that I have a box of “thanks you” notes and cards that I have collected over the years along with crayon sketches and photographs and newspaper clippings. I keep them because there are rainy days of ministry when even the best pastors and even the un-medicated ones (and, there is, of course, me) need reminding that they do not in fact suck. A lot of us take things too personally, the South Florida sun having tanned our skin, but not thickened it. We’ve been warned by countless therapists and wise friends and (I cannot personally verify this) Oprah, but still we take responsibility for everything that goes wrong and figure when things go right that this is how things are supposed to be. With good medication and a therapist who keeps a very indifferent cat in his office, my ministry is now marked by a much more diminished sense of anxiety, less personal responsibility for everything that goes on or doesn’t go on, and more Sabbath time, and this has opened up room to experience, finally, after a number of years, something resembling peace and joy. It is, like I am and you are and all things, a work in progress.
My first couple of years I collected seeds from the yellow tabebuia trees in a park across from the church and planted them in pots. A number of the seeds germinated and when they grew to three feet or so in height, I transplanted them along the sidewalk swale in front and on the side of the church. They, too, have survived three hurricanes; wet seasons and dry seasons, and all that nature could throw at them. Now they stand fifteen or even twenty feet tall. Not straight, mind you, they twist and turn and have had some pruning over the years. They bear scars from storm and wind. There are times early in the spring when they have no leaves at all and seem dead. And now that they have matured, each year late in the spring, for two weeks, there is nothing more beautiful; cascades of yellow flowers fill every branch. For the first time in over a dozen years I am nurturing a new batch of yellow tabebuia seedlings. I have really come to appreciate the beauty of an unexpected moment in which the Spirit of God is present and powerful and growing, in both plants and in people. In this most recent year of better health, I have traded legacy for simplicity and am more often moving aside to allow the Spirit the room that it needs.
Through all of this, the people of Trinity have stood by me, held me and my family in their prayers, gifted my family and I with companionship, wisdom, and patience, showed over and over again a willingness to take a multitude of risks for the sake of the gospel, forgiven me my mistakes, proved nimble through many changes, great and small, embodied Christ in ways I am certain they did not foresee, and helped me grow in this most fragile and satisfying of vocations. We are a peculiar and precious congregation, through whom the Holy Spirit dances and sings, works justice and mercy, calls and empowers, and it is all God’s doing and it is wonderful, even, and perhaps especially, when we don’t get it quite right. In faith, I look forward to the second half of life and ministry in a job that I am only beginning to understand and appreciate and love ever more deeply.