A colleague stopped by my office not long ago. We see one another seldom enough that we make the most of each opportunity for conversation. On this occasion, we got on to the subject of our families. He told me about his brother, a successful corporate executive. “When I’m with him,” he said, “I sometimes think I would have been better off doing something like he did. I wouldn’t be so frustrated now.”
My friend is an excellent pastor— hugely, unmistakably gifted. I generally feel myself under-equipped for ministry, but I have never doubted his calling. So I was surprised, and my face registered it. He tried to explain, “I work so very hard to make things happen. I give 110 percent trying to create a successful church program. But it just never seems to get traction. My most creative ideas seem to slowly deflate, and the church falls back to its old ways and conflicts. There are moments when I feel like I could have done more good for the world just being a good Christian businessman.”
I admit I know how he feels, and I do not think there’s a conscientious pastor who does not. It is one unproductive committee after another. Trying to get the budget balanced. Starting programs that few attend. Getting panned for your best efforts. All the while feeling you are descending into obscurity, and, in some cases, personal penury. There are only a relative handful of outstandingly successful churches in the world, and most of us do not pastor them. Most of us deal with the kinds of things my friend describes.
“I know what I need when I feel that way,” I said.
“Tell me,” he said.
“More time at the nursing home,” I said.
I am not sure, now, exactly what I expected when I became a pastor. I knew there was nothing more important than doing God’s work, and this seemed the obvious place to do it. I have a sympathetic heart, and wanted to help people. I enjoy the analytical thinking characteristic of theology, fortunately, since that is mostly what one studies in a seminary. Then there was the prospect of being called “Pastor,” and people gathering to listen to me talk at least once a week. By the way, any pastor who does not admit he likes being the center of attention, at least a little bit, is lying. And though I did not articulate it, I may have hoped that delving deeper into spiritual power and processes might assist me in my own spiritual struggles. All of these came together to convince me that I had been called.
What I did not know was what it was like to make the church your life.
I thought church members would always love the pastor and treat him with respect. Some do, but in many churches the pastor lives on the cusp between friend and adversary. A significant proportion of churches are systemically conflicted,* and there are congregations that love nothing more than to lure the pastor into the relational tar pit they have been digging for decades.
I assumed that people in churches wanted to be challenged in their thinking. Do not count on it. Most people want their favorite stories repeated, their opinions and prejudices confirmed, and not be asked to rethink them.
I thought new members would join the church quickly and easily when they were convinced by clear biblical presentations. People do not change religions easily, even when presented with compelling theological arguments—especially if the church you are bringing them into is moribund.
I thought that the duties of a pastor would be obvious and so engrossing as to be self-motivating, filling every day with delightful experiences. Often, a day’s expectations are quite unclear and need not be especially interesting.
Somewhere in this process of trying to figure out just what a pastor does, it finally came to me that ministry is not about the church, or the theology, or the conference, or denominational identity. It is about people who need the comforting presence of Jesus, mediated through their pastor.
And there is one place where I can always go to push the reset button on my call to ministry: the nursing home.
I am not saying it ’s fun. Sometimes an anxious sadness comes over me as I approach the door. Some nursing homes have bad odors of overcooked food and urine. I am sickened to see the unattended slumped in wheelchairs in the hallway. For many, it seems a living death. And yes, it does stir my fears of what my own old age might be like.
But there is this about the nursing home: whoever I visit really needs it. This is ministry at its most basic, between the patient, God, and me.
Something has happened to ministry in the megachurch era, although the megachurches cannot be blamed. They have led many to Christ and are marvelously entertaining as well. The pastors who create them—such as Bill Hybel and Rick Warren—are talented Christians of astonishing creativity and energy.
What I do not like is what the megachurch pastors have done to the rest of us clergy: we all, you see, want to be them. We attend their seminars, read their books, then tinker with our worship and structure hoping the explosion in attendance will happen. Usually it does not. But, as we concentrate on becoming big, some essential bit of pastoral focus on the individual and his or her needs—on being the broker between a person we love and the God we love—gets pushed aside. We dream about what new, creative thing we could do with church, and cease to appreciate the simple grace of ministering, eye to eye, to those who need it.
This is not a new problem; we pastors have always been attracted to those things that label us successful or on track. When I first started ministry, the talk at pastors’ meetings was about theology. I remember splitting some rather fine hairs over lunch and on the drive home classifying the others in terms of my own orthodoxy. At other times, the talk was about evangelism and how to attract “interests” (we too seldom referred to them as people). There, the focus included numbers, and the winner was the one with the most baptisms.
But what about the prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace”?
Love where needed
The nursing home is not the only place where one can practice being an instrument of God’s peace. It can happen in a mental hospital with a confused patient, in a hospice with a dying mother, at home with a family that has just lost a child, praying with a man who has just realized his marriage is ending. Or, with a pastoral colleague who is beginning to wonder whether he may have wasted his life.
These settings all have this in common: they are the places where you cannot, by any machination or artifice, dodge that sometimes rewarding, occasionally disturbing spiritual transaction between God and man. Here you find yourself square in the path of the flow of reconciliation between another and God. Here you assist Him in lifting that easier yoke, in boosting that lighter burden. Here you touch the open spiritual wound. Here you try to incarnate Jesus—to the extent that it is possible—to be Jesus to someone.
Much of what pastors love to do most will not serve the purpose. Preaching? Too self-centered. Not enough listening, except for compliments afterwards. Like all performers, preachers are easily deluded into an overestimation of the importance of what they are doing. Writing is an even more solitary activity with a longer and less certain feedback loop.
Church administration surely is not a way to be Jesus to someone. You may enjoy it, your gifts suited to it. But the kind of ministry modeled by Jesus and the apostles was personal. In this kind of ministry, you cannot hide behind a program, an idea, performance, or role. You can minister, doing many sorts of things, but you are not really doing pastoral ministry until you weep at the bedside of a someone you do not know well but whose heart has, in some spiritual sense, touched yours. Until you wrestle with God alongside of one whose faith has died. Until you look despair in the face with the despairing, while trying to direct attention to Jesus’ reassuring face.
Taken seriously—and practiced seriously—being Jesus to someone is not easy. It must not be. It is so much easier, so less taxing, to work from the office, to make phone calls, to study my sermon text, to write an article.
That is why some of us have, occasionally, plunged ourselves into settings like the nursing home. To me, this is the pastoral equivalent of closing my eyes and jumping into a cold pool. I soon warm up in the water, as I warm to the nursing home, too, when I am reminded again, by doing it, that this represents the most real ministry I am called upon to do—more than anything that happens in a study.
I recall visiting Margaret. She is bright-eyed, but does not remember me. Her enthusiasm, though, is undimmed. She tells me—for the twentieth time—of how she met her husband, what her parents said about him, how much she loved him, and her devastation when he died in his early 40s. She once organized a used clothing distribution center for the church, and tells me that she will soon be starting that up again. I assure her we would appreciate her ministry, though I know she will never leave this building except in an ambulance or hearse. Now and then something shifts in her mind, and she lashes out; then the agitation fades and she becomes her cheerful self again, with no memory of what just happened.
Here, I think, is ministry at its rawest, most basic form. I have no program, no systematic theology, no pastoral authority, to bring out and impress Peg with. There is no glory here for me, for no one knows about this visit but the two of us and God—and one of us will not remember it 30 seconds after I walk out of her door. Here all pretense gets stripped away. I am not all that others may positively perceive me to be. My identity is stripped down to being a simple presence: to sit with Peg, listen to her, beseech God for her, and reassure her that God loves her.
I think my talented pastor friend believed me. Whether he can slow down long enough to do it, though, I am not sure. Being an instrument of God’s peace in the nursing home may be harder than being an instrument of His success in the church.
* “More than two thirds of local churches have experienced conflict in the last five years. . . . Adventist congregations are more likely to experience conflict than are most other religious groups.” Overall, 57 percent of all religious congregations in America have had some conflict in the last five years, according to the Faith Communities Today research. Monte Sahlin, Adventist Congregations Today (Lincoln: Center for Creative Ministry, 2003), 90–93.