September 15, 2017

The Secret Life of a Pastor

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans
Just after I announced my resignation from my Pastor position, my wife and I got to have dinner with some friends from our church who reached out to us. We had a fantastic time with them talking life, science, faith, parenting, the Enneagram and a number of other things. My favorite moment though came about half way through dessert when the husband was sharing a story and at one point swore. As soon as he said it, he put his hand up to his mouth and apologized. There was a couple second pause and then he said, "Ahhh, you're not a pastor anymore! I can swear in front of you now."

It was such a funny moment, but as I processed it more, I realized it's the perfect example of the life of a pastor.

Consciously or unconsciously, people tend to put pastors up on this pedestal. I can't tell you how many times I've been having a conversation with someone and they at some point say, "I know I shouldn't be telling you this..." For many, there is this sense that you have to act a certain way, speak a certain way and only talk about certain things when you're around a pastor. The local group of clergy I have met with in my community will regularly share that when it comes to mental health issues, domestic violence or marital challenges, pastors are often the last ones to know there is something going on. Some people want to make sure their pastor doesn't figure out they aren't perfect Christians (Pssst...we already know that!!) and so we are regularly interacting with people who are less than authentic.

If that weren't tiring enough, the worse burden is the reverse: this expectation as a pastor that we, and our families, are supposed to be perfect. Far more often than not, this is a subconscious expectation. Sometimes pastors put it on ourselves more than our communities do, but even in the best of church communities (and thank God that my previous church was that otherwise I never would have made it there 10 years!), it's there.

The week after I announced my resignation, I had lunch with a friend in my church and as I sat down, he asked me how I was, and then before I could even answer he said, "I bet a lot of people take you for granted. All of us come to you to share our stuff and get help, but how often do we really just ask you how you are?" I almost started crying.

Even the amazing, loving people who have asked me that question over the years, being a pastor meant I always had to filter how I respond:
  • How honest can I be? 
  • Can I talk about the stressful day at the office? 
  • Can I share about the fight at home with my wife or my kids? 
  • Can I admit that the sermon really bothered me this week? 
  • Can I tell them I'm having a really hard time reading the Bible?
  • Or questioning what I've always been taught about gay marriage?
  • Or that I wish I could have just slept in instead of coming to church that day?
Then, when you have those moments where you decide to be more honest, you can find yourself being reminded of why it's such a risk to do so. An honest comment you make with a friend is innocently shared with someone else, who then goes and meets with the Senior Pastor to express concern over what the church is "teaching" about the subject of the comment. Then you find yourself having a one-on-one with your boss who needs to clarify what you believe. There is this feeling that you are constantly being read your rights: "Anything you say [post/blog/share/read/etc] may be used against you."

In many ways, being a pastor is very similar to being a therapist. Any therapist will tell you that it's important to keep healthy boundaries with the people they work with for the very fact that you're not friends, they are your clients. The big difference though is that a therapist gets to go home at the end of the day. They go to a small group with friends, they do social events on the weekend, and they can go to church (or not!) on Sunday. Then they head back to work on Monday. Even though they are guarded at work, they can usually be their full authentic selves in other areas of their life. By contrast, pastors don't get the other areas of life because we are constantly with "clients" at small group, at social events, and especially at church. And it's much easier said than done to find ways around that. In the end, our own personal and spiritual growth is what suffers the most in the process.

A couple grabbed me after service the day I made my resignation announcement and tearfully expressed, "I hope we can still be friends." I looked at them and explained that it's exactly why I'm making this decision. Being able to take the pastor hat off is going to allow me to actually develop deeper friendships, and that's exactly what has happened in the month-and-a-half I've been done as a pastor. People I'm getting together with no longer have a tinge of the "client" element, but now are becoming just honest friends and for that, I'm really excited and relieved.