At my first synod assembly as an intern, still quite naive to the hopes and difficulties of ministry, we gathered in the bleachers as pastors were honored for their years in ministry. At the tail end of the presentations, one older gentleman was recognized for 50 years of active, ordained ministry.
As we watched him slowly make his way up the steps and to the podium, I’m pretty certain all of us believed he would shower us with wisdom and perhaps gratitude. When he finally spoke into the microphone — after a long pause — his few words were this: I’m just glad it’s over. There was a smattering of applause as he made his way back down the steps and to his seat.
I have this love/hate relationship with the church. For the most part, I am deeply grateful for my years in ministry and the congregations I’ve served. In fact, I love my congregants more than they probably know. Not in that creepy way; we’ve all taken boundary classes where we hear stories of clergy that are so wrong or in the very best light, stupid.
No, I love my congregants because when I look out at them on Sundays, I see in them as broken and lovely children of God. I am able, at least for a moment or two, see them as the vulnerable and human and so loved people they are. I love to pray for them, and I hurt when they hurt. As they come forward to communion and I look into their eyes, I know some of their histories and pain, and I celebrate with them when good things happen to them. I get to tell them this is all “for you.” I love them, unapologetically.
On the other hand, I watched the church as it slowly killed my father. I have a brilliant student, a sensitive and gifted preacher, who is cautious to go into parish ministry because he watched the church kill his grandfather. (I’m not being melodramatic when I use the word “kill.”) I have colleagues who have been so beaten up by certain congregations that they have had to leave ministry altogether. I know pastors who drink or find other addictions to cope, or pastors who neglect their families and their health.
I’ve experienced in my own congregations the alligators, people who seek to tear me down, who attack me both personally and behind my back. People who seem almost intent on damaging the church and its leaders as if it’s a hobby. I may understand that they suffer from mental illness or that they are just generally unhealthy in some way, but no one deserves to suffer abuse in their workplaces, be it secular or in the parish.
There are so many reasons for this phenomenon and so many books written about it, handled much more articulately than I can in this space. But if I were to boil it down beyond psychology and leadership tips, I believe many are in need of a pastor. Even if we’re in a healthy congregation, often we don’t get to worship as much as we like or pray with others.
I know when I’m leading worship I can only rarely relax into it. Instead, I’m in my head, thinking about the two people that fell asleep during the sermon, or what I need to do next: to adjust the mike, to catch that new couple at the door, to call the piano tuner. We may gather mid-week with other pastors, joke, drink coffee, share stories, think about creative ways we can collaborate, even worship together, but rarely do we have time for simply confessing to one another, to offer absolution, to remind us that we, too, are beloved children of God. Rarely do we go beyond the superficial level unless we’re intentional about finding such a group.
So, perhaps that’s what I want to tell you. I want to tell you how loved you are. I want to tell you that yes, your sins are forgiven — even the idiot ones, the kind that aren’t dire but you slap yourself on the forehead over are taken into Christ’s forgiveness, that each moment in him is new and given for you. I want to tell you that you bless me, and I pray for you. I don’t know who you are but God does, and so I can throw out my prayers for you indiscriminately like wheat knowing God will gather and harvest them, and in Christ’s time and through the Spirit, they will be given back to you.
I want you to know that in this lifetime you will probably never know all the ways you were salt and light for others, but you were and you are and you will continue to be. I want you to know that if you’re being beaten up, Christ is with you. He knows, and even your sighs are carried into Christ’s resurrection promise.
That all this, all creation, has already been redeemed; we merely wait in hope for the full revelation. I hope and pray that you’re not in an unhealthy or abusive parish because that is not what Christ wants for you. He carried that cross so you don’t need to. I want you to know joy, to soak in the reality that you are a blessing to Christ. To see yourself as Christ sees you: a beloved child, whom he will never forget or let go, for there is nothing, nothing Paul reminds us, in all creation that can separate you from his love. You know it’s true.