Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Success, success, success (does it matter)?

With apologies to the Rolling Stones (title is from the lyrics of "Shattered," if you're not a fan)....

I wonder how one might best define "success" in the context of pastoral vocation. Certainly numbers are meaningful - I'm an engineer for crying out loud, I can't ignore numbers. One might argue that the number of folks in the pews each week is a good indicator of the "success" of the church or of the pastor. Each one of those numbers is an individual soul that is precious to God and capable of joining God's mission in that place with their own unique gifts. They all matter, and the more that are present, the more potential there is for the Kingdom of God(whatever that means). If attendance/participation declines or increases precipitously, it can be an indication of the health of the congregation or of the pastor's "performance." But this is not an objective science experiment, carefully controlled and easily measured. Attendance is but one indicator, one piece of data. Taken alone, it misses much more information than it provides. Statistics do not lie. Interpreters of statistics do, however, though it's usually unintentional. Hmm...kind of like scripture - the error isn't so much in the data(scripture), but in the interpretation.

How do you measure spiritual growth and formation? If you make a deep difference in the lives of a few people, is that as important as growing in number? We can look to Joel Osteen if we want to find a pastor who is really good at growing the numbers of his church. I have stepped in puddles after a soft rainfall that are deeper than Osteen, but hey, he fills up that arena every week. Ok, I'm done bashing him, but the point remains - if you tell people what they want to hear and make them feel good, you can accumulate a sizable following, even if your message is completely vapid. Are you then a "success?" What really matters? And when I say that, what I mean is, "What really matters to God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?"

Are our churches seeking to please God? Or are we seeking to look good - to ourselves, to our community, to our denomination? Do we sing, "they'll know we are Christians by our love?" Or is it more like, "they'll know we are an imporant church by our numbers?" Why do we show up every week? To build up our empire?

We are a few weeks in to our contemporary Sunday night service. It has been fun, and as a traditional worship lover, I am struck by how much I respond to the more emotionally charged praise music. I find that it moves me and that I need to be moved that way in worship. These children we pick up and bring in add a lot to the experience too. This past Sunday, we had a significantly smaller number in the evening than in previous weeks, but Sunday morning attendance was a little higher than usual. It's interesting that in my mind, I separate attendance in terms of age - the kids we bring in are one component, and the "adults"/others are a second one. Like they aren't equal somehow. I am 100% positive that others think about this in the same way - an us/them mentality, even if there's no conscious animosity toward "them." Anyhow, the low attendance didn't go unnoticed, and was a point of concern for at least one person. It seems that folks are just waiting for something to worry about. This same person told the pastor he was "praying for her success" here. I appreciate the sentiment, but I wonder how this person would define success. I suspect it is a moving target, but mostly related to numbers. The numbers are going to be evaluated on a week-by-week basis.

Whose success should we pray for and work for? I don't think it's the pastor's. Maybe it's the stuff I associate with the word that bugs me so much. The idea that we can all just work really hard and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and bless the whole world by our obviously awesome relationship with God that allows us to be the agents of change and get lots of credit with everyone including God in the process. Humbly, of course. What a steaming load of garbage. IT IS GOD WHO SAVES, NOT US. Who do we think we are, anyway? Of course we have responsibility to work for the kingdom of God, which involves doing things. But we have to acknowledge our own sin, our own need for salvation, even our own need to confess this and share it with others. And we can't get so obsessed with measuring our performance that we ignore what's really important. God will take care of the numbers.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Some things in life have to be experienced to be understood. For example, you kinda know what to expect when you get married based on observation. Most of us have our parents' marriage to reflect on, even if it is no longer intact. We can look to other marriages with which we may be familiar, or we can watch TV and see what that tells us - both sitcoms and reality shows. Even Dateline/20-20 shows can show us how a marriage might go horribly wrong. But until we enter into that adventure, we cannot understand the intricacies of that relationship. Additionally, each marriage is a little different with a different blend of personalities. A similar example is having children. Until you actually have kids, you can't fully appreciate the experience. It never ceases to amaze me how many people who have never had kids are such great self-proclaimed experts on child-rearing. And they can be quick to dispense their sage advice - same goes for marriage.

And of course, the same goes for "parish life." The experience of dealing with all the issues, big and small, of being the pastor's family is something that must be lived to be fully appreciated. Going into this adventure, I was aware that it would be a growing and learning experience for all of us. I thought about those examples I just gave - marriage and child-rearing - and how it was probably a similar deal. And it is. There is no way to prepare for it fully - you have to just do it.

Here are some of the things I expected:
  1. At least a few people will not like us
  2. At least a few people will try to undermine the pastor's efforts
  3. Some people will be unquestionably loyal simply because my wife is the pastor. They will be loyal to any pastor at their church.
  4. There will be at least a small number of salt-of-the-earth types who want the kingdom of God to flourish where they are - and they will do the work to till the soil.
  5. There will be some beautiful moments of grace
  6. We will be discouraged at times
  7. At some point, there will be people who want to see us go, and they may be successful eventually - we won't be there forever.
  8. Most problems will be about power and control, and they will be compounded by poor communication and pettiness.
  9. Some parishioners will think that they own us, that they can tell us how to live our lives and that they need to teach us. (certainly they are teaching us - they have a lot to offer - but they are not to be the pastor's spiritual advisors)
I was right on pretty much all counts. So why is it so hard to take bad behavior and unrealistic expectations from parishioners when we knew they were coming? I suppose we hadn't lived out these experiences yet. We should not take these things personally - most problems here were problems before we ever showed up. The average stay for the pastors here over the last decade or so is about 2 years. We've been here almost a year and a half. So clearly, the honeymoon should be over and it is. But it's hard not to take personal attacks personally - even when they were part of our expectations. We knew there would be people who want us to leave, but I guess the idea of it was not as hurtful as the reality is.

But we are not stuck in despair. For one thing, there are still many good things happening. The Sunday night service has been well received, and these children coming have been a lovely blessing. On Halloween, we had a covered dish supper and then walked over with the kids to the "trunk or treat" celebration at a nearby church. It's an annual community event there, and they do a great job hosting. Anyhow, as my wife took her little group over to the large inflatable slide, a 12 year old Latina girl put her arm around her and said, "Pastor, when I'm at our church, my heart feels warm." OUR church! Warm heart! (John Wesley, anyone?) There is hope here. There is momentum building in spite of us and the petty bickering that has gone on for years.

But how long can we stay in this place? One of the complications of making a mid-life career switch is how it affects your family. What kind of life does this give our children? How much do we weigh that in making decisions? Conflict is not something we can avoid by just finding a new appointment. Is what we are experiencing here consistent with our expectations or not? And what would our expectations be at a new place? Do we have reasonable expectations? What exactly are they?

We certainly can't run around from appointment to appointment, hoping that "this will be the one!" This is much like a church running through pastors, hoping for the same thing - a match made in heaven that will dispel all the bad stuff - the lion will lie down with the lamb (and not eat it). It's a nice thought, but totally unrealistic.

So - what should our expectations be for our lives as a pastor's family? How much do we weigh the various costs in our decisions about staying/going? There is much to consider, and there is much at stake, both for our family and for our church. We will pray about this fervently, asking for wisdom, discernment, and vision. Oh, and also for patience, love, and grace in our relationships. If you read this, any prayers you want to offer on our behalf would be welcome.