3 of a Pastor’s Great Fears. . .Ranked!

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Okay, before we begin, I know you know all the Bible verses about things like anxiety and worry and fear.  I know them too and I have most of them memorized and remind myself of them daily.  But knowing them and feeling them are two very different things.  So here I sit as a Christian pastor who is seminary trained, holiness sanctified, and a Bible loving preacher and I am telling you that memorizing Bible verse about anxiety doesn’t get rid of anxiety.  It turns out quoting those verses to anxious people doesn’t help that much either but I’ll save that blog post for another day!

The whole anxiety thing is really bad when you are a pastor.  I don’t know if you know this but the statistics are in and most churches are in a very precarious spot.  They are one bad conflict or one untimely rich person’s death away from closing.  Anxiety and fear seem to just come with that.

But acknowledging your fears for what they are does help.  And as I have prayed through my fears and tried to cope with them I have realized there are three great fears I have, at least when it comes to my relationship with my congregation.  I have listed them below in descending order of how much anxiety they cause me.

3.  Everybody in my church will one day come to hate me.  I live every day in fear that I am going to do something incredibly dumb that will cause everybody to turn on me.  I have family members and friends who have lived through this scenario and I still cry for them.  It is such a nightmare, especially for their families.  It is so hard for a spouse to have to terminate close friendships because their loved one was fired.  I worry greatly about what such a day would do to my wife and my children.    With that said, I don’t lose much sleep over this possibility because if my whole church comes to hate me, the solution will be brilliantly simple.  .  .painful.  .  .but simple.  I will just resign.  Then the church will be able to go on and I will have given a great gift to another pastor who gets to be the white knight on a handsome stead who gallops into that situation to clean up the mess.

2.  Everybody in my church will love me.  I like being liked.  I freely admit that.  I probably like being liked more than most people.  I have the personality of a suitor, desperate to woo people to my good graces.  But I know all too well the liabilities of that personality.  They are not that you will fail to woo everybody.  The liabilities come when you succeed in wooing everybody.  I live everyday in constant fear of having too much political power.  I worry about what might happen on the day I blindly lead my blind fan club into a death trap.  I have never been universally liked (thank God!) but I have come close and it was close enough to know what massive harm I really could do with a group of, well, groupies.  It was scary enough that I actually did resign.  The fallout of that resignation was really rough.  I had abandoned my fan club and caused separation anxiety both in them and me.  I never want to have to do that again.  But I look at myself in the mirror quite often and remind myself that I will if I must.

But now for the true nightmare scenario, the one that makes me tremble and keeps me up at night.  .  .

1.  Half of my church will hate me and the other half will adore me.  I know of pastors who have been in these situations and their churches barely survived.  The worst thing a pastor can become is a divisive figure, one who unwittingly pits one group against another just by being themselves.  These situations are so tragic and so hard to fix that I hope I never find myself in one.  I hope my leadership is never so horrible that a church splits because of me.  As Jesus once said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Mark 3:25)  And I could not stand to walk away from the shredded remains of a divided church.   And yet it happens all the time.  At those moments only a very, very wise and prayerful District Superintendant, or denominational leader, can bring about any good.

Well, what do you know, a blog post about fear had a sentiment about hope up there.  And maybe that is how we conquer our fears, by recognizing the hope therein.

So during my anxious days and sleepless nights, I do hope that my leadership is just adequate enough to not shut down a church.  To hope for any more than that would be pride.  To hope for anything less would be disaster.

 

A Pastor’s Running Baggage

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This morning I awoke at my in law’s house in Western Washington.  I only find myself here once or twice a year and usually feel somewhat claustrophobic.  I was born and raised between the big skies and wide open spaces of southern Idaho.  Here the low hanging clouds and giant, lumbering trees create an unsettling eeriness.  At least it unsettles me.  My wife, who grew up here, calls it “comforting.”

Be that as it may, I generally look forward to running a few miles whenever I am here.  To the west of my in law’s house lies acres and acres of narrow roads that wind through dense forests.  When I was here in November I ran out on a narrow road without a shoulder.  The forest to each side is beautiful.  However, this road has a disturbing amount of traffic and no room for pedestrians.  The gorgeous forests were ideal.  The 40 mile per hour cars trying not to hit me were less than.

Apparently I remembered the beauty and forgot the traffic because this morning I ran out that way again.

As I carefully dodged the cars, most of which were ambivalent to my well being, I found myself imagining what might happen if one of these cars did kill me.

What would happen to my church?  How would my wife handle it?  Would my kids be okay without a dad?  What friends would come to the funeral?  These are eery thoughts, perfect for such an eery place as the Pacific Northwest.

But more than family and friends, I also wondered about secret emotions and feeling I might take with me to my grave.  After all, within these 150 pounds of loosely jointed muscles and bones I have a startling amount of baggage.

Which is unfortunate, given that us runners are a minimalist bunch.  Now I know there is an entire industry of runner related gadgets that you can carry on your miles.  However their cell phone arm straps, runner friendly head phones, heart rate monitors, calorie trackers, absorbent head bands, mp3 players and the billions of marketing that sells them are all superfluous.  The best way to tell a runner from a jogger is to look for these needless accessories.

I am purist and have been since college.  When I leave home I wear running shoes, socks, a watch and the shortest pair of shorts this pastor can get away with wearing.  More than that, I wait until my stomach is empty, not being one who can run comfortably with anything sloshing around in there.

Yet when I head out to the roads and trails I find a surprising amount of baggage weighing me down.  Yesterday I met with two of my dearest friends in Portland.  As has been the case with every good friend I have made since junior high I am desperate to retain their friendship.  I spent a few minutes this morning going over everything I said and did wrong yesterday while with them and worried that they might not like me as much after.

More than that, I am a pastor of a church that seems fairly stable and yet I worry about how precarious the situation is.  Whenever I run I try to assess each congregants discipleship status.  Are they making gains?  Are they giving the enemy ground?  Are they willing to hear me ask them the tough questions and read the tough scriptures to them or do they need something the Apostle Paul would compare to “milk?”  Is my relationship with my associate strong enough, good enough?  What congregants can I build trusting friendships with and what ones are waiting in the weeds to destroy me?

In fact, the problem with evangelical pews is that the more you sit in them the more arrogant you become, thinking you are right about everything.  How do I fight that trend and teach and model a humility through which the other virtues will grow?  And how do I do that knowing that the problem with evangelical pulpits are that the more you stand behind them the more sure of yourself you become?  How do I fight that tendency within myself and model the needed humility?

Then there is the macro vision.  How do I work and live into my calling to make disciples who make disciples and plant churches who plant churches?  What conversations do I need to have?  What partnerships do I need to foster?  What steps do I need to take this next week to work towards the mission?

Then there is that church I left.  We met yesterday with a member of that church.  They do not yet have a pastor and are struggling to find and afford one.  There have been several blows to their congregational life since I left.  A divorce, a death, a few severe illnesses, financial instability and of course, leadership changes.  When I left that church in February, I foretold that I was going to break a lot of hearts, starting with my own.  And my heart is still aching and breaking for them and for me.

I also think of friends.  I spent last weekend with a friend who has pastored what we call a “buzzsaw” church.  He went into it whole.  He came out in pieces.  It was my deep honor to share his pain last weekend and yet it was a taxing time.  We cried together, raged together and even laughed at the absurd world.  I still mourn from him.

Then there is another friend, I have known and respected since high school.  He won all the awards in high school and is now becoming somewhat of a national celebrity for a shoe he invented.  I admire and respect him and yet feel like in the race to save the world, I am far behind him and losing ground daily.  How do I possibly catch up?  Should I even try?  Can my small daily sacrifices even compare to his amazing ability to make roses out of dog poop?

Needless to say in this 150 pound body striding effortlessly through the forests of Washington, is a surprising amount of stress, grief, frustration and fear.  No wonder I didn’t even bother with a shirt.  The extra weight would be the straw that broke this camel’s back.

I would take all this to my grave if one of these haphazard drivers ends my life.  In fact, if that had happened, all you would have is a half written sermon for next Sunday and last week’s blog post about Monday Morning’s Repentance.  Hardly a legacy, but a legacy I am not sure I want to leave anyway.

As I dodge three or four more cars, an asphalt sidewalk suddenly appears in front of me.  It starts at the road and then weaves away through some trees, curving in and out.  When I see it I seem to hear a different voice in the back of my head, a comforting and familiar presence that says, “Follow the path and I will keep you safe.”

A minute or two later I stop to catch my breath.  As sweat forms and pours off me I offer up prayers for my church, my denomination, my last church, my friends and for myself.

For the one who called me is faithful.  .  .