1. General Christian

The role of pastor during crisis, especially when it is personal.

           During this challenging time I have found myself reflecting on what it is to be a pastor going through struggles, hard times, and personal challenges.  When my family was going through our terrible crisis time, almost ten years ago now, I was fortunate to have a really strong friend and colleague network.  I additionally had support people in the form of a counselor and a spiritual director.  I had community and support which were essential and for which I am deeply grateful.
         I was also pastoring a church that was going through some of what we were experiencing as well.  And the balance of self-care while trying to care for the congregation was tricky.  I know the way I handled it worked for many, and for a few it really didn’t.  Part of this stems from the various and different understandings of what pastors should be.  For some people pastors should be above, distant, separate.  In this view, they lead from a place solely of strength and separateness.  The image that comes to mind when I think of this view of pastor is of a man in long dark robes standing in the elevated pulpit of a large congregation preaching in a very academic way that never involves the sharing of personal stories.  An opposing image of pastor is that discussed by Henri Nouwen when he talks about the “wounded healer”.  In this image, the pastor is very, very real and teaches from his/her own experiences.  This kind of pastor is transparent about what they have experienced, are experiencing, and shares from a very personal place where God has been and is in our lives, starting with where God has shown up in their own lives.  That pastor teaches from the example not of a super-human, but of a real human; one who is on the way, like every other person of faith, and one who wrestles and struggles with God like Jacob, one who is left limping at times, but serves, teaches, and loves from that very human, real, sometimes obviously broken place.
           I choose to be that second kind of pastor.  I strive for transparency and authenticity in all that I do.  Of course, there are cautions here.  We still need to present in such a way that our parishioners do not end up feeling dumped on, imposed upon, that they still feel held and cared for and loved, that we are still able to do our jobs of shepherding and loving our folk.  Most of our time should not be about our own problems.  Most of our work should not center on our own needs.  We still need to take care of our folk and focus on their needs.  Our own sharing should be from that place of teaching, walking with others, showing God’s face through struggles.  Our folk should not feel they have to take care of us.  But therein lies the challenge.
         One of the things I say to my parishioners who are struggling with needing help of their own is that “you do us a favor by allowing us to serve you.”  It is hard for many of my congregants who have spent a lifetime in service to others to now accept that they sometimes need help.  I think this is especially true for pastors.  How do we allow others to help us in a way that helps them feel they have been of use, that recognizes all of us as equally loved children of God, but does not make our parishioners feel imposed upon or resentful, or that we do not have the space, energy or ability to care for them?  And again, unfortunately, that place will be different for each parishioner.
         During our hardest time, many of my congregants began sharing with me at a deeper level as they saw that I knew what pain really was and as they trusted me more because of it.  I am so grateful for the deepening of those relationships.  In addition, one of the small groups I led at my church was our praise team.  This was an amazing group of very active parishioners, many of them leaders in the church, who came together to sing and lead our weekly praise service.  As part of each weekly rehearsal, we had a devotional time that usually involved reflection and sharing.  We were a very close group, and I participated as well as led, in the reflection and sharing time.  I think for most of the people in that group this was helpful.  I still remain close to the folk in that group, connected to the people in that praise team.  Through that sharing and reflection time together we became a real community of people learning and deepening in our faith journeys together.  They were part of my recovery, and I believe that I was part of theirs as well.
        But this did not work for everyone in the group.  There was one woman who sang with us for a time who left the group.  She reflected to me that she wondered why every pastor they had, had gone through some kind of crisis, and she just wanted to be part of a congregation where the pastor never went through crisis.  In other words, she valued that first kind of pastor, the more distant kind.  We know this because the truth is that none of us get through this life without crisis.  None of us do.  Especially if we love the way pastors are suppose to love, we will experience pain and hurt.  And the image and belief that someone should lead who has never been and will never experience crisis is really a hope that when they do experience crisis, it will not be shared, known or acknowledged in any way by the congregation.  I felt sadness when she left, but I also was hopeful for her that she would eventually find the kind of pastor she clearly needed: one who was less transparent and more “ivory tower” in their style of leadership.
        The balance remains tricky.  I am aware of congregants who have been hurt when their pastor went through an illness and did not allow the congregation to help them.  And I am aware of congregants who do not want to offer care back to the pastor who serves them.  In seminary we were told that we need people outside of our congregation who can really listen and support us, and I find this to be true, even when I am being transparent and real with my own congregation.  When I share personal stories from the pulpit, I try to share what has already been resolved and healed, and I mostly receive gratitude and thanks from the congregation.  But every once in a while someone (usually not a member) will make the comment that “perhaps you are being too open”.  Again, different people will want and need different things from their pastors.
        Ultimately, I think we pastors need to evaluate the real reason for the sharing that we do: are we sharing this because we believe it will help others to hear our journeys and our stories, how we walked them and where we found God in the midst of struggle?  Or are we sharing because we are needing help?  And if it is the second, is that help really best sought from our parishioners?  Or would it be better to find that help and support outside of the congregation?  And if we are needing help that the congregation can and wants to give, how do we make sure it does not limit or affect negatively the help that we are striving to give back to them?
         The point of this post?  Maybe it is once again that life is complicated, that pastoring is complicated, and that we are all on this journey together, though in different roles, striving to be the best, to be the most true, and to be the most faithful and loving we can be.  I am grateful to all of you who have allowed me to walk with you in your journeys, and I am grateful that you have walked with me in mine.  I am also grateful for your gentle corrections and encouragements to grow.  I hope that I am as gentle and enrouraging of you.

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