My job is mostly irrelevant...

One of the hardest things for me to accept about ministry is the utter
irrelevance of my office. Everyone likes and needs a bit of encouragement throughout the day - and clergy are no different. What I have discovered, however, after serving four different congregations over the past 35+ years is that the very nature of this calling makes affirmation complicated for both good and bad reasons. So, while I am NOT interested in a pity party, let me share with you two broad truths about the blessings and curses of this irrelevancy. They have nothing to do with the lovely role I play in the liturgy nor the creative things I have been exploring re: music and spirituality. Nor am I talking about my public role in running a pretty good funeral (or so I've been told) of my time helping couples get ready for marriage. 

The blessing comes in the deep relationships that happen in ministry: the vulnerability, the tenderness, the presence at births and deaths, birthdays and anniversaries, weddings and all the other life-cycle events. Now this deserves a word of clarity because these events can become curses if there is a hollow expectation that the pastor is just a hired chaplain who must perform like a trained seal on command. That has happened - it is ugly and demeaning - and I had to learn to put the kebosh on such things early in my ordained life. 

So, please don't confuse the "rent-a-minister/trained seal" role with what I have called the blessings. No, the blessings come when you sit with a young teen who needs someone to trust as she discerns a way through her fears. Or when all you can do is read the Psalms of comfort to an elder as he lives out his final days on the way to a good death. Or when you can help a couple figure out how to grow deeper into real love after the sex and initial romance has burned off. Or when you can model a way of living the questions in search of an answer. Or encourage the lay leadership to take a risk for racial justice or gender equality. Or share tears of joy, sorrow or rage with someone because there are no word big enough for such truths. These are the blessings and they are real and sacred. 

And because they usually happen in quiet, private moments, most of the people in a church never see them and rarely know why they matter. They are prayers offered in our respective private closets because these things are intimate. Given this intimacy, therefore, most of what I do remains unknown - and consequently blessedly irrelevant. Are you with me? These experiences compromise the blessings of irrelevancy: maximum space and time to share love with people in the quiet, vulnerable moments of our lives.   

Curiously, the curse of irrelevancy occurs for me not in private but in a public way that is connected to the quiet time I share with individuals. I suspect that it has something to do with the very nature of confidentiality, too because soul work does not take place in public. We live in an aggressively consumerist world - with its own blessings and curses - and tend to judge value by the things we produce. Consequently, when it comes to the metrics of the church - people and money - things become complicated. I want to emphasize the relationships and spirituality; others want to look at the bottom line of bodies in pews and dollars in the bank. And here's how this plays out whenever the administration of a church gets down to financial concerns and the so-called "business" leaders of the congregation start talking number. 

They patronize clergy by telling us we really don't know how the world works. Sadly, that is true for a number of clergy people who are clueless about making payrolls or the challenge of being an entrepreneur. But nuance is a rare commodity in these conversations as all clergy are considered naive, inexperienced in the ways of money and precious but irrelevant dreamers. So, whenever we face money problems - and in all the churches I've served we have always faced money problems - and I say out loud, "Look, while we don't have all the answers, ours is a faith of hope and abundance. Just look the the difference between Good Friday and Easter..." here's what always happens. (And I am intentional, not casual, in stating that this ALWAYS happens.) 

1) I get the look:  do you REALLY believe in that resurrection-Easter crap? 

2) And when I say out loud, "Yes, I REALLY believe in that resurrection-Easter crap" they say: well, whatever, you can't run a business on Easter. "True" I respond, "but the church is NOT a business. It is a faith community entrusted with a variety of resources that we have to manage carefully and faithfully." 

3) To which comes the eye-rolling, patronizing smile accompanied by, "Pastor, that's ok for a Sunday sermon, but this is the real world. We have to face the bottom line." In a word, everything I am paid to do, everything I give my heart and life to, really doesn't matter. Sermons don't matter. Prayer doesn't matter. Faith doesn't matter. Hope doesn't matter. Being with people in their brokenness doesn't matter. It is all irrelevant, yes?

In my early days, I used to swallow any theological reply I might offer and let the business guys and gals have their way, trusting that God was smarter than all the MBAs that ever graduated throughout all time. But I am not so demure in my closing years of ministry and often go on to say something like, "With all due respect, we are not talking about a business. And no amount of eye-rolling can change that. We are a church, built on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not only do I trust that - even when I don't understand it - but I insist that is the ONLY bottom line God has given us to wrestle with. So...you can talk flow charts, interest rates and lack of pledges all you want. I cannot turn my back on the one I call Lord and Savior who is greater than all your bottom lines." Now look, I am not saying I win the debate - I am still treated as irrelevant - but at least I make the case out loud for the way of the Cross in finance meetings. Given the very private nature of most of my work - and the relational nature that can never treat people as numbers or commodities - I guess this clash is inevitable. Still, it feels like a curse.

The other way this happens is when good, hard-working, loving and honest people come to me with spiritual exhaustion. After listening and praying with them, I almost always say something like: "You know, something has to change. You can't keep doing all the things you are doing AND hope to have a healthy spiritual life." To which they nod their head - and keep doing what they've always been doing. "What is the working definition of insanity?" I ask. "Doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results." They smile, thank me for my time and go back to the same old same old until they feel overwhelmed again. I used to keep taking appointments with these good, but stubborn folk - and that really made me feel irrelevant.

Now I follow the counsel of a Roman Catholic priest who used to work with
AA. After 1 or 2 meetings like this with the same person, he would say: "Look, I love you - and God loves you more. And I will keep you in my prayers until I leave this earth, but here's the deal: unless you make a commitment to try to put into practice what we just talked about, there isn't any value in having any more of these conversations. The time has come for a change so unless you are willing to make a change, we need to bring these talks to a close." Oh my, some folks were angry, many were confused and even more tried to test me to see if I was serious. I am - and holding fast to not wasting time has made me irrelevant to lots of good souls who aren't yet sick and tired enough of being sick and tired.

When I get to feeling like this the BEST thing I can do is to take a few days away for deep and quiet time with Jesus. Practice what I preach, right? So even though I will be leaving for four months of away time when my sabbatical begins in May, I think that's exactly what I need to do. My job IS irrelevant and I want to honor the blessed nature of that irrelevancy and not get ground down by the curses.

credit:  Dianne De Mott

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