Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Everyday I Write the Book

I'm coming up on my twentieth anniversary in ministry. I was ordained on January 1, 1997 (my birthday!). I guess I can't really count the year-ish we spent in Nashville, so next January, that will be around twenty years.

I never thought I'd do anything for that long.

In college I was convinced that in a couple of years I'd be touring the country in a van with three or four other guys playing songs that we'd write in hotel rooms and record in ramshackle studios. That was literally my dream, in that I sometimes actually had dreams to that effect while I slept. I was sure of it, as if I had been told that I'd be fated to this life, much like an Old Testament father names his son a word that seals his future.

Instead, I have been a paid, professional musician in a different way. And I only recently realized this. I suppose the appropriate way to look at twenty years in ministry is to look at it as twenty years of pastoral work. And that's true. That, of course, comes first. But I have also been paid to play music in that pastoral role for two decades. I really like that. I suppose, then, I did achieve my dream, and found another one in the process. This is typical of how God works, at least as much as I've understood such things.

Along the way, I've done all the other stuff of ministry: preached, counseled, taught, performed weddings and funerals, taught youth and children, etc. I've enjoyed most of it. I used to teach adults a lot, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was told early on in ministry by quite a few people that I should write a book. I am. Three, in fact. But I struggle with the tone of the book that will be about my experiences in ministry. And here's why.

My guess is, if they felt comfortable enough to be honest, that most pastors would tell you about the roller coaster ride that is ministry. And it is. I could just as easily write a book about all the kindness expressed to me and my family as I could the hurts and wounds. The surprise Christmas gifts and the surprise scathing and insulting Christmas card (yes, this happened to me). The wonderful relationships and the abrupt ends to some of those relationships. The wonderful comments about my family versus the harsh words that both my wife and son have had aimed at them. In my more negative moments, I suppose my flesh would love nothing more than to write a tell-all expose about all of the nonsense me and my friends in ministry have experienced. But, of course, that is only part of the story, and, much like most good writing, you have to tell it all. There is plenty of good, more than bad I would guess, by far. It's humbling to be told that people continually pray for your ministry, or be given a car out of the blue, or be told that you've made an impact in a student's life. Telling it all would mean taking an account of all of those wonderful, unexpected instances where God showed up through those around us. That alone would make a great read. But there's much more to the story.

I could write about my ignorance or impatience instead of the mistakes of others, feverishly scrawling all of those things I didn't know or thought I did but didn't. That would be fair and true. But most people don't really want to recount their failures and failings. Some of those are too embarrassing to conjure up for a chapter (or chapters) on what not to do. I hesitate to say I could write a book solely on that, but it would at least be booklet, if not a multi-volume tome. I'd like to think that the successes would take up more space, but I really don't care to find out.

My wife remarked the other day that our moves, our changes, have taken a toll on us, and I'd agree. If you have uprooted your family a time or two, you know this. Although we've always left churches by our own choice, it didn't always feel that way, and those separations and distant friendships sometimes make you yearn for when everything will be made right. I reminded her of something a pastor friend told me early on in ministry: don't get too close. When he said that, I scoffed in my youthful idealism. For a variety of reasons, I now understand the sentiment, even if at times I don't heed his advice. It makes me sad that anyone, no matter what role they play in church, would feel that they have to circle the wagons around themselves for protection against other believers. I'm not naive enough to think that this isn't necessary at times. But I'm idealistic enough to keep wishing it weren't so. When my wife and I have shared openly, without thought of any judgment, we've never regretted it, because it was true. I hope that's true for most pastors and most people in church in general, because we all have crud, right? And we don't just have crud that we talk about; we have crud that we'll never share. That's true for all of us, and it'd be good if we could all remember that. It'd be good for me to remember that more, for sure.

I do know that my book will talk about the unique nature of the vocation of ministry. I've gone back and forth on this over the years. I've heard pastors talk about how difficult the ministry life is, and sometimes I dismiss this summarily because I know we all have difficult situations in our work and home life. I won't say it's harder, because to do so would be to diminish the struggles all of us have. But I will reiterate that it is unique: unique because you live your life with the people you serve, and when you go home you still wear the hat of pastor. You certainly don't do that in retail, or most jobs that I can think of. Your bosses and those to whom you are accountable are also people you are called to build close relationships with, which means they get to see you at your best and your worst. This is daunting. The operative phrase now is "do life together". I know that at times the veil will fall and I won't be the best me and I can be (how's that for some 1980's self esteem phrasing!) and I know that this could hurt what I do. But I suppose, in our best moments, that's what grace is for. In those best moments, we'll give it until it hurts a little, or even a lot. And that's why it's tough. By letting people in (and by them letting you in), they are getting power (and so are you).

This is true of all relationships, of course, but I am especially mindful of it regarding pastoral work, because your close relationships, your community, and your source of income are all rolled into one. I suppose if I were to think about it, there might be other professions of which this is true. But right now, at this late hour, I can't think of one. When your vulnerability is somewhat tied to your livelihood, you feel that tension. If you cross an invisible line of expectation, you could damage relationships or possibly be fired. If you withhold too much, your ministry might not grow. And although I've had twenty years to grapple with this, there won't be much advice in my book on how to navigate this. It remains a challenge, I would guess, for most pastoral staff.

Being introverted, I prefer to write. That way, I say exactly what I want to say. I can refine it before it goes out into the world. I love that. I'd much rather text or e-mail than speak face to face, unless I'm having an in-depth conversation about apologetics or music. So the idea of compiling a book about the church I know, the good, bad, and the indifferent, is appealing. I can tell my story exactly how I want it to be told. But I don't want it to be filtered or laden with agenda. As I said before, in my more negative moments, I might want people to know about the scars. But the problem with that is it's a skewed account, and it's the kind of thing I would like to avoid at all costs. Because we're all David: murderers who are after God's own heart. Maybe not literal murderers, but you get the point. And that's the story that needs to be told, about me, about you, about everyone. You don't need redemption if there's nothing to redeem. And that's the story of the church, really: perpetual redemption, which means there's a whole lot of good coming out of a whole lot of bad. That's the book I'll write. In fact, it's the book I'm writing as we all are everyday. And it's the lesson I hope to continually learn.


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