Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Point

Harry Nilsson wrote this really cool cartoon musical called "The Point". It's about a people who all have pointed heads except for one boy named Oblio: he has a round head. In a story line straight out of the book of Esther, a count reminds the king that, by law, everyone has to have a literal point on their head. So even though they love Oblio, he is banished from their kingdom, but only for a time. After his travels outside the kingdom, he comes back to reveal to everyone that all things have a metaphorical point even if they don't have an actual point. 

Admittedly, Nilsson said he was inspired to write this story and musical after an acid trip. But I suppose you can deny the truth behind it: everybody has a point, a reason, a value. 

I was talking to Summar the other day about the handful of youth pastor Facebook groups of which I'm a part. Along with the usual discussions about curriculum and discipline issues, there seem to be an inordinate amount of posts about the conflict: with elders, with senior pastors, with other people on youth ministry teams, with parishioners in general. A lot of these posts involve people in the church pushing the youth pastor/leader out of their position; some of these involve other adults in these churches meeting with students without the student minister, or perpetually causing drama in student ministry situations. Pre-Facebook I knew of stories like this, but the frequency with which they are posted is disheartening and shocking to me.

I read these posts (and again it bares saying that there are a lot of them) and wonder how we've missed the point so many times. And I feel conflicted: I know that I've not led a single ministry perfectly. I am, to a fault sometimes it seems, acutely aware of my deficiencies, of which there are quite a few. But I would never presume to take a ministry from someone else. In my thinking, it seems you're messing with something that God has ordained. And I don't mean that people shouldn't be removed from ministries, but there are God-ordered and appropriate ways to do such things. To take something that isn't yours is mere thievery. 

Most of the time these conflicts lack even a modicum of grace. There are certainly youth pastors who are deficient to the point that they must be removed, and this isn't a blanket defense of all pastors in all situations. But the way in which many of these stories unfold seem to be an adventure in missing "the point". After all, the statistic that youth pastors last an average of eighteen months (at least that's what it was when I went to school) should give the church pause. 

If you attend church, you have heard it, time and again: we all have gifts. We are all loved by God. God has a plan for us all, etc., etc. If you hear sermons regularly, you've probably heard these concepts over and over. My guess is that the players in those Facebook posts have heard it, too. And yet, there seems to be a lot of church folk who don't want to apply that truth to everyone, including, on occasion, their pastoral staff. As Sly Stone sang, "We got to live together." And yes, we got to. That's how this church thing works. 

Pastors are reticent to say it at times, but I will: we trained for this work. Just like you trained for your work. And we not only trained, but many of us have done it for decades. We are not infallible, but we speak and decide from experience. And even if a pastor and leader is young and new, it's likely that they have blind spots that they haven't filled in yet. There is no doubt that, if the roles were reversed, these people would want and need the grace to find their footing. So they need gentle guidance and support. And yet, in so many of these stories I read, among the body of Christ who collectively is supposed to bear each other's burdens, that grace and gentleness is simply gone. 

And that is the point: we all bear each other's burdens in the body of Christ. There isn't an asterisk that says "*except for pastors" or "*except for elders" or "*except for people who we disagree with". It doesn't work like that. And while this post is specifically about pastors, I think church people could stand to be nicer to each other in general. After all, that is a part of our "point", that life that God said we are to lead. It's all over the New Testament:

"Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification." (Romans 14:9)
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

"Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you." (2 Corinthians 13:11)

"You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But don't use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love." (Galatians 5:13)

"Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love." (Ephesians 4:2)

When I worked at a shipping company during my college years, I spent a week training on how to sort packages and load trucks and planes. When we finally went to the floor to start the actual work, one of my fellow trainees complained: "When we were trained, they said we were supposed to do things a certain way. When we got down here, it's not like any of that." At first I thought, "Well, yeah...that's how this stuff works. It's never like the ideal that you're given initially." But the church IS supposed to work hard toward that ideal, even if we never quite make it. I read these stories in these groups and sometimes it feels like people aren't even trying. And we really don't have that option. We'll get it wrong, we'll make it messy, we'll screw it up, but we have to keep trying. If you are a Christian, you don't get to opt out. 

One time, in a particularly tense leadership meeting right after one of the pastoral staff had been let go, I shared with the leadership what it's like to start and leave a ministry. I shared that when you come to a new church in a pastoral role, that's most likely all you know. You only the know the people there. You have uprooted yourself and your family and everything you know (and in many cases pulled yourself away from the rest of your family) to come to a place you don't know much about to serve a people that you're only marginally familiar with. You're trying your best to fit into what is going on, and at the same time you want to be yourself and also assimilate in a way that is true to you and your gifts and calling. On top of that, your social structure, at least initially, emanates entirely from your new church. All the people you know attend there. People call and visit to encourage, for sure, and also, on occasion, to vent their frustrations and sometimes even get you on "their side", whatever that even means. You sometimes even live in a church parsonage, so even your home is tied to church. Either way, when people come to visit, some make note of how your home is kept. In general, some people in your church family comment on your appearance, your car, your child. I've had more than one person talk about my son in a negative way to other people in the church after a church service. 

I shared in that meeting that, because of all of this, church is your life. You can't leave anything "at the office". You're always on call and available. You never truly leave. For those of you who have jobs like this, you know how tiring this can be. Even then, there aren't that many professions besides pastoral work where most your friends are also your fellow workers or volunteers, and at any moment could be people you are also counseling through trials like divorce and death. You fill more roles in the lives of the people you know than any other work that I can think of. When you are asked out to social functions or you attend activities in the community, you are always "on". You don't get to not be on the clock. People at your church see you in stores and restaurants. They sometimes note what you wear, what you said or didn't way, how you talked to a cashier. 

And then, when you leave or are asked to leave, it's like putting the film in reverse. All those roots you planted (because you have to plant them to get involved in the lives of the people in your church so that you can minister to them) are pulled up. If you live in a parsonage, your house may be gone. If you were asked to resign, you were uprooted immediately. If you resigned simply because it was time, you may still have people angry at you (or, even worse, do a happy dance, which I've seen). If you are leaving on bad terms, the majority of the people you've spent years pouring into will never speak to you again, even if they personally had no issue with you. Your child(ren) has to change schools, make new friends, and leave the church that they have grown up in. 

So I shared some of this in that difficult meeting, and afterward, an elder came up to me and said, "I never thought about it like that." And I think that's the problem: most people don't. They know what it's like to leave a job; they may know what it's like to relocate and leave family. But few know what I would consider to be the unique situation of a leaving pastor. You may disagree. And while I have enjoyed the vast portion of my last twenty years of pastoral work (and I truly have), that doesn't mean that it doesn't hold unique challenges. 

And so when I read those Facebook posts about how people have turned on those youth pastors, all of those things go through my mind. It very much saddens me. When I resigned at one of my churches, I asked one of the leaders how long they wanted me to stay on. He said, in an increasing volume until he was literally yelling at the top of his lungs, "Where I work, you don't stay on. We escort you out. That's it. You have no more time." I stayed there two more months, but he wouldn't speak to me after that. Keep in mind that I resigned and left there on good terms, and I was close to this person before I resigned. Some invisible line had been crossed, I suppose. 

So, my exhortation to all believers is this: don't miss the point. Living in communion with one another is about love and grace. And although I've written mostly about pastors, it's true for everyone in your church body. You are obliged to live, as far as it is possible, at peace with everyone. I share this post not to illustrate how tough pastoral life is. A lot of people have tough jobs, and everyone is fighting their own battles on a daily basis. But I want people to know that, by and large, your pastors and church leaders are trying. They're wrestling. They want to do the right thing. I know there are exceptions. But don't forget that we are all, in the most important way possible, on the same team. That is the point. Don't miss it. 

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