Many years ago, we moved to a new community. As the moving van was unloading the last of its boxes, a neighbor came over to introduce herself. Looking at the out-of-state license plates on our cars, she asked what brought us to town. I explained that I was the new pastor of a church in the community. “Oh, it’s so good to have a pastor in the neighborhood!” she exclaimed. We finished our polite conversation, but I could not shake her comment. Really? It’s good to have a pastor in the neighborhood? I could understand getting excited about having a plumber or a police officer in the neighborhood. But a pastor?
What’s so special about pastors? This is a relevant question in a season when so many pastors are engaged in deep vocational discernment. Should I stay or should I go? is the meditation of the moment for many of our colleagues. And the “go/stay” isn’t just about a particular ministry setting – it is about the ministry itself.
It doesn’t help that pastors are treated as both special and irrelevant at the same time. Special, in that a cultural deference is accorded to clergy in a way that makes us appear to be supported and highlighted in a community. Special, in that we are often invited into the very center of the most vulnerable and tender moments of parishioners’ lives. And yet irrelevant, in that our work doesn’t seem to belong to the world of work others inhabit. Irrelevant, in that many people don’t understand that we, like them, are working for a living. Irrelevant, precisely because we are so special.
“You mean you work more than on Sundays?” is a not too subtle ‘joke’ that many of us hear.
“So, pastor, are you ready to get back to work?” is a comment that has greeted many clergy as they struggle to move their congregations back in person. (As if trying to produce an online program once a week has not meant extra work for the last two years, on top of worry about looser connections to members and uncertain finances, and everything else a pastor ordinarily does.)
In the depleted feelings of the moment, pastors who are trying to discern their vocation can be forgiven for grieving both what they will give up if they go…and what they will be subjected to if they stay.
As you negotiate this discernment, perhaps it would help to step outside the cultural narrative a moment and consider the many ways in which you are not, after all, so special.
In 1974, the oral historian Studs Terkel published the book, Working. The subtitle: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Terkel interviewed a wide range of workers: a farm hand, a strip miner, a heavy equipment operator, a telephone switchboard operator (who confessed to listening in on calls late at night just to break the boredom), a professional baseball player, a sanitation truck driver, a local union president, a barber, a dentist, and a host of others.
Here’s a suggestion: if you are deep into your own vocational discernment at the moment, spend the next month seeking out people who work in different jobs than ministry and, like Terkel, ask them about “what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.”
Ministry can quickly become a closed system of insiders, where the only people we really talk to are other ministers and all we talk about is ministry. We, as a group, are not that interesting, and we are not that special. Every vocation has its calls, its challenges, and its opportunities for contribution. Listen carefully to others as a way of seeing a path through your own discernment in this vulnerable time.