I have been in ministry for over 40 years. I have the sermon pile, the pastoral weight gain and the grey hair to prove all that. But there are a great many people who don’t seem to understand the full implications of 40+ years of ministry. Either they think that clergy are the most sheltered people in the world or we are the most unobservant and unintelligent people around.
I say this because there are a great many people both inside and outside the church who feel it necessary to clue me in on things that they think will surprise me, upset me or shock me. It is not uncommon, for example, for someone to drag me aside to give me vital information about the family I am working with during funeral planning. In the corner, speaking quietly, they inform me that there are tensions within the family that might make the whole funeral difficult. Or the wedding planning process that someone feels they need to talk to me about because someone won’t like it if someone else is involved.
Then there are the shocking moral issues that people feel they need to bring to me, perhaps thinking that I need to be warned so that I don’t pass out when I discover that the couple I am going to marry are already living together and have a child or that the older gentleman I am conducting the funeral for was an alcoholic. Or perhaps they feel I need to know that the child of one of the church members is actually gay and that is causing some problems in the family.
I listen to all these insights and revelations and nod pastorally. But inside, I have to confess that I am thinking something like, “Do you actually think I am that stupid/naive/out of touch?” I am a pastor, which means that I know almost as much about people and their families as the village gossip—and I gained my knowledge legitimately and know what is true and what is made up. I am also because of my training, my experience and my nature, as capable social observer. I am rarely surprised and even when I am, can actually see the reality of the new revelation pretty quickly.
It is actually a major part of my calling to understand and know people. I think it is also a major part of my calling to know and understand and accept the realities that I am working with. People are people and families are families. We all have good and bad, positive and negative, inspiring and sordid mixed together in a tangled and confusing mess that makes us what we are. To find a family where some members are at odds with each other isn’t a surprise to a pastor—actually, the surprise is finding a family where that isn’t true.
As I have thought about this, I think that part of the problem lies with clergy. Some clergy have been and perhaps are guilty of pretending that the darker side of life is beyond them. As a body, we have perhaps been too eager to condemn the failings in individuals and families. Rather than accept and work with the realities, we have condemned, which has caused people to try to hide things and cover them over. But that isn’t a very effective way of dealing with the negatives of life.
As a pastor, my job isn’t to encourage people to hide stuff from themselves, others and me. I see my job as helping people accept their reality as a first step towards dealing with it. If I can accept their reality, it helps them accept their reality—and if I can accept their reality and them, maybe they can find the courage and insight to deal with the painful darker stuff that they, like everyone has. My model for this, of course, is Jesus who saw the darkest and deepest and most hidden realities in every life and still loved and accepted and offered the fullness of his love and grace. He did get somewhat testy with all those trying to put on a false front but for the rest, he knew, accepted and loved.
So, I listen to all the revelations that a delicate pastoral personality could never expect, thank the revealer and keep on doing what I always do—helping people discover God’s love and grace no matter what their reality is.
May the peace of God be with you.