For most of my working life, I have been a pastor serving small, rural churches. I have basically lived and worked in the same geographic area for over 35 years so I have deep connections in many of the area churches and communities. Because I am a pastor and because this is a somewhat traditional area, I am still one of the first people contacted when life gets difficult for the people in the church and often for the community as well.
When I was a new pastor, this was difficult. I often found myself sitting with families as they struggled with the death of a loved one, a devastating medical diagnosis, a crushing family break up. My training provided suggestions and hints on how to help people in these situations but my very limited experience kept getting in the way. I hope I didn’t do any lasting damage in those first years—and since I still live in the area, I would likely know if there were serious messes as a result of my early pastoral work.
Having been out of pastoral ministry for a bit while I worked in Kenya, I came back to a somewhat different pastoral experience. I was called to a pastorate I had served before. It is rural, somewhat traditional and I know everyone—and some of them, I have known since the day I preached my first sermon in those churches over 35 years ago. I am still one of the first calls made when there is a disruption in life.
But these days, I am not the young pastor sitting with the children of older people. I am often sitting with the children of those now departed older people—but they are my friends. More and more often, I am sitting with the families of one of my friends, someone who is near my age and whom I have known forever, or at least it feels that way at the time. My training still helps—I have kept up and upgraded and am not working from a 40 year old data base. My experience level has grown—I like to think that I have used my time in ministry to develop my skills and abilities and enhance my overall ministry.
But these days, I am still sitting with friends while we deal with the death of someone who was also my friend. I get called because I am the pastor—but also because I am a friend. And more and more often, it is the friendship that leads to the call, not so much the pastoral side of the relationship. I am a friend who happens to be the pastor.
All of us involved recognize that I come into the situation wearing two very different hats. I am the pastor, tasked with helping others deal with the effects and feelings of whatever we are dealing with—but I am also a friend who has my own relationship and my own stuff to deal with. As I said to one person recently, this job was a whole lot easier back when I didn’t know people so well.
On the whole, I think my long term relationships with people have made my ministry stronger and more effective. I can use that knowledge to help the church look at specific ideas and processes and so on that are more closely tied to their needs, possibilities and abilities. But it also means that I have a lot more of my own feelings to deal with. Not only do I have to design a funeral service to help the family, but also I have to find ways to work through my own grief and feelings, without taking away my effectiveness in helping others deal with the issues.
I need to be honest with myself and my congregations about my experience, while at the same time recognizing that I have been called to help them. My relationship with people is important and valuable and deep—but that means I have to make sure that deal with my stuff appropriately so that I can carry out my ministry. I am working with my peer group these days and we are all seeking to find out how our common faith and relationship expresses itself when life gets messy.
May the peace of God be with you.