PROFESSIONAL ANXIETY

I realized recently that there is a serious source of anxiety in my job. I am a pastor working with churches in an area where I have lived for around 40 years. Many of the people who form the congregations I serve are more than just parishioners—they are friends. The relationships go back many years and involve many shared experiences that have tied us together over the years. And because of the fact that I have been here so long, I know many in the communities who don’t attend our church—or any church—equally as well.

I had some inkling of the anxiety but tended to ignore it until this week. I had a call about a death—not an unusual call for a pastor in an area with one of the highest rates of over 65s in Canada. The call involved someone I knew, not a church member but with strong family connections in the church, someone I knew because of the family connections. Shortly after that call, I got another about another death. Again, this was a person I knew well, who had at one point been heavily involved in churches I pastored but who had moved and while still in the immediate area, wasn’t as much a part of any churches I pastor.

The anxiety developed as I realized that both these people were about my age, I knew them fairly well and in the end, while they were not parishioners, they were friends. My thinking process, always a bit overactive, very quickly began making lists of people in the same category: people I know who are like me getting on in years. Unlike me, some of them have developed some fairly significant health problems and we are all at the stage in life where the unexpected can pop up at any time.

For me, the anxiety develops because I realize that professionally and personally, when bad things happen, I am the person who is going to get called. Professionally, I am the pastor to a significant number of people, some of whom attend worship and some of whom don’t. Personally, I am the only pastor many people know—they don’t actually know me as their pastor but they know I am a pastor and that means they will call when life gets tough.

So, I do a lot of funerals for friends and family of friends. Doing funerals is a basic part of my job—it is so basic a part of the job that early in my ministry, I spent a lot of time looking at the death and funeral process so that I could do the best job possible. I like to think that when it comes to the grief and funeral process, I know what I am doing.

But there is a major difference doing what I do for someone I have known and liked and spent time with in a variety of ways over the years. I am grieving myself—maybe not as much as the family but I have still lost someone whose death is creating a dark hole in my life. My work and my life come together creating a difficult task—I need to use all my training and professional ability to help people process a death that I am also processing at the same time.

My anxiety isn’t about that, or at least, it isn’t primarily about that. I can do that—there is a certain amount of this cross over in every funeral. I have learned how to help people as a pastor and process my own grief at the same time in a way that enables both to happen. It hasn’t been and isn’t always easy but I can do it.

The anxiety comes from the fact that I realize I am facing a lot more of this cross over. People I have known for 40 years or more are not well. Some will get better. Some will remain chronic. And some will die. And I will get called in on many of these life realities. I don’t want to have to deal with this stuff. I especially don’t want to deal with it when it involves people I have known for so long and whose lives have been intertwined with mine in so many ways.

But that is my job and my calling and so I will deal with it—but I will depend on the presence and power of God in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

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LET’S TALK

I got a phone call from a friend a while ago. We don’t know each other all that well but we were neighbours for years and had a comfortable relationship. He was calling because he was going to need a pastor in the near future—his wife has an incurable illness and he wanted to be somewhat prepared for what was coming. He didn’t have any real church connections but he did know me and knew that I was a pastor—in fact, the last time I was talking to him was at a funeral I was conducting.

I don’t actually like this sort of thing. The dying and grief process are always painful and difficult and when I am called in because of friendship, it is more difficult. But he is a friend and I am a pastor so I arranged a time to meet with him and talk. Because we are friends, the conversation dealt with more than just then essentials of pre-planning a funeral service. We did that but then went on to talk about lots of other friend stuff: how things were going for each of us, where we were each working, why I didn’t walk anymore and so on.

In the course of the conversation, I discovered that he did have a church connection. Like many kids our age, he had attended Sunday School—and had attended at one of the churches I now pastor. That was quickly followed by the almost obligatory apology for not actually being involved in church anymore. We actually had an interesting conversation around that revelation and half-hearted apology.

I suggested to him that maybe the reason he wasn’t involved in church was more the church’s fault than his. Since we had already been talking about his involvement in a local club, I suggested that if church actually met some of his needs, he would be there—just like he was part of this club because it met some of his needs. Somehow, we in the church hadn’t been able to provide what he needed to maintain a connection.

I think my friend represents a great many people today. The problem isn’t that he is anti-faith. He has a spiritual side: he wanted a pastor to help him through the process of his wife’s decline and death; he enthusiastically welcomed my offer of prayer; he remembered hymns and even some Scriptures that he wanted as part of the coming funeral. He might not be on a first name basis with God but he isn’t rejecting God.

But somehow, somewhere, the church missed him and his real needs. We couldn’t or wouldn’t supply what he needed to help feed that faith spark that is still fairly evident in his life. We had nothing on offer that he wanted and so he stopped looking in our shop, finding substitutes elsewhere. But even he knows that we have more available. It seems, though, that we aren’t really making it easy for people to discover what we really have.

We claim that Christ is the answer—and I believe that he is. But when we don’t really know the questions that people are looking to have answered, we probably don’t have the required answers on display—and even more, we might not even know that the answers are available. We have sometimes even questioned the legitimacy of the question, preferring that people ask the easy questions that we can quickly answer with tried and true formulas.

Meanwhile, people like my friend wander around, looking for stuff, settling for substitutes while all the while knowing something about the faith that we seem not to know. They know that the answers they are looking for are found within the faith that we follow. They might not know the answer; they might not see the answer; they might get tired waiting for us to hear the actual question they are answering but they believe that there is an answer and that somehow, the church and its agents can provide it. And so when people like my friend really need an answer, they pick up the phone and ask the question again, hoping that maybe we have dug around in the storeroom and found that we actually have an answer to that question in stock.

I am hoping that with the power of the Holy Spirit, I can help my friend find the answer he is looking for.

May the peace of God be with you.

PEER PRESSURE

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.