Monday, July 24, 2006

Finding Obscurity

Scott Williams was the first to open my eyes to some things that most pastors probably can't see on their own. Chiefly, these are things related to the realistic amount of time that members can devote to church activities, and the place of privilege that pastors truly enjoy. His version is more raw than Barbara Brown Taylor's, which I think is why I like his better. In a recent entry, he says this:

quitting full-time christian ministry has been the best and most frustrating journey i have ever been on. i would contend that i have learned more about myself and my world in this time than in any other period of my life.

i have found obscurity.

perhaps it is more accurate to say that i have finally admitted to myself that i am ordinary and unimportant by almost every societal barometer that matters in prevalent society.i never would have imagined how quickly i could be forgotten. people asked friends of mine if i had moved out of town. there was a prevalent rumour that i had abandoned my faith. the phone stopped ringing. people I ran into, whom i had known for a decade, were noticeably uncomfortable and overly polite. i felt like a leper. i took to driving by my old church hoping i would have the nerve to stop in, knowing i would not. there were no longer the invitations to speak at gatherings or churches. i could walk into a room and no one would care. i was no longer a moral authority. i had to pay for my own meals.

but far worse than all this was the incessant need to make money. unlike almost every other normal person in this world i never had to think much about money. of course there was never enough, but there was always more around the corner doing what most people would not consider work at all. i was paid to read and blog and talk and coffee and hang out. then one day i woke up and realized i did not have a job. the prospect of leaving the ministry sounded good in theory, but i had no idea the cost in reality. suddenly i was working at a series of meaningless jobs. the thing i had long belittled had finally become a reality in my own life – i was working for a living.

Every few weeks, I ask myself what I would be doing if I wasn't a local church pastor. The answers that keep creeping to the top either have to do with other ministry ventures such as hospital chaplaincy, or more 'secular' (we need to get rid of that word) jobs such as keeping a bookstore or coffeehouse, teaching religion in a higher education setting, or taking a serious stab at writing. I don't doubt that I would be content with any of these positions and, realistically, any of them could be in my future.

The harder challenge is to live with truths about pastoral privilege and member busyness while remaining in ministry. As I've mentioned before, I've spent a lot of time reading the types of stories that Scott and Taylor tell lately: tales of burnout, tales of realizing something about the church as institution and stepping away, tales of encountering the 'real world' (let's bag that term, too) post-ministry. The harder challenge is to address those truths while remaining in the church. To be clear, this is not to say that those who have left have given up or failed or weren't strong enough. This is to ask how those who still feel a call to pastor churches can struggle with them and live with them.

Back in May I went to Eden for an alumni gathering. Part of our time was spent discussing ministry issues. During one such discussion the group began to lament the seeming lack of commitment by parishioners to studying and questioning the Bible. Immediately, Scott's reflections zipped through my brain, and I spoke some of them out loud, perhaps with a little more force and anger than I wanted in retrospect. In fact, I might have embarrassed myself a little by saying it the way I said it. Nevertheless, there was some spoken agreement from the group. I could not in that moment express my frustration at what was expected of me, what I expected from myself, and what I expected from others in any other way.

I am thankful for critiques like Scott's. Pastors need to read them. They help keep us honest.