Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Two Years

I've heard a couple different things about the two-year mark of a pastorate.

First, I've heard that it is during the second year when a pastor starts seeing signs that maybe this isn't the place to which s/he's called. It's when the first rough patch hits, or when something else begins to look more enticing. It's when doubt arises. I'll admit that I had something related to this, but my real first rough patch came after I was here about six months, and it's actually been pretty calm since then. So this one applies, but indirectly. And really, I think that this stems more from the so-called "honeymoon period" being over than anything else. When the tone shifts like that, it may be tempting to cut and run. But that'll cause a pastor to keep jumping from one church to another every 12-18 months.

Second, I've heard that for first-time pastors, it is after two years that one's "seminary stink" has completely worn off. I'm not totally sure of the definition of "seminary stink," but I think that it refers to the fresh pastor's only sense of how to preach, teach, care, and lead coming from where they just were, so he or she assumes that everyone will know all these four-syllable theology words and will follow the new pastor into a grand crusade against all injustice, oppression, and ignorance and they'll do it RIGHT NOW. Essentially, the "seminary stink" is the felt need to fix everything that is obviously wrong with these people based on his/her classroom learning. I hope that this didn't apply in my case, but that's probably because I don't want to admit that it did. With the help of a lot of books on missional thinking and a healthy dose of humility, I like to think my stink has wafted away.

Third, a little phrase that I heard in seminary was: "The first year you learn them, the second year you love them, and the third year you lead them." A more common cousin is, "Don't change anything but your underwear the first year." And I can say that I totally screwed this one up. Within the first two months I'd introduced guitar, which was as dramatic a shift as had been seen. I backed off for a while after that, and finally around the middle of my second year I finally moved into "love them," back from "lead them," and now maybe I'm finally "learning them." Or whatever.

Finally, I've heard that a pastor hits his or her best years in a church between years three and six. I've heard from someone else that that doesn't happen until between years eight and 12. I'm at year three, so I like the first one better. But the statement about the longer pastorate makes more sense. After all, do you really know each other after 3-5 years? Do you really trust each other? I don't know where I'll be by year eight. I'm not even worried about it.

I used to worry, though. Believe it or not, I tried to set an end date on this thing. I was bound and determined to be out of here by a certain time, and it wasn't until recently that I realized how much that affected my ministry. I planned entire programs in the mindset that I needed to give them legs before I leave to ensure that they'll continue. That's a freaking horrible thing for a pastor to do.

And really, why set an end date? Where would I go? The lack of any answer, reasonable or not, should have been enough to give up this mindset.

Couple that with how many times I've heard the following in the past two months: "we hope you stick around." This is a legitimate fear that a lot of people seem to have here! My hunch is that it stems from a mindset on their part that since I'm young and just starting out, I'll learn what I need to learn and then move on to "bigger and better" things. But apparently it's been my thinking, too, and that sucks to admit.

Really, though, what does "bigger and better" mean in the church, anyway?

Regardless, I've pretty well purged myself of that mindset and now I need to work at helping change that anxiety in the people I serve.

There won't be any big celebration for this anniversary of mine. I have some visits and meetings scheduled today. Besides that, I might pour a glass of wine and watch the video of my ordination. I haven't watched it since it happened, and it just feels like the right time to revisit it. It might even be an excuse to eat some cake.

After two years, I don't know what I've really done here. I mean, I know I've preached a lot of sermons, taught a lot of classes, made a lot of visits, and generally have tried to be available to people at their highest and lowest points. But sometimes I wonder what I've really done, and that sort of done can't really be measured. I have to trust the Holy Spirit for that sort of thing...whether anyone has been convicted to be more committed to love and justice, whether anyone has felt a sense of true relief after a prayer or funeral, whether anyone has truly learned something through Bible study or a sermon, whether people appreciate the sacraments and weddings as more than just cultural ritual. I don't know how well I do all that, and whether I've done any of that. But maybe that isn't for me to do anyway. I should be praying to be an instrument of God's peace, and leave the rest to the One who knows how to work that.

And maybe that's why I need to watch my ordination. The pastor who preached even said it: "it's not about you."

Indeed it isn't. That's what I keep learning as time goes on, and I pray that the lessons never stop.

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