Monday, August 18, 2008

Pastoral Bipolar*

A pastor friend of mine used this term the other day while we talked about the rollercoaster ride that is ministry. I found it a very helpful phrase, especially as of late. If you aren't familiar with what "pastoral bipolar" might look like, here's an example.

As a pastor, you wander into the office one morning. Perhaps on this particular day, you're carrying unresolved emotional baggage. Maybe today it has to do with last night's committee meeting that went horribly wrong. Maybe it has to do with last Sunday's sermon or worship service that felt so lifeless and flat, and maybe it was even the latest in a string of such services. Maybe it has to do with a general inability to muster up much creative energy or a sense of being overwhelmed with the tasks before you. Maybe you're wondering Where It's All Going.
You carry this feeling with you through the morning: this low-energy funk of a feeling where nothing seems to be going right and it doesn't seem like it'll let up any time soon.

Now let's say that church member Joe stops by the office, just before you're ready to leave for the morning. You groan inwardly because you were actually looking forward to getting away for a while, but he's here because he wants to take you out for lunch. Even while you'd hoped to remain in your mopey mood (it's the kind in which you take a perverse kind of solace) and don't feel like you'd be up for the task of conversation and socialization, you agree to go.

At lunch, Joe begins telling you about some of the troubles he's been facing: a shaky job situation, and a handful of faith questions that he's been meaning to ask for a while. Much to your surprise (perhaps the food and the not-church atmosphere), you actively listen more than you thought you would; you ask questions that allow him to explore sides of his job situation he hadn't considered, you're able to recall helpful scripture passages and pieces of their historical context. You're able to be engaging, encouraging, challenging. You both order coffee after your meals and hang around the restaurant for another hour talking about your families, sports, and even a little politics.

The time finally comes for you to go your separate ways. Joe thanks you for your time and comments that he found it very helpful. Once you get back to the office, you even reflect on how this conversation ministered to you as well. And on top of that, some new spiritual burst of energy has erupted from your previously tired soul, and you can attack the day's activities with a fresh vigor that seemed lost forever before Joe's initial interruption.

That's pastoral bipolar. It's when you hit a wall--what you think is THE wall, in fact--and something happens to show you that you have the energy and drive to go further after all. Perhaps quite a bit further.
Anyone in any profession can probably relate. Everyone may have good weeks and bad; sluggish and excited. And yet for people in ministry positions, it seems especially important to be "up" for people.

In a profession and calling that engages and nurtures one's spiritual and emotional health, pastors naturally need to be spiritually and emotionally healthy. If I'm having an off week, I'll probably have an off week when going about preaching, teaching, visiting, and so on. And then the cycle continues: I have an off week, I perform in an "off week" way, I continue my off week as I reflect on my "off week"-caliber performance.

But then there are those Joe moments. There comes along a moment when something happens to shake me out of it: one of those sermons or Bible studies or visits or youth functions or whatever goes really well. They fire on all spiritual cylinders, and I know that it can't just be me doing it because I haven't been feeling up to snuff before it happens.
Moments like those remind me that I'm not as horrible at this as I was just telling myself I was. Moments like those remind me that it's not about me or my own abilities. Moments like those remind me that I have a way further to go after all.

*I don't mean to use this term lightly or flippantly. Please don't read it as anything other than a helpful way to describe the emotional peaks and valleys that one may feel in ministry. I don't wish to minimize in any way the true struggle of those with this psychological disorder.