From October 2010. I'm at the Shepherding the Shepherd conference of the 2030 Clergy Network this week, and led a workshop on the general themes of this post yesterday as part of this event. Keep in mind that this was written about a year and a half ago, and feel free to adjust numbers accordingly.
In the middle of my 7th grade year, my family moved to the place that
I've called my hometown. For the previous five years or so, we'd lived
in the parsonage next to a rural church in the same county; I'd
basically come up through elementary school during that time. I'd
already experienced two moves (three really, but I have no recollection
of the first one) by that point.
Five years is a
lifetime for a person at that age. I'd basically planted roots for
myself, had made some good friendships, had come to love the freedom of
the wide open spaces in which our house was located. It really did seem
like I'd lived there forever, and my secret hope was that I could.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. Staying in that parsonage wasn't an
option due to how things had degenerated between the church and my
family. Staying in the area wasn't an option due to financial
restrictions and other factors. So we moved to a new city, a new house,
a new school system, a new life.
I clearly remember
the night my parents broke the news of where we'd be moving. It was an
accidental thing; I think they'd meant to approach a moment like that
with more care and finesse. Instead, my father was on the phone with
somebody discussing the move that had apparently been settled. I
overheard this, turned to my mom and asked where we were going. After
being told, I ran to my room screaming "No!" I knew full well that this
would mean starting over yet again, and I didn't want to. I was tired
of starting over. Five years in one place had been forever for me, and I
hadn't wanted forever to end.
It did end. We moved, I
eventually settled in at our new place. I found friends, I found my
first serious girlfriend. By the time I finished high school, I'd lived
in this new place for 5 1/2 years.
this time it didn't seem like forever. I saw an ending coming. By my
junior year I was starting to look at colleges. I knew that further
change was going to happen and was preparing myself for it. I did so
again during my senior year of college. I did so again my last year of
seminary. Change is inevitable. It was a painful lesson for my 7th
grade self, but that lesson got easier as I got older.
seems like ever since I began as pastor of this church, I've been
trying to learn the opposite lesson. I'll celebrate six years of
ministry in this setting next month. It is the longest that I've lived
anywhere in my entire life. There's no designated ending for this; no
graduation, no culmination, no decision to move looming from somebody
else. Coming up very soon is the seventh time I'll move through Advent
and Christmas with them; the seventh Lent and Easter; the seventh
Vacation Bible School. It will be the beginning of my third trip
through the lectionary. I know the rhythm and routine of this place by
heart. I've seen possible preaching texts twice. I know what to
anticipate and when to start planning each activity. I've learned and
lived this rhythm and routine for six years.
is not a lifetime; six years is not forever. In pastor-years, it may
seem like forever. On my "low days," it seems like forever. But I know
that it isn't. It's an especially significant amount of time for me
personally, but I'm surrounded by people who have lived in one town
their entire lives. For them, six years is not forever. Given the
average life expectancy of a human being nowadays, six years is not
forever. But in a vocation where the average stay for a pastor is four
years and for a person who's used to moving on around the five-year mark
(if not earlier), six years can seem like forever.
I anticipated my sabbatical earlier this year, I had some very clear
goals in mind. My chosen activities and reading material were meant to
ask how a vital ministry in one place may still happen after five years.
The big question that I took with me was how a pastor may stay in one
place that long. It wasn't that I didn't think it's possible or that
our relationship was degenerating and I needed a way to hang on. I just
didn't know what goes into living in one place that long. I've never
had to think about it.
So I decided to think about it.
For five weeks I thought about it. I read about it. I prayed about
it. I was searching for a magic bullet; that perfect piece of wisdom or
practice that would cause six years and seven and eight to feel less
like forever. I wanted that elusive secret technique that would provide
Leading up to that time, I became
increasingly frustrated by the noticeable lack of resources on this
topic. Maybe I looked in the wrong places, but each search for some
variation on "sustaining creativity in ministry" yielded little to
nothing. There are plenty of resources for discerning a call, starting a
new call, leaving a call, and retiring, but I found hardly anything for
continuing to maintain vitality in one call after X number of years.
Nevertheless, my sabbatical began, and I did my best with what I could find.
went to Columbus for a two-day workshop on health and excellence in
ministry, the content of which had been heavily guarded beforehand.
Surely such a secretive program would have what I was looking for. As
it turns out, it was as advertised: health and excellence, healthy
habits and relationships, proper boundaries, make sure to take your time
off and take care of yourself. I came away reminded of some good
truths, but no magic bullet.
I picked up a book on
longer pastorates. Surely this book had what I was looking for. But,
like my ministry workshop, it contained a lot of best practices: healthy
habits and relationships, proper boundaries, make sure to take your
time off and take care of yourself. I wrote a lament back then, mostly because again, there was no magic bullet.
sabbatical was good, and it's good to be reminded of those best
practices. But there was no new truth bestowed, no secret wisdom or
technique. Just the same stuff I'd heard since seminary.
I came back from sabbatical, I spent the rest of the summer freaking
out. In fact, I think I'm still freaking out. I'd come back having
heard good words about ministry, but without a magic bullet. That, and
I'd officially surpassed the longest I'd ever lived anywhere. For
nearly five months now, I've been having a new, unfamiliar experience.
bad could something like this really be, you ask. There was a day in
June when I was in the sanctuary, and I got angry at the altar candles.
I had a moment where I was just sick and tired of looking at them. I
hated those stupid altar candles that day. Those pew attendance
pads...I'm sick of those pew attendance pads. The organist's big binder
version of the hymnal...I hate that big binder version of the hymnal. I
was getting mad at inanimate objects because they were the same
inanimate objects I've seen for forever. Six years is not forever, but
that day it was. I hadn't found my magic bullet, and seething at altar
candles and pew pads was one of the first manifestations of my freaking
out as a result.
I say that I'm still freaking out, but
it isn't that intense anymore. It's more like a background freakout
now. I've been able to turn my attention to senior high ministry and
confirmation and worship, to a pub discussion group that is suddenly
exceeding expectations after a slow start, to parishioners struggling
with health concerns. I've been able to turn my attention to dates with
Coffeewife and time with Coffeeson, to Saturdays yelling at the
football players on my TV, to evenings plucking my bass guitar.
keep right on going with this stuff because, with the possible
exception of yelling at the TV and plucking my bass, this is what I'm
still called to do. I'm still called to be a husband and father and
pastor. I'm called to actually follow those best practices of self-care
and boundaries that I was reminded about during sabbatical, because
even though there doesn't seem to be a magic bullet, they're still the
best ways I know to sustain myself, my relationships, my ministry, my
sanity. I'm still called to be pastor right where I am, even though at
times I can't help but cry, "How long, O Lord?" And far and away the
main reason I cry out like that is because it's incredibly weird for me
not to know.