Monday, September 16, 2013

Ministry and Ego Death, Part 1

I need to start this post with a disclaimer that what I'm about to write is about me: what I've learned, what I'm still learning, mistakes I've made and hope to not make in the future. This post isn't about other people. Inasmuch as I do mention people and events, it is in the context of what I myself have learned. Okay? Good? Okay.

I love being a pastor. I love planning events and activities. I love preaching and sermon preparation. I love teaching and lesson planning. I even love meetings sometimes. I live by my UCC desk calendar. The flip side of all of that is that I get anxious when things don't seem to come together the way I want them to, or on the timeline that I had planned for. I sometimes joke that I'm an INFJ with a capital J: I'm a planner, scheduler, list-maker, and I start freaking out when someone or something messes with said plans, schedules, and lists.

That's the first thing. The second thing is that I suck at asking for help.

See, when one of those freakouts start to happen, I think that I'm the only one who can fix it. I have a particular idea of how things should go and I'd like to do my best to fulfill my vision, thank you very much. Don't you know that the church will fall down if I don't make it to tonight's committee meeting? Don't you understand that the very fabric of existence itself will tear if I don't have a sermon outline typed by Thursday morning at the latest? Can't you see that if someone dies while I'm on vacation, I'm the only one fully capable of coming back to lay them to rest?

You think I'm exaggerating, don't you? You think that I'm embellishing certain things here for laughs.

For just over eight years, I served a church that Smart Church Consultant People would call a "pastor-sized" congregation. What that means, is that the congregation was of a certain size where everything more or less revolved around the pastor. Think of the church as a wheel with the pastor as the hub at the middle. This isn't a commentary on the way that church should or shouldn't have conducted itself. It's just a basic reality of a church of that size. Sure, certain tasks and activities were headed up by other people, but for the most part, planning for everything--Christian education, mission, worship, pastoral needs--was/is done with considerable input from the pastor, or simply conducted by the pastor.

Now, re-read what I said above about being a workaholic and being terrible at asking for help and imagine a person like that at the center of an organization's activities. Do you see how this might end up being a problem?

In particular, that line about coming back from vacations to officiate funerals? That happened. Like, a lot. It was a bit uncanny how often people in that size of a church died while I was on vacation, but so it went. And I came back every. Single. Time. Someone died while I was on paternity leave after Coffeeson was born. Did I come back for that? Of course I did. I knew this person the best, and the pastor who'd agreed to provide coverage would have been okay at it, but I'm here, so why not? During my paternity leave, man.

This isn't just a vacation/funeral thing. Imagine this sort of person getting a phone call on one of his days off regarding an emergency, or at least something being presented as an emergency (most times they weren't). Who better but SuperJeff to help the person figure things out, or drop everything to come help? Surely I had the answer. Surely I myself knew the right way to fix everything without consulting someone else, deferring to my next workday, or simply flat-out saying, "You know what? No. You need to go elsewhere to get the help you need."

String enough of those incidents together, and you get several awful things at once.

First, you get someone who isn't very good at giving himself true time off. Give this person long enough, and he'll become irritable and resentful about the work he does. Ironically, he still won't ask for help, and then he'll hate that he has no help. He somehow won't be able to say no, and he'll hate himself for it. And he won't be able to see that this is happening to him.

The second thing you get is a Pandora's Box of bad precedent where after you do it the first time, you'll be expected to do it again and again. After doing things one way long enough, imagine the possible reaction the first time you try to say no. You did it then, so why not now? This only builds the resentment more. And again, the person in question won't see what's happening internally.

The heart of the motivation here, as I've come to understand it after thinking about it every day for nearly seven months now, is my own damn ego. Perhaps you've already picked up on that while reading this. When you understand yourself to be the only one capable of coming back for funerals, even if you're couching it in language such as, "Well, I'm around so I might as well," is about ego. Feeling the need to have your input counted during every meeting and in every church decision? Ego. Thinking you're the only one who can help so-and-so without alerting others or at some point trying to direct them elsewhere or even just saying, "You think this is an emergency, but it really isn't so I'll deal with it when it's not my day off?" Ego.

Horrendous boundaries, yes. Or we call it something else: a desire to be liked, or feel needed, or feel productive. But still, at the root of that: so much ego. It may not be the only thing, but it's usually one of the main things.

So, what's the solution? The answer is simple, yet really not at all. To paraphrase Family Guy's Stewie Griffin: "The ego must die."

There's your setup. Part 2 will be describing the solution. Or something.