Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ministry and Ego Death, Part 2

When sitting down to start writing the follow-up to what I posted the other day, I tried to choose between several possible illustrations or stories with which to open. These things had all happened within the past month or more, all of which seemed so timely and perfect. Choosing just one seemed futile, so you get them all via bullet points:
  • During a conversation with a colleague who like me went from serving a "pastor-sized" church to a "program-sized" church (i.e., a slightly larger church more centered around the work of committees and/or specialized staff rather than the pastor as hub of everything), he said, "You have to redefine your role, which includes letting go of certain things that you're used to doing."
  • The second week of my paternity leave this time around, I sent an email to the church secretary asking some church-y question, the response to which was, "I've been keeping you out of the loop on purpose, because paternity leave is meant to be time where you just enjoy being with your family."
  • Reading Nadia Bolz-Weber's wonderful new book Pastrix, which includes a chapter recapping a time when she became overly involved in trying to help a homeless woman, disregarding all boundaries of time and space in the process only to find out she'd been taken advantage of, too blind to see it in the moment due to her subconscious felt need to be the hero.
  • During a particularly frustrating night with Coffeedaughter, I waved away Coffeewife's help, only to give in a few minutes later. After everything had settled down and we both laid back down in bed, she said, "You want to do it all. Stop it."
There was so much pertinent wisdom from so many different places pointing toward the same general truth that I couldn't pick just one. So just pick your favorite from the list and carry it with you while reading the rest of this post.

Regardless, they each illustrate an aspect of the importance of checking one's motivations in ministry, or the consequences of not doing so. Just from the list above, we have:
  • Trusting and empowering others to do the work of the church so it's not all on you.
  • Important reminders from others in the church to the pastor to take care of him- or herself.
  • The felt need to be the hero for someone else, inviting the possibility of enabling needy behavior or the taking on of a co-dependent relationship.
  • Teetering on burnout when the outer limits of one's energy is reached due to refusing help from others.
Near the end of that first entry, I said something about this entry containing the solution to the problem of ego in ministry. I wish I could change that, because I've already given the solution: knock it off. Take care of yourself, let others help you, be clear about boundaries. We pastors hear this stuff all the time. We're actually required to attend workshops every so often to be told these things again and again. So one would think that we'd be better at listening. 

Part of the problem is the way we--not just pastors, but human beings--are so good at rationalizing that maybe just this one time, or in just this one way, it'll be fine. Texting while driving is bad, but I'm just going a couple blocks and I'll look up from my phone a lot. I need to lose weight, but straying from my diet or exercise routine this one day won't be bad. I need to cut back on my coffee drinking, starting tomorrow, or maybe the day after that. And then nothing changes or the precedent is set, a new bad habit in place.

And so it goes for pastors in particular. Well, if I go in on my day off for just an hour or two, that'll be okay. If I just come back this one time from vacation, what could that hurt? This is the fifth time I've given the same person money in two months with no visible improvement, but maybe this next time will really help them change. I know what I should do, but I'm going to do this other thing because it's really what I want to do, or it'll be the thing that makes me feel productive, helpful, heroic. I've made it all about me.

Consider the example of Nadia above. I know that one of the new things for hipsters wanting to reform the church is to do away with all manner of boundaries, you know, for the kingdom, man. Let the resources flow freely and without discernment to whomever, at whatever cost. It's worth it. But this sort of thinking misses how it may be more about me feeling good about myself for bucking the institutional system without necessarily considering what the endgame will be. It's more about me being the hero and, like, being radical and stuff, bro. I've made it all about me.

Consider the example with Coffeedaughter. I may tell myself that this is my project, my cause, my need to pull my weight or act strong or do things the way I think they should be done. Who cares if I'm killing myself in the process? I'm the ordained person with the vision. I've made it all about me.

Ego. So, so much ego. And usually, by the time we realize that we've made it all about us rather than about God in our midst, or what the church or individuals looking for help really need, it's too late. The damage has been done: we're burned out, people formerly willing to serve have lost interest, those needing help are spinning their wheels. Nobody wins.

All that is to say, once again, that the ego must die. Or at least be kept at a reasonable size. It's the little compromises that kill us; that gradually build to something more out of control. All the little moments of "just this once, I can handle it, God can sit this one out" take us down a path of good intentions that feels hotter and hotter the further we go.

It's not about you, pastor. It never was. The more often we remember that, the better off we'll all be.