One of the weird things about being a pastor is the way this job requires me to love.
Love is always a strange experience, but that’s not my point. What’s weird is making a living by it. If I want to pay my mortgage and feed my kinds, I have to love people.
Also beside the point is how lovable these people may or may not be. The humans in my life are probably much like the ones in yours; they invite a whole range of interest and affection. But most occupations leave their practitioners to navigate that range at their own pace and inclination. Not so for clergy. Sure, every line of work includes people seemingly designed to expand their co-workers’ capacity for grace, but even the most mood savvy employer stops short of making unconditional love an element of workplace policy. Unless you’re a pastor.
Although I would normally resist the designation ‘professional’ for the ministry, l’ll use it here for the sake of putting this bluntly: To be a pastor is to be a professional lover.
That sounds weird because it is.
A profession with similar terms comes to mind, the parallels with which I’ll not explore too deeply, but suffice it to say that a prostitute is unlikely to be deemed less professional if she doesn’t love her clients. I’d guess the opposite is the case. She, or he, is paid to pretend, and the pretense is, no pun intended, explicit.
For the pastor, by contrast, play-acting is anathema. And rightly so. We’re supposed to be genuine. But there’s the rub. How can a person freely be something if they’re already supposed to be it? It’s the existential dilemma in vocational form.
I’m sure I’m not the first pastor to wrestle with this. All my ilk probably wonder at times if the people we attend are sometimes suspicious: Is my pastor here because he cares, or because he is just doing his job? Good question. Sometimes I don’t even know. But I do know it’s hard to work with all that second-guessing and angst in the air. Therapists have it easy in this respect. Their wares are the one great modern alternative to pastoral attention yet they avoid our awkward bind because the terms on their couch are clear: they care when they’re paid to. Sure, the clarity of the arrangement might make it a tad chilly at first, but at least it would mitigate weirdness in the long run.
I am now approaching what on statistical analysis would be a long run in my current church. The average tenure of a pastor is apparently somewhere in the range of four years, and I’m at nearly double that. It seems odd to me that a type of work supposedly based on relationships could finish its course so quickly, but maybe that’s a symptom of exactly the malaise in question.
An awareness of the typical brevity of a pastor’s term was likely in play during a recent conversation I had with a financial advisor. The punch-line in his advice included the unsurprising suggestion that maybe I should consider a job somewhere else for the sake of a lower cost of living and a higher income. Listening to my own response to his idea was a case of hearing aloud a belief I wasn’t formerly conscious of holding: if my church didn’t pay me I’d drive a school bus or deliver firewood to stay in this town. The fact that my hypothetical solution wouldn’t be one at all is maybe a nod at why I found myself talking to a financial advisor in the first place, but that now obvious connection was lost on me at the time because I was stunned by a flash of catharsis: Of course I could go somewhere else, but I don’t want to.
On some days I’m not entirely sure I want to be a pastor. But on no days do I want to be one somewhere else. Why is that? Okay, true, the fishing is good here. And yes, I like the scenery. But a recent vacation supplied ample evidence there is a shortage of neither anglable water nor spectacular landscape elsewhere in this country. On the contrary, beyond this valley are fish and mountains as near the Platonic Forms of each as I could possibly imagine. I’d be happy to elaborate. But not now, this anecdote has a point.
My impromptu burst of pioneering resilience led me to a shocking realization: It seems my roots here are deeper than a thinly baptized hedonism. Strange, but I want to stay for reasons other than Blackcomb powder or Birkenhead trout.
And what might those reasons be?
Before I get to those, there’s another peculiar thing about the pastorate: its frequent and insidious deterioration into sentimentalism. I resist this to a fault – often cringing when a group-hug or a round of Kum-Bah-Yah might actually be appropriate – so rest assured, I don’t say this lightly: Could it be that I want to stay here because I love this place, and maybe even the people in it?
With no slight against the people in question, that would be weird. And it would only compound the original weirdness of getting paid for it.
It seems to me there is no way around it: love, to be genuine, must be free, and ‘free’ in both senses of the word. If I am only interested in someone’s problems because a perceived lack of concern on my part would mean a real lack of food on my table, then I am bound in the pretense by the price of food and my ersatz concern is the consequence of that bind. On the other hand, if I am free to earn my keep elsewise, and indeed elsewhere, but I choose instead to be a pastor, and to be one here, then maybe I am making those choices not because I am supposed to, but simply because I actually like, and maybe even love, the people here.
Alas, much hangs on those ‘maybes.’ But remove them – over-tighten the terms or reduce them to a professionally explicit arrangement – and the whole thing slips backward into a cave where whatever might have been love ends up a shadowy version of its absent ideal. Squeeze the mystery too tightly and I might finally get a grip on it, but it’ll be a lifeless lump, unrecognizable as the may-be miracle it could have been.
So yah, this is weird. But maybe that’s just the way love is. And, if I am going to be any good at this gig, maybe that’s just the way this pastor will have to be too.