It’s been a tough start to the ministry year. I’ve done this long enough to realize that it’s cyclical. When you pastor, you expect to go through the dumper every once in a while. I’m not surprised by it, but it’s still not fun. No major crises, but just the accumulation of little bits of discouraging news. Sometimes a big crisis is easier to deal with. So, I was a little discouraged today. I prayed for encouragement, and it has come in three ways: a phone call, an e-mail, and Eugene:
There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious. The congregation is a Nineveh-like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts. But somebody has to do it, has to faithfully give personal visibility to the continuities of the word of God in the place of worship and prayer, in the places of daily work and play, in the traffic jams of virtue and sin. Anyone who glamorizes congregations does a grave disservice to pastors. We hear tales of glitzy, enthusiastic churches and wonder what in the world we are doing wrong that our people don’t turn out that way under our preaching…
Eugene has been reading my mail.
On close examination, though, it turns out that there are no wonderful congregations. Hang around long enough and sure enough there are gossips who won’t shut up, furnaces that malfunction, sermons that misfire, disciples who quit, choirs that go flat – and worse. Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they have sinners for pastors. I don’t deny that there are moments of splendor in congregations. There are. Many and frequent. But there are also conditions of squalor. Why deny it? And how could it be otherwise? There is not an honest pastor in the land who is not deeply aware of the slum conditions that exist in the congregation and, therefore, the unending task of clearing out the garbage, finding space for breathing, getting adequate nourishment, and venturing out into the streets day after day, night after night, risking life and limb in acts of faith and love.
I keep a positive progress file, full of cards and notes I’ve accumulated over the years. Every once in a while I need to open it again and be encouraged, to remember it’s not as bad as I think it is on the bad days. In another place, Peterson writes of expecting that ministry will be like riding in a parade every day, when in reality it’s more like cleaning out the stables every single day. Even though I’m sometimes knee-deep in whatever stables are full of, I’m going to try to remind myself: I’ve smelled worse. And I’m not neck-deep yet. That’s something.