When I speak in churches across the country, I often hear “former pastor” stories, or stories about struggles that involve a former pastor. What is this “former pastor problem”? Simply put, it refers to pastors who hang around after they are no longer employed by a congregation—and meddle.
A free association exercise: Random memories from the 18 months I spent as a chaplain intern at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
Computer lists of patients generated by the clacking dot matrix printer and folded neatly to fit into my coat pocket. My tiny notes and check marks slowly accumulating beside the names as the day went by.
Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense.”
It seems as if all the pastors I know either have read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead or claim that it is on the top of the pile of books they intend to read. Pastors—myself among them—love the book. Some of the reasons are obvious.
At ordination Presbyterian ministers promise to give their “energy, intelligence, imagination and love” to ministry. Sometimes just managing the institution of the church exhausts such capacities. Sometimes attending to the committees, task forces, program evaluations, staff supervision and budgets is all-consuming.
One of my laments over the years has been over the dreadful image of clergy in popular media. With some notable exceptions, ministers are portrayed as inept, shallow, out of touch with the world and basically irrelevant—like Chaplain Mulcahy in the old M*A*S*H television series.
Those of us who work in the church know how trivial, vain and self-serving the “institutional” church (as we used to call it in seminary—as if there were any other kind) can be. But we also wonder what we would do without the church. How could you celebrate Christmas without the church? How could you wake up in the dark of Easter morning without the church?
A church I pastored in Portland, Oregon, ran an after-school children’s program. One afternoon someone came to tell me that twin brothers, aged six, had pushed a little girl during a play period. Although she recovered quickly, we had some anxious moments. She had hit her head hard on a concrete floor and needed a CAT scan to make sure that there was no serious damage.
Recently I celebrated 15 years as pastor of a congregation in East Texas of under 200 members with about half of them present for Sunday worship. At denominational meetings and around town I’m asked, “When are you going to a bigger church? Why do you stay?” Sometimes I give a long, rambling explanation, but often I respond with, “Because I read too much Wendell Berry.”