It's not all about me

February 23, 2013
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One afternoon when I was completely stressed out about some criticism I received from my congregation, another minister took me to lunch. She asked me about the history of the congregation and helped me sort out some of their past traumas. Then she drew a clear line between their painful stories, the distrust that formed in the community, and the complaints about me.

After her analysis, she gave me an assignment. She told me to look in the mirror every morning before work and say, “This is not about me.”

It was true that the criticisms seemed have a direct tie to things that happened in the past. But I couldn’t quite practice the exercise--partly because I’m too quick to accept blame, and partly because I want to have the humility to acknowledge when I’m wrong. But, there was another reason I didn’t want to relinquish the responsibility. I also knew that if the criticisms weren’t “about me,” then I wouldn’t have as much power to change the situation and make it better. 

Right now, there are a lot of pastors who ought to be looking in the mirror and chanting “it’s not all about me.” For many mainline congregations, our church cultures flourished in the early 1960s. They were often formed by and geared toward the “greatest generation” or the “builders.” We were often white and upper-middle class.

Now, a great deal has shifted, as a diverse generation emerges who is not as well-off as their parents. Emerging generations have moved away from rural areas, in search of education and jobs. We don’t “settle down” like we have in the past. We may not acquire marriage certificates and mortgages on the mainline culture’s acceptable timeline.

As a result, congregations, which may have been faithful and loving for decades, are closing. They’re coming to the end of their life cycles. In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), we close 9-10 churches each month. Most mainline denominations have similar statistics. Non-denominational, Evangelical churches don’t count the same ways that we do, but it’s impossible to ignore their decline.

We can blame a lot of things. Conservatives blame the Liberals for not being biblical enough. Progressives blame Conservatives for not being welcoming to LGBTQs. Activists blame the Spiritual for being too individualistic. The Spiritual blame the Activists for not cultivating their inner prayer life. Evangelicals blame the country club culture of the Protestant Elite. The Protestant Elite blame Evangelicals for dumbing everything down. Republicans blame the Democrats for not opposing abortion and gay marriage. Democrats blame Republicans for not caring about the poor and the environment. The hipsters blame the older generations for not being authentic and relevant. Older generations blame younger generations for their lack of duty and denominational loyalty.

In all of it, there seems to be this lingering idea that pastors were somehow way more awesome fifty years ago than they are now. And many pastors go to church growth and vitality conferences (I speak at a lot of them) to learn how they can be more biblical, spiritual, missional, evangelistic, social justice-oriented, authentic and relevant. We come back with a head full of ideas and an aching feeling that we’re just not good enough.

And often, when a church is looking at its attendance numbers or the budget, and they don’t like what they see, they also think the pastor is not good enough. They want to fire the pastor because they think that if they could get someone in there who is biblical, spiritual, missional, evangelical, social justice-oriented, authentic or relevant, then the church budget wouldn’t be in the red, the pews would be full, and the young families would be flocking to our sanctuaries. They imagine that if they only had their beloved pastor from the 1960s, when the church was adding on an educational wing, then all would be well again.

Yet, sometimes, it’s not all about the pastor. We’re part of a larger history and a larger culture. There are shifts occurring that have nothing to do with the abilities of a particular leader.

I meet a lot of stressed-out ministers. They’re weary. They’re working as hard as they can. They’re trying to juggle a bunch of new stuff to reach out to a new generation, while taking care of an increasingly older congregation that needs more pastoral care. They are taking on more student loan debt, while they watch their salaries freeze. They live on food stamps while their members wonder why they’re not members of the yacht club. They go through panic attacks before each congregational meeting because they’re so worried about the budget.

It can be really difficult right now. So isn’t it time to just stop and acknowledge that it’s not all about the pastor? And pastors, I know that it's hard to let go of the responsibility. So many of us have that annoying savior complex. But, it just might be time to look in the mirror and say, "It's not all about me."  


so true

this post crosses vocational lines. Thank you, Carol, for putting wisdom into words. You hit a high note with this one.



Not All About Me

In 1960 clergy had to be merely "competent" in order to hold a congregation together and maybe even build it up. In 2013 there are a handful of superlative clergy who can do this. Most of us who are competent to very good will be blessed indeed to simply survive the steady erosion of church membership and its stress-filled ramifications. These days -- more now than for a long time in our past -- clergy need to cling to the One who calls us into a work that is, indeed, not "about us", our wonderful congregations, and our successes but about the strange way of the cross that in ways beyond our understanding brings salvation to the world.


I'm very happy to support Christians in their quest for happiness, peacefulness, congruence and eternal life through their theological contemplations of the messages offered by their god through the men who actually wrote down some words. These are folk on a true search, usually encompassing what they were raised with and I respect  that. I, however, won't go there in terms of criticsm. It's like shooting fish in a barrel. Conservative Christians have all the answers for their flock but many holes can easilly be blown into their theology by average thinkers with a modicum of education when they consider much of their theology.

Beautiful analysis

I haven't seen so many of these issues and problems woven together so nicely! Yet much more needs to be said and understood. I think when I was ordained in '72 my professors and presbytery had little more expectation of us than that we maintain the great institution they thought they were leaving to us. (They had not created it.) There were signs that there were problems in the suburban captivity, and we had been told we had trivialized it all, but we (even the best and the brightest) did not see or understand the depth of what was happening or how serious it all was until the mid'80's. Holding it all together doesn't begin to describe some of the difficulties I and others have faced in congregations. The competent pastor is mostly a transactional politician who doesn't rock the boat too much but gives people most of what they want and of good quality. He or she is not progressive. It's not about them, either. We have lost the roots, and reclaiming them will not bring worldly success of bodies and dollars.

It isn't about you, but competence helps

How do we account for churches that are growing and thriving? Why aren't we trying to glean the "best practices" from them? 

I think we clergy can sometimes cop-out on leadership, responsibility, insight, faithfulness, drive, and basic competence. In seminary, a full-year course on World Religions was a requirement for me (not a bad thing at all), but not a single course on leadership, discernment within the congregation, community relations, communications (what we used to call evangelism: marketing, public relations, advertising, writing for a non-academic audience), how to work creatively with a budget, congregational systems and dynamics, how to manage and motivate staff and volunteers, dealing with crazy-making know: the things that the Alban Institute teaches.

Many of us are afraid to talk about money, because people will be upset with us (and you're right, Carol, it's not about us).We've been scared to death to ask to be paid like other professionals with a 4-year undergraduate and a 3-year Master's degree.

I hate to be negative, but the church for the past 50 years generally has not been getting the "best and the brightest," who tend to opt for lucrative careers. And when we do come across really gifted clergy like Carol or Lillian Daniel or Barbara Brown Taylor, people are shocked and wonder how that happened. 

And I think you are right, as well, to say that we cannot ignore the clear, 50-year macro-trend in Christianity in North America. (People tend to point to Europe and infer that this is what we'll be like in ten years. However, they forget the devastating impact that two world wars and the planet's greatest genocide had on the faith of Europe.)

I'm still working on stuff too: overworking, managing stress, spending more time with my know the drill. I also have fire in the belly for what Lilian and Martin Copenhaver call "This Strange and Wonderous Calling."

I wish I felt better

It is such a struggle. I have been ordained for 12 years - ten of those years I have found myself in traditional Presbyterian churches. Yet the messages I hear - in what I read, but especially through the Presbytery - are that the great pastors are doing new church development, alternative forms of church, para-church, etc.  Over and over creative pastors with churches that meet in coffee houses or other alternative space or who have worships filled with poetry, drama, painting, and alternative music, are held up as the wave of the future. Perhaps I feel it too closely, but it is hard to be a pastor of a small group of mostly middle aged and older adults who are firmly rooted in the Westminster Confession and singing the Doxology to 'the old one hundreth' every single Sunday as that is distained as the life of the 'dying church.'

I did serve a new merge as an Interim as they worked to do 'a whole new thing.' During that interim we sold their two church buildings and moved into the train station, which has become their church home. It was an energetic, creative time for me. The creativity was mostly theirs, but my leadership certainly played a part. That said, I can only serve the churches to which I am called. My current traditional church (Interim) again has worship which would be familiar to a Presbyterian of the 1950s. I wish I could feel more respected within my denomination even when I serve a church rooted in the past.


In it together

Great article. We often forget what church is meant to be, and we've allowed it to become usurped by a club mentality. Charismatic leaders are sought to do for the congregation what it fails to live into together. It's easier to replace a pastor, than to live into the common mandate that belongs to all baptized Christians. 

I think you're on to something

I just "retired" at 55. Spent the last 26 years pastoring four different but not so different congregations in 4 very different socio-economic situations. Each of the first 3 congregations were smaller and older and each of them grew significantly, one to the point a new building was added. I went to all the so called "leadership" conferences that kept me as fresh as I could be with the currents and movements of leading. They were all helpful. I sat next to a bishop/leader at my first charge who almost mocked the growth I was part of at the first little church I served, I felt like I had to apologize being fresh out of seminary, and all of it being new but somehow able to lead something that was growing instead of declining. I've come to think that much of what we do as pastors and leaders is caught like any infectious thing. But there were always keys, good worship meaning whether it was traditional, contemporary (oxymoronic I think), or what I liked to call "current" didn't matter. Worship cold be infectious. You had to follow that up with formation/ education and at the end of the day, mission or working with the broken, mobilized the "church." There were a host of ways all of that could happen. My bias was always to actually encourage people to act or pretend to act like Jesus. Treating each other and the other in hospitable ways. Stuff I learned more from my mom and remembered as I read the gospels. What I began to notice in the last years has been something very different in congregational life and that was a move toward "whats in it for me and mine" and what's Jesus got to do with any of this? The last congregation wished only to have its insulated view of life and living validated by the "gods" by the "holy," by being right and I became the chaplain or worse the clown to make them feel OK with their agenda for life and even church which had nothing to do with the advancement of the Kingdom. In the end I was no longer comfortable with continuing to take a paycheck nor was I comfortable having my life sustained by a community that was "killing the franchise" as I was noticing throughout the larger region where the denomination was present and has been on a decline for the 26 plus years I have served. Your pastoral friend was right, congregations place their toxicity from the past onto pastors, and also place that on those who arrive to experience grace and peace but instead are surprised by pettiness and nastiness (and yes, I understand the model that the church is to be a hospital) . . .  well the pettiness and nastiness are the same things leaders and pastors are shocked by. That "infection" begins to have its impact in communities that surround congregations, "nons" experience this and decide not to ever walk in such a place again. This pastor saw that having its way, as the communal "spirit" of my particular denomination left a very bad taste in too many people's mouths. With that painful look in the mirror, I  decided it was time to move along. It has taken me a good year to walk away from that which I have invested the better part of my life. The last 6 years of my ministry broke me and my family in many ways. But I am well on the way to wellness again with a freeness I have not had in some time.