Where Are You?

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by Chuck DeGroat

It’s the very first question God asks after Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. They are hiding, as we all do. But God makes an incarnational move. God moves toward them, searches them out, and when God finds them they are clothed by the Divine Seamstress. God’s movement toward them signifies an indelible message–I am your God. I will be with you. I will not abandon you. Nevertheless, life will be hard, messy, and painful.

augustineAugustine writes, “God is more near to us than we are to ourselves.” In Christ and by the Spirit, God now dwells in humankind. But while God is completely at home in us, we are often away. We live anxiously, on the periphery of our lives, trying to bring order out of chaos on our own terms, trying to navigate our messy realities on our own terms. We pray. We ask for help. But we do a lot of the heavy lifting. And it’s exhausting.

I’ve pastored for years but now teach future pastors. But I have the wounds to show for my time in the trenches. I was sitting with a good friend this past week who bears his own wounds of pastoral ministry. Like many of us, he anxiously tried to control his reality for years, tried to do the heavy lifting. Though theologically Reformed, he named God’s sovereignty and control but functionally held onto as much control as he could. He bore the pain of his parishioners in his body. On and off for years friends and therapists asked him why he stayed in it for so long.

You see, most pastors leave within five years. The thought of pastoring is much sexier than the actual reality of pastoring. Imagine the dream of a naïve pastor-to-be: a job with flexibility, in many cases you’re your own boss, a once a week talk, lots of time to read deep, theological books, flexibility to move on to other gigs every five years or so. Some of my friends plant new churches with the hope that by casting their own vision, recruiting their own team, and leading their own way, they will avoid some of the typical pastoral pitfalls.

special_sauceMy friend has given it the “long obedience in the same direction.” In those first, early years everyone loves you, or so it seems. Enthusiastic parishioners stroke your ego with the “this is such a great church–I’ve looked for a church like this my whole life.” Early on, you might even begin to buy into the idea that you’ve actually led differently, that people won’t leave or betray you or project all of their parental issues onto you, that you’re actually creating the ideal model or found a secret ingredient for the special sauce. Maybe you even consider writing a book about your model of ministry. But soon enough, the blows come.

  • A trusted friend who sits on your leadership team and who has shared bourbon and cigars and late night intimate conversations on your porch stabs you in the back.
  • The couple whose marriage you performed, whose children you baptized, whose home you visited, whose many suggestions you received decide that the church isn’t what it was back in the good old days. Without notice, they leave.
  • The colleague who served arm-in-arm with you, now feels called to leave. On  one hand, this brings joy and celebration. but on the other, it creates a relational and practical void that is hard to fill.
  • An anchor couple in your church reveals a marital betrayal that requires countless hours of care, and which shakes the faith of many. You burn the midnight oil taking care of them and everyone else in the debris field.
  • Your spouse holds stories of hard conversations and negative comments and sometimes wonders if some other life–any other life (insurance sales, maybe?)–might be easier than this.
  • Your therapist says, “Who would ever want to lead a group of adolescent consumers who you’ll never be good enough for, who project parental issues all over you, and where you’re expected to ‘take it’ and look holy and good doing it?”
  • Your friends and professors in seminary write you off after years of relationship because you now disagree on a theological issue and can’t be trusted.

Who can bear it?

No one can. You were never meant to.

I see three things that happen in these moments.

I see pastors who quit. I see pastors who power up. And I see pastors who surrender.

Fewer surrender. And its beautiful. They don’t ‘resign’ themselves to the futility of ministry. They simplyy come to the realization that this ministry and these people were never ‘theirs’ anyway. They realize that they can’t carry the burdens–the Monday morning email rant, the betrayal, the high expectations. They discover, in fact, that God is God, that Jesus bears the burdens. Instead of living on the periphery trying to control life, they’ll live at the center where the Spirit dwells. And they relax.

In this place, freedom reigns. The pastor doesn’t have to live with the relentless inner chatter that the church better grow, and grow fast. She doesn’t have to carry the Monday morning rant all week. Failing…even losing one’s job…doesn’t feel like the end of the world. With open hands and a posture of surrender, he can forgive the person in advance who will inevitably come after the service to gripe about the music selections. She finds compassion for the young, eager staff member who is disappointed that his proposals haven’t been approved yet. He begins to enjoy ordinary things again, like praying. Suddenly there is more space, more compassion, because God is near and he can rest the givenness of God’s intimacy. She learns to care less (but not in a careless way) about people’s opinions. He begins to see a wider world of need beyond his own self-created kingdom–a world of brokenness, racism, sexism, inequality–and suddenly church attendance means a little less and kingdom participation means a lot more. Jesus is Lord. She doesn’t have to be. And that creates a soulful spaciousness that brings joy, creativity, compassion, and an inexplicable calm.

God asks, “Where are you?” So, how would you answer, pastor? And if you’re not a pastor but these themes resonate as basic life themes, how would you answer?

Are you living at the periphery, anxiously trying to manage your frantic reality? If so, there is a way forward, a way paved by one whose life was marked by surrender and whose hope for you and for me is that we can rest in the reality that control was never ours to have. And so, whether you are in a messy season of life, a difficult ministry season, or simply tired of the adolescent politics of today, God is near, more near to you than you are to yourself, and waiting with open arms when you’re ready.

Chuck DeGroat teaches pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

Comments 5

  1. All of this is true, and good, and helpful. Thank you. I think I have surrendered for the most part, but there are those days when I forget for a moment.

    But I wonder about another piece of this, and I wonder whether this is an issue for the church or for God: are we, in the continued surrendering and repeating of this pattern, not validating, or at least enabling, the poor behavior of parishioners? And, if we are doing that, are we saying that Christ’s sacrifice was not, in fact, once for all and perfect? Or are we saying that we believe Christ’s sacrifice was the last one that was necessary, but we have found that we really enjoy crucifying people, so we’ll just keep doing so? And does that make the church appear to be, rather than the body of Christ, a gathering of sadists?

    1. These are good questions, James. I’ve often thought about them too–I’ve been a pastor for 10 years now, so I’ve gathered some experiences (and wounds), but I also know I still have a long way to go.

      Here’s how I’ve settled on these questions for myself, at least up to this point:

      1. I am completely responsible for my actions, and responsible to take wise and obedient actions, but I can’t change people. God can use me (and my wise, non-anxious responses) as HE changes people, but I can’t change them. I used to become very defensive (argumentative, proving I was right) whenever I felt threatened, but this only created more problems (both for me and for others), and did not help to change or fix a single thing. Therefore I’ve learned that the author’s comments about surrender are 100% on target. They’re SO helpful to hear and put into practice! 1 Cor 4:3 has been helpful to me here: “with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.”

      2. Having said that, I am NOT required to accept false things as true. If someone misunderstands me or speaks untruthfully about me, I am not required to just grin and bear it. That was the good point that you raised in your question. Part of wise and responsible leadership is having both the gentleness and love to remain connected with difficult people (ie, not become defensive), but also the courage and authenticity to speak up when I think something needs to be said or clarified (ie, not become a doormat). I’m learning that it’s possible to say what needs to be said, even if it’s not popular, and still remain in relationship. It seems to me that the key to this is that the people still feel loved when you speak (Eph 4:15!). I’m not responsible for how people respond to my communication, but I’m 100% responsible for the clarity and tone of my communication. Part of being a good leader is refusing to validate or enable the poor behavior of my parishioners; the tricky part is finding a way to “call them out” while still remaining lovingly connected. This is obviously a long learning process for any of us.

      3. You are 111.1% correct, that certain behaviors are completely, unequivocally, and indefensibly sinful: slander, gossip, bitterness/resentment/unforgiveness, malice, etc. I have genuine theological (not just emotional) questions about the health or even spiritual status of a community where these things go unchecked. The Belgic Confession (a tool we use in my CRC denomination) says that the 3 “marks” (or evidences) of a true church are
      1. Pure preaching of the gospel
      2. Pure administration of the sacraments
      3. the Practice of church discipline.
      (read the whole statement here: https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/belgic-confession/article-29-marks-true-church)

      Church discipline is terribly important, and needs to be addressed if situations that you’re describing are happening in your church. If God’s people desire holiness, then they will value the proper use of church discipline. If they don’t desire to be holy and to be continually and increasingly conformed to the image and character of Christ, then they won’t value church discipline. It’s really as simple as that, at the foundational level. Christians are called to be holy, and church discipline is one tool for that purpose at the communal level. However, this tool has sometimes been misused over the years/decades, and it has also been misunderstood. So perhaps some (many!) congregations need to be re-educated regarding what it is and is not…and also regarding the basic call toward holiness, humility, repentance and love that God places before every single one of his children.

      Anyway, I’m sorry for the sermon! lol I hear the pain and frustration in your question, and I want to validate that. I’ve been there (and still am!) but I’ve also been helped a great deal by the Ridder Church Renewal process (https://www.rca.org/leader/ridder-church-renewal) that I’ve been part of for the past year. I hope that at least some of my comments have been helpful to you.

      May God bless you, brother!

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