5 Things I Learned as a Default Pastor

Our rector had to take some unexpected time off recently, and I became the “default pastor” at our little parish for a while.  Lots of folks in the parish stepped up and took on additional responsibilities in her absence, and a number of the pastoral responsibilities fell to me as the parish deacon. I learned many, many things during this time, and five things keep popping to mind as I think about it all.  I believe they are things all of us should know about our pastors and rectors.

  1. Pastors are seldom “off the clock”. They get calls to answer all kinds of questions about all kinds of things, both important and insignificant, at all hours of the day – during dinner, on days off, or 15 minutes before Sunday service begins.  The ones at 3:00 AM are the most disturbing, as they are often about life and death matters, or close to it.  Those are the ones that make your heart race and wakes up the entire household.  And there are days when it seems the calls never stop coming.
  2. The job is emotionally draining. Each person has only so much emotional energy in their psychological bank account, and parishioners who are in crisis, or parishioners who are creating a crisis, make major withdrawals from the pastor’s psychological bank account.  Pastors can find themselves drained very quickly to a negative account balance if they are not careful, and become a crisis in themselves.
  3. The position of pastor can be addictive. People in ministry want to help others; we believe it is what being a disciple of Jesus is about.  The calls and requests mount, we keep saying yes instead of no, and if we are not careful, we can begin to think of ourselves as indispensible, developing our own messiah complex: clergy-as-savior.  The risk of soul-destroying hubris and narcissism is high as pastor if we are not careful.  Very bad decisions can result.

The risk of early burnout is quite real for a pastor.  Despite these three negatives, I also learned two positives.

  1. The job is emotionally and spiritually rewarding like few others. Christian clergy love Jesus and want to help bring others to a deeper, rewarding relationship with Jesus, too.  We want to help create God’s Kingdom on earth.  When we manage to make even a faltering step in that direction, the rewards and satisfaction are immense.  Despite the dangers of #2 and #3, it is worth the risk.
  2. Pastors are vital to the life of a parish. I do not see how a parish could function without a pastor or priest at its center.  They are the spiritual and pastoral leader of the community, setting the tenor and tone of parish life.  They are the person a parishioner or a seeker wants to speak to regarding issues or confidences.  They are the person who drains their emotional reserves to share the burdens of another.  They are the person who speaks for God in an alienated world, and they are the person who consecrates mere bread and wine to bring God among us.  It is a role and vocation totally unique and irreplaceable.

These are a few of the things I learned over the past months while helping out at our parish.  They make me wonder about a bi-vocational model of priesthood, where a priest supports his/her ministry with a full-time secular job.  I wonder who could have the emotional energy to do two full-time jobs, not one, particularly one as emotionally demanding as a pastor.  I wonder how well a marriage or family relationship could withstand the long hours of two jobs, not just one, and one job as constantly demanding as that of a pastor.

I think about the marching orders of a deacon, who is to bring the church’s concerns to the world, and the world’s concerns to the church.  I have discovered that when I bring the world’s concerns to our parish, I find a parish already struggling mightily with the issues and demands of their own community – can they possibly take on the concerns of the world, too?  How can I ask a pastor, whose emotional and spiritual bank account balance is nearly zero from the demands of his/her job, help take on yet one more thing?  How much more difficult, then, will that be with a bi-vocational priesthood?

I am still pondering over these things, and matching up realities with aspirations.  I hope we can figure out how to maintain a full-time priesthood, even it if means consolidating parishes.  It is apparent to me that it is more feasible than consolidating secular/ecclesial careers.  As we go forward in our mission, I hope my fellow church members consider these issues and options.  I am very grateful to have learned these things and others recently, and hope I can remember them as I continue in my ministry.  It is a truism that in order to understand a person better, one should walk a mile or two in their shoes.  I am glad I have had the opportunity to do so, and pray that my recent experience will make me a better minister.

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One thought on “5 Things I Learned as a Default Pastor

  1. Thank you for these thoughts. Ever since I attended a CREDO week especially focused on part-time and bi-vocational clergy, I have been concerned about these very issues. I am a “part-time” rector of an average size Episcopal Church (ASA <100), but not bi-vocational. Given the number of hours I actually serve this church, it is hard to imagine how the church could thrive if the clergy had another job that would undoubtedly limit accessibility. The people I met at CREDO mostly worked full-time as chaplains or for not-for-profits, and then worked weekends for the church (for little compensation!). Seven days/week plus the ever-present anxiety of balancing the demands and coming to peace with not being readily available for pastoral emergencies would be a set-up for burn-out! Clearly, committed lay people are required to keep the church's ministries afloat. That, in itself, is a good thing–the "ministry of all baptized," but it does require some oversight and coordination. I hope we can find other solutions. Otherwise, I fear that further decline is inevitable.

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