I had a few meetings last week that went like this:
"I love you, Ryan, but I've decided to leave the church. I'm just not excited about my faith anymore. My small group feels dead. I also don't like your sermons. Nothing that you say ever applies to my life and I don't feel like I'm growing spiritually."
"I am so lucky to have found this church. My small group is one of the most life-giving bunches of people I've ever gotten to know. Your sermons on Sunday are amazing. It's like you're up there talking directly to me about what I'm going through in my life. I've never felt myself growing so much spiritually."
"Social justice! My God, that's all this church ever talks about! Can we please get through a Sunday service without having to address the rights of the LGBTQ community or some other minority? I just want to study The Bible!"
"Why doesn't this church care more about social justice? What about minority groups who feel alone and are struggling? Why don't we ever talk about that at church?"
Some of you may have laughed when you read those accounts. Others of you may have groaned. Both responses are completely appropriate.
We pastors straddle a strange craft.
We have the high calling of helping people make sense of a life that, for the most part feels like a pendulum that never stops swinging between extremes. (And lest we forget, we live our own lives on the same pendulum).
When I was a younger bloke in this line of work, I would take praise and criticism far too seriously. I'd spend weeks stewing over things, trying to find a way to make good things even better, or how to make people in my congregation happy with me who weren't.
Maybe it's age, maybe it's clerical inertia, but over the years I've learned to just embrace the paradox for what it is. Heck, I've even learned to see the paradox as a sign of good leadership.
The truth that young ministers are never told in the early years is that if you're doing a good job as a pastor you're going to make a lot of people happy. You're also going to piss a lot of people off.
And that is okay.
This is normal.
This is the job you signed up for and took the vows to do.
A lot of our disappointments and doldrums have to do with our egos. We may think that we have the answers that everyone is seeking, but we don't. Answers don't come from us. They come from the God who lives in the people that we sit with, talk to, preach for, and pray with. We must do a better job of helping people tap into that instead of promising them answers by pursuing external things... even if those external things are our churches.
The wise, old wandering sage, Lao Tzu said it this way in his magnum opus, "The Tao Te Ching."
"Care about people's approval and you will be their prisoner. Just do your work, then step back. This is the only path to serenity."
The apostle Paul said something similar in his letter to the church in Galatia when he wrote:
"Am I trying to please people? If I was, I would not be a servant of Christ."
Neither of these spiritual giants were being apathetic when they wrote these important words.
What they were saying is that we should work diligently, faithfully, and with compassion, while not being disquieted if the fruits of our labors don't result in our approval.
We must learn to work without clinging. We must learn to give counsel without grasping for control. We must learn to love more completely. That's the primer of this odd line of work.
Whatever season you are in in your pastorship, remember that you are up to good work, even if it's confusing at times.
When you doubt yourself, that's okay.
When you think you're saving the world, you're not.
You're just a pixel, and your pixel matters. So just be faithful with it.
Some will love you. Others will despise you. Love them anyway.
You serve the people under your care the very best when you serve God to the uttermost.
So hold your chin up. Be ready for lots of hugs and lots of insults. They will come in waves.
This means that you're doing a good job.