The senior pastor stood at the pulpit on Sunday morning in street clothes
Angels' Broken Wings
The senior pastor stood at the pulpit on Sunday morning in street clothes. A cane was hooked over the railing. The service had not yet begun. The pastor wanted to tell the congregation he would be out of commission until after Easter, due to back surgery scheduled for the coming week. His regrets, he said, were doubled because this year, his thirty-second with the congregation, would also be his last and he had anticipated celebrating the day of lilies and jelly beans with his family of faith one more time. He then limped from the pulpit down the aisle to a place of refuge, already shaky from five minutes upright.
All things happen to all people: few are they who are exempt from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune which target this mortal flesh. No reason to think clergy are tefloned against illness and the indignities which sneak up on the rest of us. But in this season of my peripatetic critiquing I have seen enough clerical "thorns in the flesh" to begin to wonder if my profession is more susceptible than most to aches and pains, colds and bilateral knee surgeries. (Oh, forget the last item listed! It's just another of my pathetic insinuations looking for pity.)
There may be reasons for clerical susceptibility. Most pastors are people persons and their daily round of duties brings them into contact with a far larger population than, say, a junior vice president of a minor corporation. School teaching would make a better comparison, and everyone knows how school teachers catch from their students every germ wafting in our direction from across the Pacific.
Pastors burn out with the same frequency as educators. More than half of the twenty-four who began the pastoral ministry with me in the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church left long before retirement, several of them because, as they explained it to me, "they had had it," the repetition, the pettiness, and the coming up empty on too many Sundays.
Moreover, pastors tend to be bookish types, more at home crafting words than waxing floors or clipping hedges. Few of us made our mark on the courts and fields of athletic contest. We won the spelling bees and the American Legion composition contest on "Why I Love Liberty." We have to write newsletters and create twenty minutes of spell-binding oratory every week. Our best muscle is the brain, not the biceps. Which doesn't necessarily mean we eschew exercise, only that matters of the mind and heart have priority: that may make for a robust spiritual life, but often shortchanges the physical one. That is, frailty, very generally speaking, is the clergy's tendency.
Then there are the inevitable "collations" which attend every meeting of club, circle, council, and committee on the local church's schedule... and pastors, never wanting to be rude by refusing Sister Grace's pound cake, consume their share and more of the sweets of the faithful. No wonder so many of us reach a ripe age only to develop diabetes!
Besides, preachers belong to a long plump line of splendor notorious for its ailments. That phrase quoted above, "thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7), is the Apostle Paul's memorable reference to his, as speculated not stated, epilepsy. Martin Luther rued his struggles with constipation and gallstones. St. Francis, a stigmata, suffered wounds in his hands and feet every Friday. Norman Vincent Peale, for all of his optimism, was an early victim to a lack of self-confidence. Francis Asbury, Methodist evangelist extraordinary, spent most of his adult life covered with pustules from, a medical descendant of his diagnosed, vitaminosis.
So there I was, Monday after the Sunday of the limping pastor, in the exercise room of the Aquatics Center. As I entered I checked out the clientele. Of the eight people sweating their way to health, three of us were clergy. Two were trim forty-five year olds. One was a balding seventy-two year old, a used-up pastor with forty-eight years behind him and twelve inch scars on each knee. One of the young prophets complained to Barbara about being plumb tuckered out from the Sabbath's exertions. Still he ran on the treadmill for half an hour and worked up a fine sweat. He is also battling a chronic but not yet debilitating case of multiple sclerosis.
Many of God's brightest angels have broken wings. It's a job hazard.