Chapter 3. A Toughness of Temperament1
"And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town." Matthew 10:142
After serving seventeen and a half years in a small urban residential church I was appointed to a very large suburban institutional-type church. A calloused veteran of the ecclesiastical wars greeted me with a question that sounded more like a challenge, "Do you think you are tough enough to handle your new appointment?" I was tempted to respond an eye for an eye with the rejoinder that, brother, we are pastors of souls, not captains of commandos. In retrospect I am glad I held my tongue, for a certain toughness of temperament is necessary for a pastor if he is to be effective, and if he is to hold head and heart together through the inevitable pressures of life with other Christians. In fact, it would be wise for those entrusted with the recruitment of new pastors to include, along with the current battery of psychological tests, one that would measure the resiliency of ministerial candidates' emotions, will, and physical stamina.
Paul Scherer, beloved professor of homiletics, declared annually in his class on Practical Theology that the pastorate is a discipline that will exhaust the best anyone has to offer of intelligence, imagination, patience, wisdom, and all the other gifts, natural and spiritual, and then demand more. Lay people unfamiliar with the range of a pastor's duties lamely kid the person of the cloth about working one hour a week, and assume from their own delicate handling of him (no cuss words, no ethnic slurs, just polite references to clergy they have known) that his life is very sheltered. In fact, the reverse is closer to the truth: few people are as exposed as a pastor to life in all its absurdity and its ecstasy. I have presided at a funeral for a woman of middle age brutally stabbed to death by her husband, and offered prayers and counsel in a room in which were present members of her and his family. I have shouted a loud "Hallelujah!" as a one word benediction on the steps of Brooklyn's Borough Hall on an October afternoon side by side with Gil Hodges, Eddie Kranepool, Tug McGraw, and Abe Stark, to celebrate the World Champion New York Metropolitans of 1969. I have walked from the viewing window of the maternity ward behind which young life cooed away the hours, to go to the bedside of a parishioner dying from carcinoma of the colon to offer comfort with words taken from the Scriptures, the Good Book referenced just moments earlier to celebrate a birth. Any seasoned pastor can duplicate and probably top these examples of the entree afforded the pastoral office to experience life at its worst and its best.
To handle these wide swings in demands takes an emotional toughness: to go from the identification of a corpse at the morgue to pray a happy prayer at a Little League awards ceremony; to usher out of one's office a feuding couple seeking reconciliation, only to usher in lovebirds planning their wedding day; to accept with equanimity the abuse of a sadly neurotic soul, and in the next conversation to listen to a chronic flatterer repeat a list of beautiful lies about his wonderful pastor; to hold the hand of a woman terrorized by DT's while waiting for her son, a heroin addict, to arrive from a half-way house; to pray with the wedding guests as the ceremony is in progress for the recovery of the father-of-the-bride who was stricken at the altar with a massive heart attack. These events may not be all in a day's work; but they do occur with sufficient regularity in a pastor's duties to deplete his store of emotional energy.3
Another dimension to the toughness needed by an effective pastor is a willingness to be the boss, to wield authority confidently, as well as reasonably and fairly. For even in the affairs of saints someone must make decisions and make them stick. Like it or not, for instance, the pastor must assume the role of proprietor of buildings. They are used not only by constituents but by varied community groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, teams in the Pewee Division of the local basketball league, boards of review for Eagle Scouts, Cub Scouts putting on a spaghetti dinner, and the varied organizations engaged in the sundry worthwhile activities this side of heaven. Inevitably there are conflicts and plaster-breaking peccadilloes which need repairing. Arbitrating then the competing claims devolve to the person on the spot, almost always the pastor in charge, no matter how carefully such responsibilities may have been delegated to a committee. For this task the resident holy person will want the Wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Simeon, and the resoluteness of Jesus. In twenty years of curiosity about others' ministries I have observed that more of us lose creditability with congregations over the gym than the pulpit, and that the condition of the pots and pans in the parish hall kitchen is as critical to the pastor's effectiveness as the warmth and eloquence of his prayers.
However we may regret this implicit set of priorities, they are part of the terms of life together in the church. It is a fair rule, therefore, that behind every grand chorus of good works there is a tough conductor, orchestrating the competing voices into harmony.
Complicating the job, making it more strenuous, are the democratic procedures, written and unwritten, which govern congregational life. A corporate executive need only turn a handsome profit to please the membership. But the pastor must consult and keep informed a host of volunteers whose goodwill must be nurtured if the heating bills are to be paid or the hungering enemy to be fed. Where as a courtroom judge may defend his decision as being right, the pastor must worry not only about being right but about being right in the right way. In the United Methodist Church, for instance, the presiding minister is virtual sovereign over worship, opening the sanctuary when he chooses, selecting the hymns, arranging the order of worship, and generally doing whatever pleases him and the Spirit during the sacred hour. But the Golden Rule and the American heritage (no taxation without representation) modify this Discipline-given right. The pastor who wants to be effective will seek the counsel of the officiary about worship, will be open to the selection of others' favorite hymns, and will be willing to compromise cherished notions about the liturgy.4 To sort it all out, to know when to yield and when to stand firm, and through it all not to feel threatened, takes a very strong constitution indeed. Ministers may complain that they have five hundred bosses, or whatever the statistic of the church's membership; but they can also take pride in the resilience required and acquired in pastoral leadership, that few officers in other businesses could long withstand the anomalous rigors of leading a company of Christians.5
The pastor's most Herculean task, however, is learning to live and cope with the loneliness endemic to pastor-parishioner relationships. At first glance this bleak observation on the pastoral role seems to defy the friendly facts. As a fellow who left the pulpit for a couple of years for a job in community action programs wryly observed, "What I miss most are the two hundred well-wishers every Sunday morning filing by the door, shaking my hand, and telling me how wonderful I am." The pastor is made to feel wanted, necessary, even indispensable, by the parade of saints who must consult him on choices as varied as the selection of a mate or the preference of hue for bathroom wallpaper. The parsonage phone rings incessantly, or so it seems. Pastor and spouse are honored guests at intimate family gatherings, christening parties, anniversaries, and birthdays. Who else can spend weekday afternoons visiting from house to house and be greeted at the mention of his name and office with smiles and hot coffee, even from a stranger?!
On first consideration it might seem that the pastor's problem is getting away from an excess of people, instead of getting close to them. But the very privilege the pastor enjoys, the automatic advantage his office provides to enter the deepest and murkiest corners of others' lives, is the reason for his vocational loneliness. Like a father confessor he will hear the yearnings of many hears to be cleansed of their greed, cruelties, and adulteries; but the mere hint of similar unlovely urges in his own heart would stir up gossip of a less than edifying sort among the very people who confided in him. Blessed, therefore, is the pastor whose spouse is sympathetic, who will listen to the moral exemplar's candid admissions of failure, religious and moral; because with rare exceptions the shepherd's admissions can never be shared with the flock. No wonder pastors, like policemen, seek out the company of others in the same profession, to let down their hair, take off their collars, complain as scruffily as they have been complained to, and speak as carelessly as in their professional role they had been circumspect. If haloes attract a crowd, they are also an obstacle to simple friendships.
The full import of the special character of pastoral relationships was not apparent to me until a change in appointment required their severance. As I said goodbye to people whose babies I had baptized and whose dead I had buried, I tried to temper the finality of the occasion with the thought that, after all, we could still be friends. But I came to see how impossible that was, for the pastoral offices was in most instances the occasion for the friendship. Once the occasion was removed - other duties among other people assumed, and in my own place in the pulpit and study occupied by another pastor - the friendship had no recurring event (worship, coffee hours, meetings, and the informal gatherings which attend them) on which to be nourished.6
The Roman Catholic church postulates the bestowal of a special grace upon priests which, among other things, provides them with an uncommon strength to withstand the temptations to which all men are subjected, and the special temptations to which priests are open. I concur, if not with the doctrine, then with the suggestion implicit that there might be a special requirement of toughness for an effective pastor.7
In fact the profile for a candidate for pastoral leadership might read like a job description for a messiah: emotionally resilient, yet deeply compassionate; authoritative but not authoritarian; a Christian among Christians. If the comparison may seem scandalous, ponder a new John 15:12, Jesus speaking to his disciples: "Truly, truly I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do."
Second Thoughts Twenty-five Years Later
1. Perhaps "temperament" is a poor choice. It suggests a gift of inheritance. "Resilience," used in this chapter as a synonym for "temperament," might have been a better choice. Although, under the rubric that "you can't make a purse out of a sow's ear," I would recommend to those examining candidates for the ministry to sift not only the gifts and graces of spirituality, intellect, and moral integrity, but whether or not the candidate presented for ordination has the ability, like a veteran prize fighter, to "keep coming back for more." Because the jabs which are occasionally aimed at the pastor will need to be dodged, parried, and countered, if the shepherd is to endure.
2. Twenty-five years ago the most frequently chosen Bible officially authorized for use in United Methodist churches was the Revised Standard Version. That translation has now been superseded by the New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version, plus any other translation or paraphrase which strikes the preacher's fancy. The quotes in this Book are from the RSV.
3. I should have included at this point mention of the demands of time and the deadlines which can slice away at a pastor's vitality. I have worked at this job forty-nine years; yet I never did find a way to provide for the unscheduled "extras" which intrude on an already overbooked week. Funerals were the biggest interruption. Since I would usually write a different eulogy for each church member who had passed on to his reward, I added another sermon to a week in which I had to prepare one for Sunday and one for the weekly newsletter. Then too I made it my practice to go always with the family to graveside for the committal service. That trip often took the whole morning and, if at the National Cemetery sixty miles away, much of the afternoon. My last week before retirement I officiated at five funerals... and crawled to the farewell service. Dr Scherer's observation rings truer than ever. The pastorate will take everything you have to give and then expect more. But "no strain, no gain." The glory follows from the giving.
4. I tried to provide something new every fall when the new season of activity resumed in churches in the Northeast. Most of the innovation was standard stuff, like the use of lay liturgists, a more stylish format for the order of worship, the printing of the texts of anthems, the inclusion of the Scripture Readings verbatim in the printed order, and minor and major reworkings of the traditional liturgy. One great upheaval occurred when, in response to the request by a Church School parent that it would be nice to take communion with her children, I reversed the ancient order of Morning Worship (as in the Church of England, from whose rituals John Wesley, Methodism's founder, borrowed richly) and put the Service of the Sacrament before the Service of the Word. Most people in the congregation thought the change was a great idea. My seminary professor, however, were he alive and were he to witness what I did, would look with complete disdain upon the innovation. Ante-communion became post communion. Egad! But it worked for us, and the children of the church, unlike their predecessors for the previous twenty years, were introduced to and became joyful participants in the celebration of the bread and the cup. So the versatile shepherd, the effective pastor, must also be theologically resilient.
5. Too often in my life and times as a pastor I have listened to the complaint that "the church should be run more like a business." A colleague in the parish ministry responded to one such complainant that no business would be able to keep its doors open very long if it had to deal, as the church does, with a staff of volunteers. Yes, the church should be business-like with its finances; the church can learn from newspapers and magazines and television about communication; and the church should take more seriously than most business do the old adage that the customer is always right. On the other hand, the church isn't selling toothpaste and it's not out to make a profit (and shouldn't be, but that's a message for another place). As I once read in a newspaper article by, I think, by Fr Andrew Greeley: the church isn't called to be successful; it is called to be faithful.
6. I feel obliged to warn pastors, effective or otherwise, that the loneliness of the long distance shepherd is a prelude for another kind of loneliness in retirement. The emotional support a congregation provides is suddenly removed when the church authorities tell the mandatory retiree in so many words, "Thank you, but we don't need or want you any more." Worse still, the retiree (from the United Methodist Church's appointment process) is obliged to leave the community in which he has given the greatest share of his years in service. Some anonymity is a blessed relief. But when the phone no longer rings, the Email trickles in, and calls for pastoral care are few and far between, the formerly very busy versatile shepherd needs a tougher temperament than he ever imagined.
7. Certainly recent revelations about grave misuses of priestly authority must give everyone pause concerning this Roman Catholic notion of the special grace bestowed upon fathers at ordination. Far more useful would be a fresh understanding of an even more ancient doctrine, the sinfulness of all souls, including those who, by reason of their office, are expected to treat intimately the souls of those given to their care. Realism, a healthy suspicion, and prudent safeguards are necessary when thinking about and praying for those who are by profession supposed to be closer to God than the rest of us.