Us Magazine has a weekly feature called “Stars–They’re Just Like Us!” Basically, it is a photo spread of celebrities doing ordinary things. For example:
I know this because I have read Us Magazine in the past…and sometimes still in the present…and probably will in the future. In my opinion, it’s the perfect beach read. Mindless enough to lay around reading while simultaneous people-watching, but not as trashy as some other possibilities in that category.
Is that surprising, a pastor reading Us Magazine? Aren’t pastors supposed to only read the Bible, Christian books, and giant theological tomes? Isn’t it weird for a pastor to read tabloid magazines at the beach? Guess what? Pastors–they’re just like us!
Something I hear from time to time is a version of “You’re such a normal person!” And that always gives me a chuckle. I wish these friends could live inside my head sometimes. They would likely not say “you’re such a normal person!” anymore. (Any anyway, what’s that saying anyway about “normal” being just a setting on the clothes dryer?)
I suppose the expectation is that pastors are above all the ordinary and too holy for the common experiences of life. Or that pastors require a more pious or holy sort of treatment. But the reality is that yes, pastors have a particular calling and we are accountable to our congregations, judicatories, and God with regards to our decisions and behavior, but we live into that in some very “normal” ways.
Here’s what this means for me as a pastor:
You do not have to clean up your behavior and pretend to be someone you are not
Pastors have all heard the “I didn’t know you were pastor” apology. Someone is cussing up a blue streak as they tell me about their day and then asks me what I do for a living. Awkward City, population 2. Because I know what is coming–“Sorry about my language,” they may sheepishly confess.
Or someone will inform everyone in a group to, “watch your language! The pastor is here.” Or preemptively apologize for someone who may not be well-behaved.
“Oh,” I usually reply, in an attempt at humor and reassurance. “I already know all the words!” (Although one time I said that and within in a minute, someone said a word that I most certainly did not know. So, joke was on me in that case!)
People sometimes are guarded around me, or worry that what they have to tell me will be shocking or scandalous. And you know what? Sometimes it is, but life can be shocking and scandalous, and life is always the backdrop for ministry. I figure God doesn’t avoid the shocking and scandalous, painful and broken things, and I am called to be present in those situations as well. I am ok with your rough edges, your hard questions, your doubt-filled musings, and your real life experiences. It’s all right to tell me you haven’t read your Bible in weeks–I’ve been there and I get it; or that you are angry with God–I’ve been there and I get it; or that you made a big mistake and are living with the bigger consequences–been there, too. I don’t understand the job of pastor as someone who polices your morality or belief, but as someone who walks through the hardness of life with you, encouraging you, helping you engage scripture, praying for you, and traveling alongside you as you discern your calling.
I struggle with all of this, too
I can assure you that being a pastor does not mean I have it all figured out. There are mysteries I do not understand but I know you wish I would. There are even well-explained theological ideas that I do not understand (and you also probably wish I would). And there are times when I struggle.
These past (>) two years have been difficult. I wrote some about how I have struggled through the pandemic here. But the reality is that these past months have brought uncertainty, fear, and worry into my life–perhaps as they have for you as well. I’ve hit breaking points along the way. I’ve had to reach out for encouragement and mental health support (I restarted talk therapy about a year ago, for example). I’ve lost people I love and have disappointing interactions with loved ones over politics and science and humanity.
Being a pastor doesn’t place me above all of that, or give me a pass when it comes to struggle or grief. We deal with all of this in many of the same ways our friends in medical, teaching, public service, and other professions and places do.
But also, in general, I struggle with not being too sarcastic or smart-mouthed in some situations. I spend way too much time looking at the screen on my phone. I find it easier to just assume other people aren’t as intelligent as I am when they disagree with me. I secretly hope people will have to cancel the plans they made with me and I will have to stay home in my pajamas and read or watch TV (or look at the screen on my phone). And sometimes I just keep sinning. I’m a mess! But I also know that I am forgiven, loved, and called by a God who forgives, love, and calls you too.
We want to be known
Pastors want people to know them for who they are as individuals, not assume some sort of caricature about them as a whole.
A week or so ago, one of our members arrived at the church, carrying in a bouquet of beautiful flowers, a coffee cup, and a bag from Biscuitville. She handed all of these to me and headed to Sunday School. I took the lid off the coffee and saw it was black–no cream or sugar included, not even in the bag. In the bag was a plain biscuit with strawberry jelly. Do you know who drinks her coffee black and only puts strawberry jelly on biscuits? I do! This is going to sound dramatic, but when I saw these things were true, tears came to my eyes. Why? Because I was known. She hadn’t texted or called when she was in the drive thru line–she remembered how I took these things because she had paid attention to me. What a gift in so many ways! (And that biscuit was delicious.)
That same morning, after Sunday School, I found this on my desk:
This print is beautiful and it’s Hebrews 10:23–my favorite Bible verse. I also teared up a little when I saw that because it meant someone knew this about me. Three years ago, I can remember feeling homesick and sad about how unknown I was to my new congregation. After eighteen years in the same church and community, I felt so known and loved there. Would this ever happen at Peace? A week ago, I realized it had.
Just like not all teachers, or doctors, or electricians are the same, neither are all pastors. We have hobbies , preferences, phobias, and quirks just like everyone else. Just like your teacher or your doctor or your electrician, you may not be privy to all the personal details and information about your pastor–that’s normal, and healthy, too. But get to know who they are as your pastor. Honor the ways they use their gifts and abilities uniquely. Don’t expect them to be someone or something they are not. And for goodness’ sake, find out how they take their coffee!
I realize that I am not speaking for all pastors with any of these pastor appreciation posts. We are not pastors because we all think and do the same things. There are pastors who will scold you if you swear or ask gut-wrenching questions in their presence. Some pastors do want you to believe they are mostly perfect and struggle-free. And every pastor has a different level of comfort with being known by their congregations.
I suppose the thing that I most want to be as a pastor is someone who comes alongside each person and reminds them that they are not alone. I want to be someone that other people know they can be themselves around, say what they need to say, ask the questions they want to ask, and look for God together. I hope that people feel loved and accepted when they are with me. I don’t know if that’s “normal,” but I do suspect it’s similar to who you want to be, no matter what your vocation or profession, as well.
This week, if you see a pastor reading a weekly tabloid at the beach…or geeking out over something she heard on NPR…or softly swearing when the internet goes out in the middle of an important online meeting:
Take a mental snapshot and remember, Pastors–they’re just like us!