I had an idea for a series of posts I’m calling “pastorful”, which lay out some things I’ve learned in the last 10 years of being a pastor. I’m not sure this is actually of any value, but maybe I have helpful ideas to add, not only to pastors but to similar folks – nonprofit directors and so on. So here we go…
As an intern in my last two years of Seminary, my mentor and the pastor of the church where I served was named Karl Shadley. I learned a lot from him, and I think I did a decent job as intern, making the usual number of dumb mistakes in a gracious, forgiving multicultural and multi-lingual context.
One way that Karl and I were (and likely still are) opposites is the degree to which we experience anxiety. I experience it a lot – Karl not nearly so much. Being a “non-anxious presence” for me is often a professional performance, like being polite and gracious to a rude customer in retail, but for Karl I think it came more naturally. He was often entertained by how upset I got about things before they happened, or after, or during.
Without going into detail, there is one situation that stuck with me at the church. The Session, or governing board, felt that something needed to happen, and they believed that it was Karl’s job to make it happen. Karl disagreed. So what he did, for months (I remember maybe six), was just sit calmly in Session meetings while people expressed their anxiety and frustration. Most people would have caved and just done the thing – but not Karl.
Here was the theory – if people truly cared about what they wanted to happen, they would come together and find a way to make it happen themselves. In the meantime, if Karl took it up, it would just become another thing he had to do that he didn’t want to and that he didn’t see as part of his job as pastor. Over time, it’s likely that bitterness might creep in, and having someone grudgingly do the work would lead to the work not being done as well as it could.
Finally, people came together and did whatever it is they were demanding themselves. I remember Karl’s calm smile. The Session moved on to the next issues.
I took this to heart, and have tried to build myself up to where I can reflect this kind of patience. I’ve definitely been tested, but in situations where I am being pushed to do something to alleviate other people’s anxiety, which I don’t think is part of my job as pastor, I remember this story and try to be patient.
What I took away from this experience, and have seen reinforced since then many times, is this idea that it doesn’t do anyone favors to take on their anxiety and do their work for them. If members of the community truly want something to happen, they’ll find a way – but sometimes they are just anxious and want to relieve that anxiety by seeing something happen, but they don’t want it enough to put any effort into it.
And it’s OK if people don’t get what they’re not willing to work for.