On the way home tonight, I was listening to a podcast in which the author, Tara Mohr, was being interviewed. She was talking about her most popular blog post which was entitled, 10 Rules for Brilliant Women. It includes some great advice for women to be brave about bringing their own particular brilliance to the world. It’s the kind of article I wish had been available to me when I was just starting out in my career.
In 1999, I was ordained a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. If I could give words of wisdom to someone just starting out in ministry, I would say:
- Don’t give energy to the alligators. In every church (as in any place where people gather) there will be alligators – difficult people – those people who like to find fault, to criticize, gossip or just be plain disagreeable . Also, in every church there will be people who like to build up others, to be helpful and hopeful. If you give too much of your energy to the alligators, they will slowly drain you of your own joy and peace and positivity. Looking back over my years of ministry, especially the early years, I wish I had not wasted so much energy on worrying about the opinions of the naysayers. I was never able to turn a disagreeable person into a more positive person, not once.
- Build up areas of ministry that interest you! So often I would come into a church and see what programs they had going and then just try to keep all those things going. It didn’t occur to me until much later that it wasn’t my duty to keep committees and activities going just because they had been happening for many years. Over time I realized that for my own sake and for the sake of the church, I needed to invest my best energy in areas in which I had passion and be able to let go of some other areas and trust that if they were meant to continue, I and the council would be able to find lay leaders to continue those things. A happy pastor is a good pastor – do what brings you joy!
- Your churches will break your heart. It’s true – my heart has never been so broken as it has been by my congregations. I’ve left pieces of my heart all over the cemeteries and sanctuaries and council rooms of my churches. Sometimes it’s been shattered by disagreements and betrayals, sometimes by the weird isolation that comes with being a pastor, but most often by deep love and affection, and the heartache of saying “goodbye” when it is time to go.
- Your churches will love you and your family. It was very hard to leave my home and go all by myself to my first call as a pastor. It felt like stepping off a ledge into thin air and not having a clue what would catch me. Oh, the cigarettes I chain-smoked as I drove with my two cats across six states to get to the first church and parsonage I would call home. I had no idea how each church I served would walk with me so lovingly through the changes life would bring. My first church helped to throw the most amazing wedding party ever when I got married! My second church helped me usher in motherhood – showering me with gifts for the babies they were so excited to welcome! My third church walked with me on the sad journey of grief when my mother died – they listened to me cry and they showed me so beautifully how a Christian community comes together in times of grief and holds each other up. You think you are leaving behind family to embark on your first call, but you are just on your way to meeting the most wonderful extended family you could ever imagine.
- Don’t let the church be your whole world. When times are good as a pastor, I can’t imagine a career, a calling, quite as wonderful. We get to be with people at such monumental times. We get to be creative. We get to be flexible. We get to go to awesome potlucks. But when times are bad as a pastor, it can be really, really bad. To keep it together during the bad times, you have to have a life outside the church. Nurture your faith! Keep a spiritual life and discipline outside of what you do for and with your church. Nurture your family! Don’t let the church whittle away your time with your spouse and children. Nurture your interests! Always make space for the things you like to do, and try really, really hard to have some real friends outside the church with whom you can be honest and laugh (and cry!)
There’s so many other things I could say – don’t forget to pray, to take care of your health, to keep going to continuing education, to take ALL your vacation time – but you’ll learn all these lessons and so many more as the years unfold. God bless you in your ministry, new pastor. God bless you every year you get to live in this wonderful, weird, and sacred calling.