I recently watched a TED talk given by one of my heroes, Anne Lamott. She made a statement, and I paraphrase, “Think about how crappy you’ll feel if you don’t write what tugs at your heart.”
I don’t want to feel crappy, not about that anyway. So here is one of the many things that has been tugging at my heart. When it comes to ministry, I am a failure. No, I am not stating that to gain your sympathy or empathy or make you argue with me. I am not looking for feedback or pushback. This is not a self-deprecating, feeling sorry for myself kind of piece. Yes, I am discouraged. I am frustrated. I am tired and worn-out and weary and exhausted with the effort of trying everyday. I’m just exhausted at trying not to be a failure, when I know full well that I am.
I’m serving on a search committee at the Synod level, and our task is to call a new executive to lead the Synod. For those of you unversed in Presbyterianism, the Synod is a mid-council. It is one of the governing bodies between a congregation and the General Assembly. Because I am on this committee, I have been reading PIFs from potential candidates. PIF’s are Professional/Pastoral Information Forms, i.e. resumes for ministry folks. The first question in the narrative section of the PIF asks the candidate to describe a time when they have felt successful or a sense of fulfillment.
Let me tell you, these candidates seem to have no problem describing their successes. Their accomplishments and achievements are many and wonderful. Non-profits have been built. Faltering organizations have been restructured. Struggling churches have been turned around and brought back from the brink. Budgets have changed colors from red to black. Loving, well-organized teams have been created out of disparate individuals. And it would seem that the kingdom has been furthered through every action taken, every decision made.
I’m not mocking these candidates. Their achievements are real. But when I think about how I would answer this question, I cannot come up with those same kinds of answers. In fact, I wish that there were a question that asked about our failures. I think a question like that might allow a candidate to be more honest. At least it would allow me to be more honest. When it comes to my belief that I am a failure in ministry, I am not writing this on an impulse. I have been struggling with this for a long, long time.
To say that I am a failure in ministry does not mean that I don’t have strengths. I do. I know them. I am a good preacher. I have my down days and my off days, absolutely. Not every sermon I have ever preached has been golden, but when I am good, I am very, very good. My sermons challenge, and they make you think. Sometimes they make you feel warm and fuzzy; yet other times they might make you squirm uncomfortably in your seat. I’m okay with that. The gospel makes you squirm. It makes me squirm too.
I am good at sitting with people who are dying. I am good with children. I am good at teaching. I am good at listening. If you are wrestling with your faith, with doubt; if you feel lost and alone in a wilderness, then talk to me, because I have felt the same way. I am good at irreverence. I am good at holding your hand and not saying anything, just being there.
But I am not good at “growing a church.” I am not good at evangelism. I am not good at drawing in new members. I am not good at starting new programs and seeing them take off. I am not good at filling the seats at worship. I am not good at contemporary worship. I am not good at making people feel self-satisfied and content with where they are in their faith. I am not good at making faith easy. It isn’t easy. At least it isn’t easy for me. I wish it were.
I see others whose faith seems to hinge on Jesus’ words in John’s gospel about being “born again.” They seem to just know exactly what God wants of them. I realize that is in part because of their more literal reading and interpretation of scripture. I don’t interpret scripture literally. But the difference goes deeper than that. My faith does not rest on being born again. My faith turns on Jesus’ words about “the least of these.” What you do to the least of these, you do to me. How do I care for the least of these? How have I missed opportunities to care? How have I failed them? When have I remained silent in the face of injustice when it comes to the least of these instead of speaking truth to power? Faith is not easy when you take seriously Jesus’ words about the least of these.
I am not good at proclaiming salvation, because to me faith is more about compassion now than salvation later. I am not good at preaching the hell I learned about as a kid, because I think we create our own hell on earth. I am not good at blaming God for the evils and ills we see all around us. I do not believe God allows evil to happen, we do. I am not good at telling people what they want to hear. I am not good at that. I know that not all successful pastors with large and growing churches just say what people want. It is beyond unfair of me to make that generalization. But they seem to know something I don’t. They seem to have some ability or knowledge or skill set that I lack.
I am good at a lot of things. But the things a church needs to be successful today, the qualities in a pastor that attract others, I don’t seem to have those. I am not looking for pity or reassurance. I just needed to say it. I needed to say that when it comes to successful ministry, I have failed. I fail. Yet like Sisyphus pushing that damn boulder up the hill, I’ll keep trying. Maybe tomorrow or next week or in 2019 I’ll finally feel like I have ministry all figured out. I’ll be successful, and I won’t be a failure anymore.