Five things they should have told me before I was ordained. No, Six.

I may not be the sharpest pin in the box, or maybe I was sitting behind the door when the instructions were handed out but, in any case, I seemed to have missed a thing or two in divinity school.  My professors taught me to read ancient languages, decipher complicated texts, actively listen, and use Robert’s Frickin’ Rules of Order, but nobody ever mentioned the following:

1. You will be an interloper on holy ground.  Whether it is the moment you hand someone the Eucharistic host, or whether you are the silent third party witnessing a tearful couple finding new life in their relationship after years of pain, or whether you are hearing someone confess for the first time to a crime they committed long ago, these and a hundred other situations will regularly place you on someone else’s holy ground.  Like Moses before the burning bush, it is best to tread as lightly as you can.

2. The bully wins.  Not always, but almost.  You know the one in your church with the super-sized ego?  The one who believes the church would fall apart without them, and everyone else wishes they would give it a try?  (Tip: they were probably somewhere in the picture when you interviewed for the job, but you didn’t realize it then.)  They are variously known as gate-keepers, king-makers and by other – less friendly – terms.  Well, if you decide to be a hero and rescue your people from the tyrant’s oppression, don’t be surprised if, when the crucial moment comes, you’re the only one marching to the fight.  The reason is simple: everyone knows that if you try and fail and end up leaving, they still have the bully to deal with; he or she is still their next-door neighbour and a member of the church council.  You, on the other hand, are dispensable.  Instead of the hero you will merely be the latest in a long line of scapegoats: the sins of the community will be heaped on your back and you’ll be sent packing.  A useful ministry too, but maybe not the one you envisaged.

3. You will have countless opportunities to abuse your position.  Sadly, this has been proven many times over in church history.  Cases of clergy abuse are often in the media these days and have been the focus of heightened efforts of prevention by church leadership.  But the fact remains: your position is one founded on trust and if there are weaknesses in your character or flaws in your integrity, these will have ample room to manifest themselves.  You don’t mind having a little bit of extra lunch money in your pocket from time to time?  Presto: people will push envelopes of cash into your hand, in complete confidence that you will see it to its destination, and with remarkably little interest in verifying that you did.  You have slightly too much interest in the blooming bodies of adolescent youth?  No worries; they trust you, their parents trust you and you will find ways to indulge your interest.  I could go on , but you get the point.  Please, if you know deep down that you can’t be trusted, go find another career where you’ll do less damage.

4. Every object has hidden significance.  Your job is all about opaque signs and symbols, so you should be used to this concept.   You aren’t; not by half.  In churches the meaning behind the thing always works out exponentially.  When you walk into your church facility for the first time it might be helpful to imagine that you are a character in a video game walking into a room full of treasures.  Every single item in the room that you touch, no matter how insignificant, will cost you points, but the value seems to be assigned arbitrarily.  Those old hymnals at the back that have not been used in at least a decade?  A thousand points; very costly.  The set of quality biblical commentaries someone left in the church library?  Oh, we don’t care, do with those what you will.  The 1950’s era, badly framed snapshot of the children’s choir hanging in completely the wrong place?  Don’t even think about it.  That little photo carries more weight than the bearing wall on which it hangs; remove it, and the whole place will collapse….

5.  The best two days will be your first one and your last one.  On your first day you will still be living in the fanciful world of the parish profile and your new congregation will still earnestly believe that you are the sum of your CV.  On your last day you will all know the truth, and the truth will set you free, and the people whose lives you’ve touched but never said a word will finally come forward and have their say, and there will be tears and there will be laughter, and pain and satisfaction, and bitterness and thanksgiving, and it will all be right.

6.  There are, actually, some Christian people in the church.  Not everyone, not by a long shot.  And by Christian I don’t mean the baptized, though I suppose they win on a technicality.  And I don’t mean those people with impeccable manners who always behave in such a civilized way.  Nor even those with an active faith who give you books “you should read” and pat your hand knowingly and tell you they are praying for you.  And heavens no, I don’t mean the ones who listen to those awful Christian radio stations and are always going on about how the church should be doing more evangelism and becoming more contemporary.  I mean the handful who have taken Jesus at his word.  Who make the time to care for the materially and emotionally poor.  Who give of their means, generously and quietly.  Who are glacier-like slow to judge the intentions of others.  Who somehow find it in their hearts to love even their detractors.  Who serve without pretense or false humility.  Who come to the aid of the marginalized.  These are the people who get it, and who, in so many ways, will enrich your life immeasurably.

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19 thoughts on “Five things they should have told me before I was ordained. No, Six.

  1. Could add: the pattern of death and resurrection is real, although at times obscured. Next: you will put up and take down more tables, chairs, and even tents than you can either ask or imagine. Finally: the most useful course not actually offered in seminary would include how to use any version of coffee maker and how to clear paper jams out of any photocopying machine (and change toner cartridges) . Re bullies…the genuinely unhealthy ones need dealing w for church to be safe…so, back to my first point about death and resurrection.

  2. Thank you; I agree. And Holy Week seems a good time to reflect on that death and resurrection theme.

  3. NOW YOU TELL ME!? The bully/bullies are so real and we are so expendable as clergy in the so-called family parish. Everyone is a member of the family but ME. I left because I really was open to the poor, the invisible, the black/gay/Hispanic and the bullies didn’t like it. Every imagined evil that could have been left open to question was credited to me after the fact- and not one of them true. I’m still looking for the Christians, seems that the baptism of many of my last parish didn’t ‘take!’ I was/am deeply wounded and still without a parish to serve, but this may be God’s way of sparring me from more bullies…

  4. I experienced a similar situation and it took a good long while away from the Church before I could think of coming back. As with any trauma, it takes time to heal. How to earn a living in the meantime? – that’s the rub. When I did start interviewing again I was wiser for it, knowing better what to look for and what to ask. I’m not against hard work and sacrifice, but I know my own limits better now.

  5. Yes, I am another bullied one. But I do also have some good folk who recognise my ministry. But that particular comment struck the nerve for me. Can recommend a little booklet, “When SheppAttack” by Dennis Maynard. It was recommended for me and every page at least confirmed we are not alone and the church needs to give better support to her bullied clergy.

  6. Thanks for that, Sandra. I’ll add another helpful title, written more like parable than anything else: “A Tale of Three Kings” by Gene Edwards.

  7. Sorry about typo. The book is “When Sheep Attack.”. Really worth reading. Have ordered a tale of three kings. Sounds very interesting from google info. Thanks.

  8. I wish you had been honest enough to add the following three words at the beginning of #5 – “Far too often.” Not all tenures in churches are constantly difficult nor filled with wrong assumptions nor based on fanciful parish profiles or CVs that you can’t live up to. Some tenures actually work and result in wonderful ministry shared by both congregants and pastors. Yes, there are far too many that are more difficult than we ever imagined, but don’t ignore the successful ones.

  9. Thanks, James; I agree. I wrote this in one go, in the middle of the night, and have since thought of – but not incorporated – a number of edits. It is certainly not reflective of ALL my experience.

  10. If you’d have gone to the School of Theology in Sewanee, TN, you’d have been taught these important issues……I promise! I know it because I taught them

  11. Glad to hear that, Susanna! As I said, maybe I was sitting behind the door…. In any case, I don’t fault those responsible for my training.

  12. Love the description of “real” Christians. And yes, Christian radio is mostly an irritant. I don’t know why…it just is.

  13. The comments about real Christians is sadly true.

    The main reason that the bullies often win is the quite, fearful church members who think they are being meek and mild like Jesus when in reality they are codependent enablers of these, antagonist, clergy killers, and church bullies.

  14. Very nicely written. When I realized I had more of this to learn, I did my D. Min on systems change to learn how to approach congregational change. Great things to learn if you can wade through Everett Rogers “Diffusion of Innovations” along with the Church Conflicts (Peter, Paul & the Jerusalem Council) in the Book of Acts.

  15. Howie, this is a great post! I appreciate your honest about ministry. Somehow, I too missed these important instructions in seminary. Ha. I tried to be a hero in the last congregation I served and the bullies made my life miserable. I agree with nearly everything you wrote, but I feel like I can’t accept number 4. Yes, I know people are always attached to the church building, but it still feels absurd to me we have to accept this as a reality of church work. How are pastors to accomplish anything if we can’t update the music or replace the pews or redesign the curtains without risking our jobs. As a mainline Protestant, it seems like a big part of our demise in the past fifty years has been our inability to create change. Just a thought.

  16. I hear you, and agree too. There are a number of tweaks/ clarifications I’ve thought of since writing this, but I thought I should leave it as is to be true to the mood in which I wrote it: in the middle of the night, in about 30 minutes of writing. My soul was gushing, and this came out. It is by far the most popular thing I’ve ever written, so I’ll just leave it be – it’s obviously hitting home with a lot of people.

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