A Hard Time to Be a Pastor
It’s a hard time to be a pastor. Everybody says it. Newspapers run columns about it. Every survey reflects it. To be fair, this pandemic time with its heightened isolation and the accompanying vitriolic
political scene has been a hard time for everybody–students, parents, teachers, medical staff, and sure, yes…pastors too. Navigating zoom meetings, adding livestream, uncertainty about safety protocols, declines in attendance and finances, and dealing with congregations full of people taking extreme positions on everything from politics to theology…whew. The end of the quote from 15th century poet John Lydgate, made famous by Abraham Lincoln, has never been more applicable: “…but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” As I talk to pastors and leaders around the country, a bigger question seems to be whether they can ever please anybody. I’ve talked to pastors who won’t get into conversations (or sermons) about anything that might raise someone’s ire. They live in fear that people in their congregation might know what they really think about particular issues. And so they are left to walk a careful tightrope that mainly talks about “spiritual” things, and pretends that the lived-out-gospel wouldn’t have anything to say about racism, gun violence, abortion, sexuality or a pandemic.
In every church I have served, we lost people because I was thought to be too conservative. AND in every church I have served, we lost people because I was thought to be too liberal. Go figure. In a day when people walk away from churches at the slightest disagreement or perceived slight, what are we supposed to do? If the answer is related to pleasing people, we are probably done. For that matter, if the answer is related to avoiding subjects that could stir people up, we are probably done. There’s no winning. But then again, I don’t think I was called to win. I think I was called to try and help make disciples. At least that’s what the Great Commission sounds like–nurturing people towards a deepening and long-lasting faith in Jesus. Faith like that requires an understanding of the gospel story. It also requires a recognition of where other stories deviate from it.
As I have worked on a sermon series on the Kingdom of God, I’ve been helped in this regard by Scot McKnight and his 2011 book The King Jesus Gospel. McKnight came up with a list of what he calls false stories that people embrace, and which can obscure the gospel story. Here’s some of them:
- Individualism–the story that I am the center of the universe.
- Consumerism–the story that I am what I have or consume.
- Moral Relativism–the story that we can’t know what is good or true, universally.
- Scientific Naturalism–the story that all that matters is matter.
- New Ageism–the story that we are gods.
- Postmodern Tribalism–the story that all that matters is what my immediate group thinks.
- Salvation by Therapy–the story that I come to my full human potential only through inner exploration.
These are all competing stories to the gospel story. Naturally, I have to add one of my own. I’m calling it Religious Nationalism. This is the very dangerous story that my nation is God’s nation, and therefore what my nation does and values is what God does and values. The nation becomes my God. Or God becomes my nation. And so it follows from there that Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, recently told his followers that Russian soldiers invading and dying in Ukraine were nobly sacrificing themselves, and that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.”
Good Lord. The gospel story is that there is only one thing that washes away sins, the blood of Christ shed on the cross. The gospel story is that there is only one sacrifice that has such consequences, and it isn’t ours. We need to recognize, and help our communities recognize, when a story conflicts with the gospel story. This might not be popular. But then again, we weren’t called to popularity.
Is it a hard time to be a pastor or leader right now? Yes, it is. Truly. Everything seems to have changed. Everything, that is, except our calling: “Go and make disciples…”
Peace of Christ,
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as a member of The Fellowship Community Board.