09 August 2013

After Ten Years

Bishop Rolf Wangberg, me, Prof. Dennis Everson at my ordination
Salem Lutheran Church, Wakefield, NE.
Today is the tenth anniversary of my ordination.  I'm amazed to think it's been that long already, and at the same time I give thanks because after ten years ministry still feels like the thing I've always been meant to do.  Here are ten things I've learned in ten years as a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:

1.  Get a thick skin
Most of us who pursue ordination do so because people we love and respect have encouraged us to do so.  This is often followed by applause from one's congregation, friends and family.  Most candidacy committees try to be supportive even as they carry out the arduous task of helping candidates discern their calls to ministry.  Seminary can be anxious, but the church usually celebrates its leaders, particularly as they draw close to graduation.

Then you're called, ordained, installed and working as a pastor.  And suddenly no one is applauding your every move.

Graduation speaker at Luther Seminary
Ten years later, I'm still honored my classmates chose me.
It's a tough adjustment to make, particularly if you're called to a congregation as a solo pastor, which most of us are.  You've gone from being the celebrated child of a congregation to the person who must stand in the pulpit every Sunday and sit at the bedside when death draws near.  You have become the target for the church.  Every decision you make is going to please some and annoy others.  Hymns, sermons, how many visits (and to whom), worship attendance, stewardship, your hair, your weight, your family, your car:  all of these things are going to be out and up for interpretation.  Welcome to the fishbowl.  Most folks will be kind, but not all of them.  Be ready.

2.  Connect with your colleagues
Say it with me now:  "I will attend our monthly conference/cluster meeting, no matter how boring/frustrating it is and how busy I may be."  Know how you want to chide your congregants for not being regulars in church?  Guess what:  your colleagues will want to do the same thing when you don't show up for conference gatherings.  Ditto your annual Synod Theological Retreat and other collegial events.

And it's not just about you being there to make people think you're invested in the larger church.  Your colleagues will have wisdom to impart to you along the way.  Some of it will be excellent.  Some of that excellent wisdom will come by means of negative example (as in, "Oh, no way in hell am I going to do what Pastor X did!).  Mostly, though, you need to be in the room with people who know what it's like to be in your shoes.  We ministry professionals need to hear each other's stories, to laugh at our foibles, to celebrate in our triumphs and blessings, to weep in our struggles, to wish grace and godspeed when friends move on to new beginnings.

No one else is going to have the foggiest idea what your life is like.  Why would you ignore the very people who can walk this exciting, vulnerable, exhausting path with you?

3.  Choose your friends carefully and slowly
At first I wanted to say, "They aren't your friends."  But that isn't entirely true.  We have friends from our ten years in ministry.  Lots of them, in many places around the country.  But figuring out who those friends are takes time and testing.  Often the folks who seem friendliest at the outset are the ones who are just looking for ways to sink their claws into you and start getting you to do things their way.  Sometimes the folks who seem aloof are doing the same thing you are:  weighing and judging whether or not they can trust you.  It's quite a dance.

You're going to get burned by people you thought were your friends.  They will turn on you, and it will not be pretty.  You'll find out they were talking about you behind your back the whole time.  It will hurt.  You'll be tempted to lash out, but if you're strong enough, you'll take it with grace and forbearance, even as you want to scream and kick things.  It will make you wonder why in the hell you thought serving God's people was a good idea.

Good friends will tell you the truth AND stand by you as you do your work.  They will hold you accountable with grace and kindness.  They will let you into their lives and pour blessing upon blessing on you.  In time, you may say goodbye to them, and if you do it as their pastor, you will weep.  It's okay.  You've chosen well.  If you leave before they do, you can stay in touch, quietly, always respecting those who occupy the office after you.  After all, you wouldn't want to deprive your successor of some good friends, would you?

4.  Find a good tax preparer
Easter 2013

Unless you're a tax accountant, doing your own taxes is a major pain in the ass.  We've been with ours for six years or so and it's been money well spent three times over.  Ask your colleagues.  You know, when you're at the conference meeting.

5.  Follow your instincts and shorten your memory
That nagging feeling in the back of your mind?  Listen to it.  You went to seminary to develop it.  Granted, you've been buried under visits and sermon prep and Confirmation and updating the constitution (provided you can even find it) and however much coffee you ingested to make it though the Jr. High Lock-in, but that crap detector your seminary professors worked so hard to fine-tune is still there.  If it doesn't sound right, it probably isn't.  And it might be your job to start digging until you figure out what it is that's going on under the surface.

Now, when you ignore that nagging feeling and the thing going on under the surface blows up in your face, forget about it.  Apologize if you need to apologize, do what you can to make things right, learn what you must about that thing, AND MOVE ON.  Other people will try to keep the memory alive for you:  don't let them.  Ministry is not about avoiding mistakes - ministry is about inviting people into the adventure of a life following Jesus.  You remember Jesus, right?  The guy whose friends abandoned him at his hour of deepest suffering?  Yeah:  he put those same friends in charge of his church.  If he could forgive and forget, you should, too.

6.  Find your happy place
Have something completely unconnected from ministry that makes you happy, and do it/go to it often.  Preferably something that involves projects you begin and then finish.  Take up knitting.  Read books you like for fun.  Go to movies.  Make a list of places you'd like to see and go see them.  I have a friend who's working his way through the high points of the 48 contiguous states.  Personally, I run and play golf and putter around the house and do a little woodworking and play trombone in the municipal band in the summer.  It can't be about the church and it should be about following a passion God has given you for YOU.  Tell your people about it so they know that when you're in your happy place, you'll come back refreshed and invigorated for ministry with them.  They'll love you for it - and they might help you get to your happy place if it's obvious you need some time away.

7.  Trust God, then the church - in that order
God is going to have a use for you wherever you go.  The church, maybe not so much.  The church is a flawed, fragile institution that moves slowly.  It is captive to its own policies and procedures and cannot free itself.  It is a bureaucracy staffed by incredibly gifted people doing a lot of good work, but sometimes those incredibly gifted people will make mistakes or might not be able to discern how to help you live out your calling.  Some bishops say they aren't pastors to the pastors, and then they go and prove just how true that is.  I think it's a bad move to make, but I'm not in their shoes.  Even the bishops who do see themselves as pastors can overlook things, and every pastor has that awful responsibility to just be truthful even if it hurts - even (and especially) bishops.  Remember:  the church is always striving to serve God to the best of its ability, but that same church is comprised of thousands of eyes which see every situation differently.  Trust God that things will come right in the end.  The church will break your heart:  God will help you put it back together again.

8.  Negotiate your time, not your salary
Co-officiant at my cousin Lisa's wedding.

This one might be a bit controversial.  In our system, each pastor is their own negotiating agent for  salary and benefits.  With the economy as wild as it has been in the recent past, with student debt skyrocketing (current average for an ELCA seminary grad is $42,000) and many rural congregations in decline, compensation is going to be an ongoing nightmare for many of us.

I watched my internship supervisor fight to be paid at Synod guidelines during my year under his tutelage.  I made a promise to myself then and there that I would not have that fight.  I've only broken that promise once, and I regretted it as soon as I did.  The simple truth of the matter is this:  I graduated from seminary with $60,000 in student loans.  In our synod, the highest current guidelines salary is $49,000 for those with 25 years of ministry experience.  I didn't follow this calling to be rich.  But it's entirely right and proper to expect appropriate compensation for your work.

Many of us are going to have to be bi-vocational in years ahead.  My advice is to accept no less than guidelines pay, then negotiate how much time the congregation can afford.  "Can't afford me at full-time?  How about 3/4 time?  1/2 time?  I can give you what you can afford."  This way a pastor can be free to find other work to pay the bills and the congregation still has a pastor.  Unfortunately, this isn't going to work for me:  my BA is in Classics and there's not a lot of jobs out there for people with that sort of highly specialized education.  But if you've got an accounting degree, or you're an English teacher, or something else that can be put to work, get ready - you might have to use it.  Negotiate that call to what the congregation can afford, and then make sure you're not doing full-time work for half-time pay.  That way lies madness.

9.  Get off your ass
This one is really important.  Let's face it, people: we clergy have a serious health problem.  Our job involves a lot of sitting, sometimes punctuated by eating.  There's only one way to prevent this taking its toll on all of us:  get off your ass, pastor!

Go for a walk.  Jog.  Get to the gym and hire a personal trainer if you can afford it.  Take up golf or buy a bicycle.  Walk to the nursing home instead of driving.  Walk to the market in your town instead of driving to the megamart two towns over.  Splurge once in a while, but if McDonald's is one of your four major food groups, you're not doing anyone any favors.  For God's sake, for the church's sake, and for your sake, take care of yourself.

10.  Live well, laugh often, love much.
Me & the Missus doing American Gothic
at Vacation Bible School a few weeks ago.
What I've learned most in ten years is how much I really, truly love being a pastor in this church.  On the one hand, I've learned this through some very painful experiences:  if they weren't enough to drive me away, I must genuinely love this work to which God has called me.  On the other hand, I have been blessed to be pastor to a host of amazing, incredible, faithful people who have given me so much more than they've ever realized.  The privilege of being the one who proclaims gospel to a community of faith is mind-blowing.  Weddings, baptisms, funerals.  Living rooms, hospital rooms, quilting rooms.  Schools, cafes, libraries, coffeeshops, bars, garages, golf courses, gazebos.  I've been a pastor in all of these places and more, with people I've come to love and people who never even gave me their names.

To those who've suffered through my first ten years of ministry with me: thank you.  Through you, God has shaped and formed me into something more than I was when I first put on collar and stole.  I'm incredibly grateful and very excited to consider what the next ten years may bring.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Scott


  1. YES! Thank you, Scott...I've only been ordained 7 3/4 years, and I appreciate and agree with your wisdom!!! All of it!!!!

  2. What an amazing reflection - thanks Scott!
    And blessings as you move forward in the years ahead!

  3. very good! I'm going on 19 years now, and wonder what I'll reflect on when I get to 20.

  4. Nice stuff man. Thanks for sharing.