Mark D. Roberts

Part 9 of series: Grace in the Rearview Mirror: A Pastoral Retrospective
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In my last post I explained why I often thought that I had the best job in the world as Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. In fact, I often told people that I felt this way about 75% of the time. About 23% of the time I felt that I had, well, a job. It wasn’t especially wonderful or awful. It was simply a job. If you’re good at math, you realize that I’ve left out 2% of my experience as a pastor. During that 2%, I felt as if I had one of the hardest jobs in the world.
Pastoring isn’t hard the way cleaning bathrooms is hard (a job I did while in college). It isn’t hard in the same way as digging trenches or discovering the properties of sub-atomic particles. And it isn’t hard in the way being a mother of toddlers is hard, or being a kindergarten teacher. And it surely isn’t hard in the mode of a soldier or a firefighter or a police officer.
So what makes pastoring hard? There are a variety of factors. One has to do with the complexity and significance of certain pastoral decisions. There were times I had to make judgments that felt way out of my league. In these times I got the best input I could get, I prayed like mad, and then decided. I’m sure other jobs require a similar kind of decision-making. Some, no doubt, involve even higher stakes. I never had to decide whether or not to go to war, or whether to send troops into a particularly dangerous area.
At times, pastoring is hard because the needs of people are heavy, and pastors are called to help carry them. So many times I’d listen to people’s struggles within their marriages, for example, and ache over what seemed like impossible obstacles to a healthy marriage. I’d end up a day feeling wiped out emotionally. I expect that others in helping professions, like doctors, counselors, and teachers, have similar experiences. (Photo: A picture of me preaching at our “post-contemporary” Veritas worship service.)
For me, and for many other pastors I know, one of the toughest parts of the job involves receiving criticism. I’m aware that most human beings don’t like this, but it can be especially hard for pastors for a couple of reasons. First, pastors tend to be tenderhearted people, folk who would be by nature and upbringing ill-prepared to handle harsh criticism. Second, much of pastoring is very personal. When I give a lecture in a seminary course, if someone doesn’t like the lecture, I don’t fret too much. But if somebody doesn’t like a sermon, I take this personally, because preaching is personal, intensely personal. When I preaching, I don’t just lay out interesting theological ideas. I bare my soul, often sharing my deepest convictions and sometimes even my personal failures. If somebody doesn’t like a sermon, chances are pretty good that somebody doesn’t like me, or at least a substantial part of me. And this hurts.
Let me be clear, in defense of the truly wonderful congregation at Irvine Presbyterian, that the vast majority of comments I received during my tenure were positive. Most of the time I felt greatly loved and appreciated. The actual ratio of praise to criticism was, for me, probably something like fifty to one. But because of my own sensitivity, combined with my insecurity, one word of criticism had the power to outweigh five hundred words of praise. This was my problem, to be sure, but it didn’t mix well with being a pastor. It was also true, by the way, that sometimes criticism I received was warranted, and ultimately helpful to me. But this didn’t mean I found criticism easy to hear.
Part of what makes receiving criticism in church so hard is the way some people do it. Now I should hasten to add at this point that the majority of people in my church who shared a critical word with me did so with due love and respect. But some didn’t. And a few got downright mean. Over time, I came to understand that the nasty folk were almost always overreacting because of some pain in their own past. If somebody chewed me out mercilessly, changes were good that person had a terrible relationship with a merciless father or mother or both. Nevertheless, it was hard to receive such harshness graciously. Some folks would tell me that I needed to get thicker skin. But I think thick skin is pretty much incompatible with Christ-like pastoring.
A fourth reason I found pastoring difficult had to do with personnel issues. As Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I was also “Head of Staff.” This meant I was, at least in some capacity, the boss. (In our strange Presbyterian system, however, my actual authority was quite limited.) Therefore, if a staff person in a significant ministry role wasn’t working out, I was significantly involved in the process of letting that person go, or, to be fully honest, making that person go. As a softhearted person, this was very hard for me. But it was complicated by the fact that I was doing this in a church, where, often, the staff person who needed to leave had many friends and supporters. So almost inevitably, when it was time for a staff person to leave, or way past time, the process was very painful and divisive within the church. Every time we let somebody go, we’d lose members as well.
So far I’ve said that pastoring is hard because of the difficulty of some decisions, and the heaviness of people’s burdens, and the painfulness of receiving criticism, and the implications of personnel decisions. But I haven’t mentioned the aspect of pastoral life that I found most challenging of all. I’ll save that for tomorrow’s post.

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