WHEN YOUR PASTOR FAILS YOU
There are certain people in our lives for whom we have, or should have, high expectations. Parents, teachers, close friends, siblings…you know who these people are in your life. For me, from the earliest of my days, pastors who have been part of my life have been very influential – and I consider it a holy and sacred honor to play this role in the lives of others.
Yet there are times when those of whom we have the highest of expectations will, in our minds, fail us – intentionally or unintentionally – to the point of causing us great distress and sorrow. There are times where a pastor of a church I attended, in my eyes, failed me. It could have been a promise I felt was broken, or saying something about a friend or loved one that I did not want to hear, or something said in a sermon that wounded me deeply. When I entered pastoral ministry, I made a vow that I would NEVER be one who failed the people like I had been failed by some of my pastors.
Those who know me well know that I am a bit of a perfectionist in many ways. I have incredibly high standards for myself, personally and professionally. The idea of failing at a task, much less failing someone entrusted to my care in my role as a pastor, is something about which I can, and have on many occasions, lost sleep. More than one group in more than one church has heard me say there is no bigger critic of the pastor’s sermon or any other part of his job than me. (Yes, I know that a healthy bit of self-reflection is necessary, but sometimes it gets out of control – just ask Erin.) However, it is when I start to have unrealistic high expectations of myself or others to the point that I can find myself knocked for a loop because of some way I have been hurt by their words or actions that I would be wise to remember one of my favorite passages from Eugene Peterson’s Pastor: A Memoir –
…[T]here is far more to this Christian life than getting it right. There is living it right. Learning the truth of God, the gospel, the scriptures involves understanding words, concepts, history. But living it means working through a world of deception, of doubt and suffering, a world of rejections and betrayal and idolatry. (emphasis mine)*
Like it or not, we live in a world where there are all those things that I emphasized in the above quote. As much as we must aspire to a higher standard as the forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and renewed people of grace and peace from God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we would be wise to remember that part of living out the higher calling of being a disciple of Christ involves people of forgiveness and forgiving. There have been times where I would say to someone in my family, “I just can’t go back to that church as long as [they] are the pastor.”
Even today, as a pastor in The United Methodist Church, I find myself at times frustrated, hurt, and failed by those who have pastoral responsibility for me and my family. There are times when I know intellectually that whatever slight I have perceived being perpetrated upon myself or others I love probably were not intended at all – but that does not mean my emotions are not real.
Even today, as a pastor in The United Methodist Church, I find myself at times frustrating, hurting, and failing those for whom I have pastoral responsibility and their families. There are times I know intellectually that the action I took that wound up causing these painful emotions was most definitely not intended at all – but that does not mean the emotions that resulted from my action are not real.
What to do when your pastor fails you?
The image that keeps coming to mind for me is from Good Friday, when our Lord’s cry is, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus, in the midst of the most famous capital punishment in the history of the world, with every right to feel angry, hurt, and betrayed, chose to respond with a plea of forgiveness. Illustrated elsewhere in the scriptures is the idea that if we have something against another in the church, we are called to first go to that person and see if it cannot be worked out between the two parties.
Why do I bring those two examples from scripture into this discussion? Well, when your pastor fails you, the first two steps I believe are the most helpful are:
BE CHARITABLE – I can promise you from personal experience as the pastor and the one failed by the pastor that what we get so wound up about can be understood in terms of a complete lack of intent to harm, and learning to forgive because the hurt we receive is not intentional at all.
TALK TO THEM – I can promise you from personal experience as the pastor and the one failed by the pastor that when you take the time to talk to them first can resolve most situations and lead to a time of renewal and healing. When things are the worst is usually when rather than being in conversation with the one who has failed me I instead tell everyone else that nothing gets done that might actually be about reflecting the love of God in Christ, which is who we are called to be as forgiven and reconciled people of God.
Why does any of this matter? Lord knows this is not easy. We cannot ignore, though, that Christ taught us to pray for God to forgive our sins, “…[a]s we forgive those who sin against us.” May we indeed be people who forgive, because we are forgiven. Part of our task, as Peterson so eloquently stated above, is that there is far more to this Christian life than getting it right…there is LIVING IT RIGHT. May we indeed be people who forgive, for we are people who were taught to, and do, pray for God to forgive us as we forgive others.
Grace and Peace, Lamar
* – Peterson, Eugene H. (2011-02-22). The Pastor: A Memoir (p. 230). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.