I’ve been back home in southern Alberta for the last week or so and am thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to reconnect with friends and relatives. Many of these people spent time in paid church ministry over the last decade or so. Some continue to work in the church, while the majority have moved on to other things. Given that so many people in my circle of family and friends have some experience in paid ministry, it seems like every conversation, at some point, invariably touches on the church.
What I find striking is how few people—whether flesh and blood human beings across the coffee table from me over the last week, or people whose stories I have come across over the years in other contexts—have positive things to say about their time spent in church leadership. Not many seem to miss it, whether it’s the politics, the expectations, the pay, or whatever else. Most look back on their experience in paid ministry with some fondness for this or that aspect of the work, but the general impression I get is that they are happy to see that particular phase of their lives in the rearview mirror.
One conversation in particular stood out this past week. A good friend of mine—someone who has given well over a decade of his life to the church—remarked that one of the things he misses the least about paid ministry in the church is the persistent, nagging sensation that you are (or are perceived to be) a salesman of sorts. You are in the “God business,” after all, and it is your job to make sure that the “customers” who walk through your doors each week are satisfied with the “product” they are receiving. Few pastors would be willing to state matters this bluntly, but I suppose having some distance from the church affords my friend the luxury of brutal honesty. According to him, feeling like you are a “religious salesman” can be an exhausting and frustrating space to inhabit. To quote my friend, “it’s hard to be a salesman when you’re well aware of what the warranty does and does not cover.”
I’m still relatively new at this whole pastor thing (I’ve just completed my second year), but I certainly resonate with some of my friends’ concerns and frustrations about church and church work. I have noticed some of the things he speaks about in the explicit and/or implicit expectations of pastors that exist out there. People come to church with a whole host of expectations and it can be very tempting to just tell people what they want to hear. There is very often pain involved when someone’s views of God, understanding of faith, and conceptions of church are challenged. We’re talking about some of people’s most cherished beliefs about the things that matter most to them, after all. Speaking with honesty, integrity, and transparency about matters of faith can be hard work. At times, it is far easier to just push troublesome questions to the side—to leave the warranty unexamined and undisturbed in the bottom drawer—and get on with the “business” of church.
I left the conversation feeling a combination of disillusionment and cautious optimism. I am disillusioned because it is frustrating to see so many good people leaving full time paid ministry with feelings of ambivalence or apathy towards the church (or worse). The church is supposed to be a foretaste of the kingdom of God, yet it far too often resembles just one more of the innumerable kingdom of men—an institution focused on self-preservation, market-share, power politics, entertainment, and distraction. It’s not hard to see how people who entered the church with joy and vitality and high expectations would get worn out when they discovered that, rather than participating with Christ in the redemption and renewal of creation, or suffering with him in the broken and hurting places of the world, they were expected to be providers of programs to keep kids out of trouble or to provide mostly upper middle-class folks with a weekly bit of inspiration and therapy.
And yet… I retain a bit of cautious optimism. For all of the church’s failings, for all of the ways in which it misses the mark and misses the point and wears down good people, for all of the hypocrisies and failings that people inside and outside of the church are only too eager to point out, it is the body of Christ. It is what God has pinned his hopes too, in a sense—it is how he has chosen to get things done in his world. And good things are done in and through the church, even if they don’t grab many headlines. People continue to encounter the risen Christ through his church. And if, as Jesus cryptically declared to Peter, the gates of hell itself will not prevail against the church (Mat. 16:18), I am hopeful that the misguided and bumbling efforts of fallen human beings can inflict only limited damage. Who knows, a little bit of good might even be done through these same efforts along the way.
A few years ago, in a graduate school seminar on the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we discussed Bonhoeffer’s view that the church was a “developmental reality.” For Bonhoeffer, the church, as it was intended to be, already existed as a divine reality but it was also, paradoxically, always in the process of becoming. This makes sense to me both theologically and as an observable on-the-ground reality. The church will always be in need of change. It will always need to have its priorities and understandings challenged and corrected. It will always make mistakes and people will, tragically, always be hurt and/or turned off by the church. The church will always be populated by hypocrites and sinners like you and I who don’t always understand or act as we should. But these same hypocrites and sinners and misguided misusers of good people are also, paradoxically, the saints through whom God’s kingdom advances.
The grace of God is bigger and wider and stronger than the (in)efficiency of the church, after all. It has to be.