“Anytime,” I said.
It was an answer to the question, “When can I call you?”
It was the wrong answer.
The sentiment was true; I wanted to help them when they needed help. But I could not, would not, should not, be available “anytime.” Unfortunately I didn’t learn this soon enough in my time as a pastor, and it, over the years, took its toll.
There are certain things that I think every new pastor should know. Here I’ve highlighted five of them. There are probably 5,000, but here I’ve highlighted five to start the ball rolling.
Get a separate cell phone for work.
The cell phone era has made the job of the pastor more difficult, I think.
I didn’t always think that. The ease of picking up the cell phone, storing numbers, even texting…it made it much easier to get in touch with one another at all hours of the day, no matter where you are.
Which is a problem.
Texts late at night that were unimportant. Calls on Saturday mornings for non-emergencies while you’re at the ball field with family, calls that would in past generations end up on a landline answering machine, but instead buzz in your pocket. Social media messaging that, in some minds, has replaced a phone call, but are easy to forget.
It’s too much.
Were I to do it over again, I would get a separate cell phone for work…and just leave it at home when I was supposed to be off.
If that is not possible, use the technology to your benefit. Silence non-family rings and texts on your days off. Ask work-related social media messages to be left as voicemails on the office line.
Make the lines distinct. Be accessible, but not always available.
Also, and this is important to know: you are not a therapist.
I’ve sometimes made myself too available for counseling over extended periods of time. In these cases I’ve almost always regretted it because those kinds of boundaries are hard to sever.
My limit became three. If, after three visits, the situation was not getting any better, I’d refer them on. Usually I’d refer after the first meeting, actually. People in need will always need you, and honestly, they’ll often need more of you than you can realistically spare.
Be good about your boundaries. I wasn’t always, and it takes its toll.
You do get time off, pastor. Take it.
Let people love you.
This can be a tough one for some pastors, but it’s important.
People want to give you gifts of love, and you should let them (provided they’re no political strings attached…cause that happens). But the generosity of your people should be celebrated, not stifled. There are limits, of course, but in general people want to show you their love and you should not only allow it, but welcome it.
Welcome it because it’s part of the bonding experience that needs to happen in this kind of a relationship.
I remember when, just hours after having our son and closing on a new house (it happened the same weekend…terrible timing), folks in the church offered to come and wipe out the cabinets of the new house that had sat dormant for a while.
I said no…it was OK. That was a mistake.
My wife, in her wisdom, overruled, and a cadre of folks came over to take care of us and it was an important piece of our shared journey together. It was important because they wanted to honor and celebrate with us, and I’m grateful for that.
Let your people love you.
Make friends outside the congregation.
I’m one of those pastors who encourages you not to have your friend needs met within the congregation. It creates a power dynamic that is just unsustainable in all but a few exceptional cases.
In those cases where I have made a friend in the congregation, I usually have, “the talk” with them that is not unlike a talk you might have with someone you want to date. It’s an important moment where you kind of redefine everything so there’s understanding. It’s not easy, and can be dangerous, even. If a pastor has a slip of the tongue in the wrong company it can not only jeopardize relationships, but might trespass on confidentiality.
This is why I think that, except for maybe one or two rare exceptions, pastors need to have their friends outside the congregation.
But here’s the thing: you have to make them.
Pastors are at the distinct disadvantage of having their work space, philanthropy space, and their “human-interactive” space all land in the same circle: the church. This means they have to be intentional about cultivating relationships in new circles, perhaps even very different circles altogether.
A running club. A local bottle shop. A sports league. Some of my colleagues have even become gamers, finding their community within the world of Dungeons & Dragons.
However you find it, make sure you find it. Loneliness in the parish, whether you have a family or are single, is a clergy killer. I know this too well.
You don’t have to be social media friends with your parishioners.
Gone are the days when most pastors had two social media profiles: professional and private. It was a lot of work and felt duplicitous. I got rid of my “professional” one with great joy.
However, I made the mistake of allowing every parishioner to be my social media friend.
Not every parishioner will get your sense of humor, Beloved. Trust me, I know.
Not every parishioner will appreciate your political opinions. Trust me, I know.
Not every parishioner will take your hobby as a “fun side project,” but will complain to others that you are “working on other jobs when you’re supposed to be their employee.” Oh yes. It happens. It happened. A few times.
Also, it should be noted that in this hyper-partisan climate, most pastors are generally more liberal than their congregations. It’s just true. And in a world where “live and let-live” is not really the way of things anymore, it might just be smart to not have the potential for an online argument.
Your internet activism may be threatening to some. Trust me, I know.
If your social media presence is meant to be “you,” and not “Pr. You,” then you are absolutely wise in not being every parishioner’s social media friend. Sometimes blocking people from seeing your feed is actually the most loving thing you can do for them and for yourself. For some you will always be your professional role and, like when the third-grade you saw your teacher at Target for the first time, will have trouble seeing you any other way.
Or, and perhaps this is even better, do what author and engineer Cal Newport does and stay off social media altogether. Author Ann Patchett has the same philosophy. It’s worth contemplating…I have thought about it.
Embrace both disappointment and overwhelming forgiveness.
I was disappointing as a pastor.
I’m not saying I was bad at it. I actually think I was pretty good in the parish.
But I was a disappointment in the role, sometimes.
And sometimes, honestly, the work was disappointing. I wanted to change lives, but sometimes it seemed I was expected not to change anything. I wanted to fight for justice, but sometimes it felt like I was usually just matching hymns and texts together and trying to find ways to say hard truths while offending the fewest number of people.
That can be disappointing. You adjust to it, because usually the disappointing parts are outweighed heavily by the beautiful moments.
But when you are personally the one doing the disappointing, well, that’s the worst feeling.
Sometimes it was because people wanted me to be something I couldn’t or wouldn’t be. Sometimes it was because I actually failed in the role, forgot promises, or made mistakes small and large.
It doesn’t really matter what the reason, a pastor has to quickly learn to embrace the fact that they will sometimes fail at the job, and that will feel devastating.
Likewise, sometimes you will succeed at the job, but it won’t be what others wanted or expected, and that, too, will feel devastating.
And sometimes your people will disappoint you, too. They’ll be more fearful of change than you want them to be. You’ll see sides of them that you’d rather not see. Petty sides. Racist sides. Sexist sides. It’s part of the work, Beloved.
And it can be disappointing.
Embrace it. Embrace the disappointment because if you don’t hug it close it will hurt anew every time.
Oh, it will still sting, but if you go in with managed expectations of both yourself and them, you’ll usually be delightfully surprised more than disappointed.
Because you’ll also find that sometimes you succeeded where you were sure you’d fail. And sometimes your people will absolutely knock you off your feet with their wisdom, their tolerance, their ability to change.
Surprises, both good and bad, abound in the parish. Embrace the disappointment and welcome the good surprise.
And here’s the thing: when you do, legitimately, fail at the work, I’ve found more often than not that the people will be more gracious than you ever expected…and it will be overwhelmingly beautiful.
Accept their forgiveness.
And then, try to dole it out on them, too, as the occasion arises.
Being a parish pastor was the most amazing and most taxing work I’ve ever done. But it’s also unlike any other job I’ve ever seen. It is a beautiful tightrope that requires more balance than I ever fully acquired…if it’s possible to walk at all.
Be mindful of your time.
Be mindful of your friendships.
Invest in your people, but also invest in your hobbies.
And know that you’ll suck at it some days, and they’ll forgive you. And they’ll suck sometimes, and you’ll forgive them.
Go in with eyes and heart wide-open, pastor.