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The Next Faithful Step

Multiple Agendas and Competing Commitments

A Pastor's Reflection

One of the most difficult aspects of parish ministry, as I have experienced it, is the “generalist” nature of the work. A generalist is someone who is competent in several areas and activities. The particular difficulty of the generalist nature pastoral work is that those several areas and activities are often so disparate and fairly unrelated. For example, on any given day (and on many given days, actually) I would find myself functioning as biblical scholar, conflict mediator, catechism teacher, janitor, program developer, counselor, and professional friend. Added to this, my first call was to a small congregation of about one hundred members. This means that there were about one hundred implicit and unexpressed pastor’s job descriptions floating around. As a consequence, I found myself consistently juggling multiple and often competing agendas and commitments. I had to study. I was also committed to unity and reconciliation of church members. I was responsible for ensuring that various meetings completed the work that needed to be done on a regular basis. And I was also committed to that work being done in a consistent a predictable environment that reflected the love of God and neighbor. I so longed for and valued the theological and moral integrity of the church. And I was committed to working as a pastor and not a thug.

This all seems like quite enough. But the (perhaps ugly) truth is that all these agendas and commitments are only the more objective and public ones—those that we are fine to discuss and admit. There are, however, a host of other agendas and commitments that work their way into daily pastoral life as well. These are the ones that we are generally unwilling to admit and perhaps are too embarrassed to discuss, but which, nonetheless, often work a just as powerful influence on the daily life of pastoral ministry. For example…

I loved Tuesdays. Tuesday was my day at the library and everyone knew it. Preaching was particularly central to my ministry in my first call out of seminary. I was fortunate enough to serve a congregation that generally liked having a somewhat studious pastor and so carving out this regular time for study and sermon preparation at the start of the week was not difficult. So every Tuesday morning I would check in at the office, drive twenty miles or so to drop off my daughter at her godmother’s house for the day and then tuck myself away in a theological library five miles farther down the way. I would study. Everyone knew it. And people were glad I was there.

As I look back on those Tuesdays I can now clearly see two layers of agendas and commitments at play. First there are the objective agendas and commitments: those at are public, discussable, and generally known. The library was on my calendar. I was committed to being a pastor whose sermons reflected careful thought and preparation. This was all out in the open and known, agreed upon, and appreciated by the congregation at large.

Of course, it didn’t come without any strings attached. The generalist nature of the pastorate ensures that too much time cannot be spent on any one particular area of expected proficiency. That is to say that the congregation was wonderfully supportive of my weekly library disappearances… so long as being studious pastor did not eclipse my just as expected role as mediator, counselor, or professional friend. Being holed up in an out of town library and being intimately involved in the everydayness (celebrations, conflicts, tragedies, and whatever fills in the gaps between) of people’s very real lives are in natural competition. Being available, pastoral, and interested outside of the library ensured that neither studious pastor nor counselor and friend had to come out of the competition victorious over the other.

This all had to do with what I have been calling the objective agendas and commitments. But there were other agendas and commitments at play here as well—ones that I kept to myself, but which played just as significant a role in my ministry. As I said, I loved Tuesdays. I’m sure if you had asked any member of the congregation why I so loved Tuesdays, they would say it was because I loved to study. That’s true; I do love to study. But that was not the reason I loved Tuesdays. I secretly loved Tuesdays because I was socially stressed. I am an introvert and a people pleaser. And, to be honest, I was a bit unprepared for the degree of social exertion the pastorate would demand. Tuesday was my escape and it satisfied well both the introvert and the people pleaser in me: I was left alone and people were glad I was doing it.

I wish I could say that I somehow figured out the secret of perfectly dealing with the various and competing agendas and commitments—both public and secret—that the pastor inevitably deals with. Tuesdays were only one example of the many complications of this sort that I would continually deal with. The truth is, however, there is no secret; at least not one that I discovered. At least I was fairly aware of the many agendas commitments pressing in… I think. And there’s no hope of coming out on top if you don’t know what you’re fighting against.