The Next Faithful Step
A Pastor's Reflection
We normally think of humility as something needed by those who excel. After all, the person who fails is in no danger of excessive pride in their accomplishments. But the truth is that in parish ministry humility is needed just in this all-encompassing sense: both in success and failure. For me, this is something I learned in hindsight—at least when it comes to humility in the face of failure.
But it is nice to start with success. So at the risk of sounding less than humble, I will say that among my biggest successes is parish ministry has been in preaching. I had no idea when felt the call to ministry and began seminary that preaching was going to become as important to me and my identity as a pastor as it quickly did. I remember writing my first sermon for my preaching class in seminary and being struck with how the whole process just felt right, like it was something in me waiting to come out. That is not to say that I never preached any bad sermons. Preaching every Sunday week in and week out will cure you of that fairly quickly. But it is the case that my preaching was successful.
Being a successful preacher is particularly dangerous. Preaching is a very public event and so it is very different from, say, being a good pastoral counselor. Pastoral counseling is generally done one person at a time and is much less likely to be seen as a sort of show by those on the receiving end. There is also no expectation of evaluative comments after a pastoral counseling event. But this is all different with preaching. The very public nature of the preaching event and the speaker/audience form it takes easily lends itself to be experienced, interpreted, and evaluated as a performance. And the usual after-worship set up in which the pastor stands at the door of the church to receive the congregants perfectly sets the stage for evaluative comments on the show. After all, unless someone has something pressing to tell the pastor on the way out, what better small talk in the small amount of time one has on the way out of the church door than a comment on the sermon? Being a successful preacher, then, ensures that one continually receives a regular string of compliments and is seen as a type of star of a show.
It is not hard at all to see where humility is needed here. Fortunately, I don’t believe I struggled in parish ministry with my head getting too big (although these things are hard to monitor yourself). But success in preaching did lead me down a road where I found myself continually struggling with always wondering what people were thinking about me. And so whether it is big headedness or neediness, successes can and do call for a healthy does of humility.
But it is not only success that calls for humility. Failure is also a potential danger, and a sneaky one at that. It may not be obvious that humility could act as a sort of remedy for failures, but that is just why I found it (in hindsight, at least) to be so important in these instances as well.
William and Janet just loved me when I started at the church. They would consistently rave to me about my preaching, teaching, just about anything. I remember William saying on several occasions that he believed God had sent me to the church, in part, particularly for him and his spiritual growth. Something came to light, however, that I needed, as the pastor of the church, to speak with them about. As a pastor you often have to choose your battles. But this was one I believed I had no choice but to confront—my own integrity as a pastor and commitment to my ordination vows left me little choice.
It was amazing how quickly things changed. The same William who used to go on and on about how much he was learning from my preaching and teach now was particularly less enthusiastic. One evening he followed me into the church office and said, “You know, the way you move when you preach and the way you speak… I just can’t understand you. It is all very distracting and I just can’t get a hold at all of what you are trying to say.” Clearly things were different now and it was not at all mysterious as to what prompted the change. I had had a conversation with them that they didn’t like and now I was on the outs with them. Eventually, they told other members that they needed a break for a while and stopped coming.
To be honest, I was relieved. I was pretty frustrated with how things had turned and dumbfounded at what I perceived to be the painfully obvious passive aggressive retaliation directed at me. And so I didn’t do anything about it. I had told them when I had the difficult conversation with them that no matter what I loved them and wanted to be their pastor, and now I told myself that I had done what I could. And I left it at that. I allowed them to slip away and let myself believe that I was justified in leaving them be because of their “immaturity and unhealthy handling of things”.
This really was defensiveness on my part. Everybody liked me and now somebody didn’t. I work hard to be liked and being disliked hurt. And so I masked this hurt with a form of righteous indignation. Of course the church is better off with fewer unhealthy people in it to hamper its life and mission, it was not my job as pastor to play hide and seek with members who lashed out and ran when things didn’t go their way, and didn’t Jesus say something about “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is how they treated the false prophets”? Clearly I was in the right and light and truth were on my side. Again, this all was my internal defense against the discomfort of being disliked.
In hindsight I understand my own inner retaliation in this situation to be a failure. Although I still believe my initial difficult conversation with William and Janice was the right thing to do, my subsequent defensiveness missed the mark. It is here that I believe humility to be an antidote to failure. I should have been humble enough to admit to myself the real source of my frustration, my fear of being disliked. Of course, that fear is much less noble than prophetically standing on the side of the right at all cost. But what really is the sense in overinflating yourself to avoid having to deal with something unhealthy in you? I wonder what would have happened if I would have given the same attention to humility in my failures as I did in my successes.