When I was called to the pastorate I felt I was prepared for a number of tasks and roles a pastor was expected to fill. I can teach, I have a reasonable ability to keep a meeting on task, and I enjoy helping people find new avenues to use their gifts. I adore worship. I’m good at dreaming, and helping others dream as well.
What I was not prepared for was the deep sense of loss pastors inevitably feel. I’ve been at Central Baptist for fifteen years, and in that time I’ve watched the congregation transition over and over and over. I’ve buried much of the older generation that was here when I started, and I continued to miss those who have departed into the mystery of death. I’ve watched children grow up, and have children 1, and migrate to other towns or churches as they hit maturity. I’ve seen people become part of our church for a time, and become good friends, only to see them move on in life as their employment situation changes. I’ve watched faithful stalwarts become shut-ins, and seen people depart the church because I wasn’t the pastor they were looking for. As I think of the relationships I’ve lost 2 over the course of my fifteen years here, it sometimes becomes overwhelming.
I confess this past Sunday was one of those days where it got to me. I looked out at a group of people whom I love, and just missed faces I used to see. Some have moved, some have died, some have walked away from the faith – and I missed all of them. It was a profound moment of grief, mixed with the joy of knowing I’d been part of all these journeys – and I tried my best to represent Christ in them. It was a mysterious tumult I felt in my soul, and very powerful.
Pastors tend to be lonely people, and most of the things I’ve read about this phenomena point to their lack of friendships as a root cause of this loneliness. This lack of friendships is often true, but I don’t think it’s the actual root. The root of that loneliness is that sense of loss I experience. Pastors are people, and when people experience loss the way pastors tend to experience loss, it can make them gun-shy about establishing new relationships. The nagging question, unasked but ever-present, hangs in the air whenever a pastor makes a new relational connection, “How long until you leave too?”
And it’s not just pastors, though I write from that perspective. That sense of loss I feel actually finds its origins in the psyche of the congregation. Think about it, I’ve been here fifteen years and can feel a sense of loss so deep it hurts. Now imagine being part of one church for thirty or forty years – how great must that sense of loss be for folks who have seen entire generations vanish from the community? And pastors wonder why long-time members often have difficulty getting to know newcomers!
It is from this sense of loss, however, that I find an unexpected aspect of my pastoral calling. Because as a pastor, gun-shy though I may be, I still need to be willing to create new relationships in Christ. It doesn’t matter that I fear doing so will only deepen my risk of even more loss, connecting with Jesus’ disciples is my calling. And this is something congregations need to see – they need to see their pastors saying, “I may be feeling my loss deeply, and am scared that I’ll only feel it more if I reach out. But even in grief life goes on, and life happens only in relationships. So I’ll model that for us, and I hope you’ll open yourselves up to this risk as well – for through it we find life.”