Your Pastor is Fried Right Now

The grass withers, and the flowers fade,
But the Word of God stands forever.

Isaiah 40:8

My lawn died this year.

This has been an exceptionally dry year in the corner of Northwest Iowa where I live. As if 2020 hadn’t enough problems already, sparse summer rainfall and a parched autumn have plunged my part of the world into extreme drought.

This spelled doom for my front yard. But it probably didn’t need to.

For a long time, I left the sprinklers off in lieu of the law of averages: Yes, June was dry, but the showers will arrive in July… Sure, July has been a scorcher, but August will definitely bring the showers… Okay, things are starting to get a little bit crispy out there, but it’s probably just going dormant. It will all come back in September when it starts to rain cats and dogs!

A live look at my front yard.
It’s dead, Jim.

I self-talked my way through three months of neglect – Tim, you know how this will go. As soon as you get out the hoses, turn on the sprinklers, and pay that huge water bill, there will be two straight weeks of rain!

There is a small chance that my Dutch stubbornness admirable frugality factored in.

And then October came, and I realized that it was too late. My grass was toast. It hadn’t just “gone dormant” – it was dead as a doornail. 

Anybody know where I can rent an overseeder?

If you’ve spent a while in church, odds are that you’ve heard Isaiah 40:8 recited after the scripture lesson is read: The grass withers, and the flower of the field fades away, but the word of our God stands forever.

These are appropriate words following the reading of the Bible: Everything is transient; God’s Word remains. Makes sense.

But it wasn’t until more recently that I came to catch the deeper – and, frankly, more pointed – meaning of Isaiah 40:8.

Properly understood, Isaiah’s words are self-referential. For context’s sake, here are verses 6-8:

A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”

I think we’re supposed to understand the passage like this…

Isaiah Ben-Amoz

God: Isaiah, send the people a message.

Isaiah: Okay. What’s the message?

God: Everyone is going to have to trust in me, because people are fragile and limited.

Isaiah: Present company excluded though, right?

God: All people, Isaiah. Even you.

See? Isaiah is the grass here. This is a passage about leaders. And it’s about how even the best of them have limits. They wither. They get burned out.

For my own part, I am been blessed by an incredibly patient and supportive congregation. In the midst of a very difficult season of ministry, my church has taken special measures to hearten and care for our leadership staff. I’m privileged to serve in such an encouraging environment.

But many of my colleagues haven’t had this joy. 2020 has burned through them like an August sun on unrolled sod. The pandemic and its downstream effects have left them feeling maligned, inadequate, detached, and overworked. They’ve been scorched by unrealistic expectations and surprising levels of hostility.

It’s worth noting that none of these ministry partners asked me to write this piece. In fact, many of them feel a solemn responsibility to keep quiet and bear the discouragement alone. (They are, after all, supposed to be the providers of ministry, not the recipients.) But just because pastoral frustrations aren’t vocalized doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

A few years ago, a colleague of mine asked our room of church leaders, “What is one thing that you have always wanted to tell your church board but you’ve never dared to say?”

Many of the ministers at the table answered in the same way: “I’ve wanted to tell them how often I think about quitting.”

2021 may be the year when pastors will come out and say it. William Vanderbloemen, guru of congregational transitions, predicts that 2021 will bring with it more church leadership turnover than ever before. Unless we care better for our leaders, search teams in churches across North America are going to be hunting for overseeders.

So what’s going on? Aren’t people in every field, every walk of life, going through tough times? What makes ministry uniquely challenging right now?

The answer: VUCA has come to the church.

VUCA is an acronym developed by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus to describe the increasing turbulence of global society. The world is ever more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.

I’ve shared with a number of people that 2020 has been Peak VUCA in the ministry world.

Stability is gone. Rules are always changing. Expectations vacillate. And many of the experiences that make ministry delightful – moments together in homes and hospital rooms – are impossible due to COVID.

Most of us haven’t come prepared for this. We didn’t go to school for epidemiology. We weren’t trained to appreciate the legal nuances between a gubernatorial proclamation and a municipal mandate. Our budgeting skills didn’t anticipate crises like we’re in. And no, we probably don’t have the capacity to take your cell call in order to talk you through the installation of your webcam drivers seven minutes after the Zoom meeting has begun. (Also, Bob – Bob! You’re still muted, Bob!)

In an especially acute way, the “A” of VUCA – Ambiguity – has surfaced as a challenge. Even when facts are settled, members of our congregations can look at the same data and come to completely different conclusions. It’s a bit like this image:

Ironically enough, all of this ambiguity has been coupled with intensity. Despite all of the uncertainties, more people are more sure than ever before that they’re exactly right. Their passions are high and their margins are small. Their positions are inflexible and – to their perspective – of existential importance.

As a result, bluntness and acrimony have replaced gentleness and respect in our board rooms and text exchanges. My colleagues have been told all of these and more:

Pastor, you don’t care about science!

Pastor, you are putting fear over faith!

Pastor, the media has gotten to you!

Pastor, you aren’t sensitive enough!

Pastor, you need thicker skin!

Pastor, you forgot about the senior citizens!

Pastor, you are neglecting the needs of the nursery staff!

Pastor, you are focusing too much on COVID!

Pastor, you are focusing too little on COVID!

Can you see how that might make for a tough go?

There’s so much heartbreak out there. And there will be no easy reversion to the mean.

I’m asking in humility, and on behalf of my friends: Please seek out ways to love and encourage your pastor right now.

God’s word through Isaiah is so important: We can’t do it all. We don’t have all the answers. (Most days we’re just trying to get to the right questions!) We can admit this; we need you to accept it.

Listen to what God is saying through Isaiah. Please don’t saddle your church leader with expectations she cannot meet. Don’t accord her with authority she hasn’t sought. She’s doing the best that she can, but she’s grass.

I well remember a sentence my seminary pastoral care instructor suggested for moments like this. When cornered by a member of our congregation, we were encouraged to ask: “Am I, your pastor, so powerful that I can unmake your relationship with God?”

The answer, of course is no. We aren’t that powerful. We’re all just fading flowers.

Your pastor is giving it all that he can, but like those he serves, he could use a fresh extension of grace at the close of an emotionally dehydrating year.

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