One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received also left me damaged and wounded, but only for a time. “You come off as needy,” he said. “And people can smell it.”
Sure, we all have needs and none of us is self-sufficient. But after the defensiveness wore off, I realized he was referring to a kind of neediness that unintentionally makes inappropriate demands of the very people we are called to serve.
In the many years since, I have tried, and it’s an uphill battle, I can tell you, to get this kind of neediness under control. To my mind, there are three manifestations of neediness in pastors, and they can truly ruin a ministry.
We all know that a parish should provide financially for their pastor or priest. Many clergy are abused by a church which expects everything from them, but leaders are unwilling to compensate in a manner that a) accounts for the pastor’s family situation or b) accounts for the pastor’s level of experience and ability. Many churches are in the mess they’re in, the status quo, because they refuse to properly provide a stipend to their pastor.
That’s not the focus of this discussion, however, so let’s leave all that in the back of our minds. What I’m talking about is the pastor who seems to always be a day late and a dollar behind, who can’t pay his bills, and can’t repair his car. He always seems to be in emergency mode. We’ve all been there, and it can be painful. We make great sacrifices, but we seem to be suffering under a financial weight that makes ministry suffer. We get resentful over every church expenditure that seems unnecessary. We see that the parish seems to have savings and a very bright financial picture, but we are “sinking in deep mire,” as it were. What is a pastor to do?
First, never stop tithing. When a pastor tithes, it shows leadership, and it may be very, very difficult, and it may seem at times that your are throwing your money away. But, never stop tithing. The people who manage the finances will see it, and they will doubt your commitment.
Second, live on a budget, and let leadership know, appropriately of course, about your personal financial goals. If you aim to get out of debt, let the leadership know that. If you are aiming to send your kids to college, let the leadership know it. But, never make it their responsibility, and tell them it isn’t. Living on a budget is always connected to precisely those kinds of goals, and it is your responsibility to make it happen – and no one else’s. For as the Lord says “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.”
Third, get savings together as quickly as possible. Honestly, I sleep better at night with cash in my safe and in my bank account. I am able to serve the people I serve with confidence and a sense of security. I am also not worried about losing my position. Start by socking away a couple thousand dollars, and move up to 3-6 months of stipend.
When I was about to go to seminary, I spent the summer shadowing a very skilled and wise priest, who later became my boss. He took me on hospital calls one day, and after what seemed to me to be a rather abrupt visit, we boarded the elevator to head back to the church office. “Did you notice what happened there?,” he said. “No.” I replied. “As soon as the conversation turned to me – how I’m doing, how my family is, I took that as a sign to leave.” He went on to explain that we go to hospitals to pray for people, to lay our hands on them for healing, to bring them the Eucharist, not to fulfill any need we might have.
This has stuck with me through the years, and I have applied this in my own ministry, and it is a struggle. I have to admit that very deep emotional needs that I have are met in ministry. I feel like I’m fulfilling a high sense of calling, making a difference. But, none of that matters. A mature priest serves the Church without asking, like Ray Cansella in Field of Dreams: “what about me?” He takes time for sabbath, vacation, and retreat, but does so for the benefit of the people he serves. He slows down when he’s working too hard, but he does so for the good of the Church.
Candidly, very often a priest is tempted to get emotional care from the church when he should be getting it from his wife or a close group of friends. So get a night out with your wife. Or go have a beer with some friends, but don’t expect the people of a parish to be your emotional support network. When this happens, it is a sign that the relationship is soon to be dissolved.
This is perhaps the worst need – the need to succeed. I was raised to be ambitious. Many of us were. In fact, what often makes for a successful pastor is a healthy dose of ambition. We work hard to make our congregations thrive. That’s not the problem.
Very often, clergy suffer from a desire for advancement. Onward and upward, to the better parish and the better job, and the bigger budget. But, this attitude and appetite for more can be terribly destructive. People sense that they are being used as a stepping stone. If the parish has been established a while, they have been through it before. To see someone as a means to an end is a failure to love them. Furthermore, ambitions to always be first have to be kept in check, for “whoever would be first would be last.”
But, the more destructive kind of ambition is not the ambition to “move up.” It’s the ambition and need to “be successful.” To crave success is to spurn the Cross. To crave growth in numbers, to brag about Sunday attendance, even to crave fruit in the lives of our people, all of these reject the Cross and the Lord who poured himself out upon it. Are we content to merely make disciples and rejoice in the harvest, to worship, to pray, and to serve? Because here’s the thing: if you can’t ambition in check, when you lack success in ministry, you’ll quit. But if, on the other hand, you delight in the Lord’s work, and even in failure and weakness, even in the midst of declining numbers and people who are suffering, you and the congregation you serve will thrive.
Photo by Artotem at https://www.flickr.com/photos/artotemsco/3713942772/
The Rev. Lee Nelson, S.S.C. is a priest, church-planter, and catechist. He is currently planting churches in Waco and College Station, Texas with the aim of making disciples on college campuses through the planting of Anglican churches. For the last several years, he has served on the Catechesis Task Force of the Anglican Church in North America which produced To Be a Christian, an Anglican Catechism. As a part of this work, he is currently developing a catechetical consulting practice, aimed at coaching and training clergy and laypeople for the work of catechesis.