Hi! Welcome to Greatheart’s Table.
If you have not joined us before, I encourage you to read (or listen) to the first post which explains what Greatheart’s Table is all about. I hope this to be an encouragement to pastors, and to those who care for them, and to any others who might take a seat at the table.
Pastoral ministry, I suggested in our last post, can be panic inducing. In this one, I’d like to suggest a remedy, a vaccine if you will, against despair and panic, something to help us do ministry without a mask and with greater freedom and safety.
So pull up a chair at the table and let’s consider the importance of pastoral friendship in this post entitled “A Quiet Place.”
I was tall when I entered seventh grade, but had no substance: no fat, no stamina, no strength. Nevertheless, since all my friends joined the football team, as scrawny as I was, I did, too.
Of course, when a coach sees a nearly six foot tall seventh grader he immediately thinks, “Receiver!” When that kid shows himself to be uncoordinated and fragile, the coach thinks, instead, “Bench!”
I was a good bench player. I cheered and encouraged and yelled and felt a sense of purpose and place even though I never entered a game.
It was the very last game, when we must have been winning, or losing, by around 186 points, that the coach finally put me in and told the quarterback to throw the ball to me.
He threw it and I caught it and suddenly everything was new. Now eleven other players had one objective, to “kill the person with the ball” and I was that person. I ran, but not far, and ended my football career as I started: on the bench.
What interests me here is that the transition from the relative safety of the bench to the absolute center of things is jarring. But that is the transition which every pastor must at some point make. Not all pastors experience ministry as a game of “kill the person with the ball,” but we all still need a bench, a place of safety, to return to. The church may have once been such a safe place for us, but it is no longer.
Safe places are places of shalom. They are communities where we can be honest about who we are and know that we are still loved. We need a place where we can be fully known and completely accepted, in spite of our weaknesses and faults. For all my early life the church was such a safe place for me.1
But when we catch the ball, our relationship with the church is profoundly altered.2 A community in which we once could be completely open with our weaknesses and struggles now expects us to have life all figured out. Where acceptance was previously unrelated to our skills and performance, we now dare not drop the ball. When we move from congregant to pastor, the church that once felt safe feels so no longer.
Experiences differ, of course. The church I currently pastor feels very safe. But no church is completely safe, and transitioning to pastor creates a growing need for such a safe place at the very time that its accessibility diminishes. The danger this creates for us I’ll explore next time.3 For now, I simply want to contend for pastors finding a community of committed friends outside the church who can become for us what the church can no longer be.
Writing from a different set of needs, author Harrison Scott Key talks about why this can be so important. He tells of his friend Mark, a man with whom he would have frequent conversation as he was trying to get started as a writer. They were in different worlds and different cities, but Mark was a rare friend who could be honest and supportive at the same time. It was a refreshment for Key to just be able to talk with Mark about common interests. “I called him often in those days,” Key says.
We talked of art and books, and it was a balm of Gilead to talk with this old friend.
Key summarizes the impact of this friendship.
After these phone calls, I felt happier, a load lifted. I hadn't known I was sad before the call, but this sensation of lightness afterwards made me wonder.4
You know, as pastors we may not really know the stress we are carrying without a friend who can listen to our fears and frustrations. When we have that, we too may realize a sensation of lightness that we had not known we needed.
A friend outside the church can receive my unguarded comments and hear my unfiltered thoughts and temptations without my fearing that my job is endangered. A friend can come to know all my rough and unshiny parts and yet keep me on that path the church needs me to be on. I know such friendships are rare and hard to find, but pastors need them.
I am still in ministry because of such friends.
When you catch this ball called ministry, it may feel that every face is one dialed in to knock you off your feet. That is not completely true, of course, but it can feel that way. The bench you need has not disappeared. It has just moved. Find it. You need a safe place more than you ever have before.
I once said this in front of pastor and author Steve Brown who has dealt with many wounded by the church and he looked at me with incredulity. I know the church is not a safe place for many. But I do believe we long for it to be so, and I also believe that this is why we become pastors.
When I began ministry, a recommended book was Survival Tactics in the Parish published in 1977 by Lyle Schaller. Recently, 2016, my friend Michael Osborne published Surviving Ministry (Wipf and Stock). The theme in these titles is revealing.
It’s the peril of forced “quiet” that has led me to title this post and the next one after the movie A Quiet Place and its sequel. The reasons will be made clear in the next post.
Harrison Scott Key, Congratulations, Who Are You Again? (United States: Harper Perennial, 2018), p. 125.