Last month I promised to answer the other question that has made its way into the “Ask the Pastor” box: Why do you want to be a pastor? What a question! How long have you got? How much space am I allowed? The answer is both complex and at the same time very simple.
I first felt myself called to ordained ministry by the time I was 9 years old. Since I had never seen a woman in the pulpit, I didn’t really process that this was even an option for me, more of a (almost cruel) joke. I fantasized about being a pastor. By age 12 I had memorized the entire long Communion liturgy and would recite it under my breath with the pastor. That year I asked for a Methodist Hymnal for my birthday…not just for the music but especially for the liturgy. As a teenager, I wanted little more than I wanted to be at church and was there pretty much whenever the doors were open.
It sounds almost like a fantasy world. But even as a youngster I knew that the church was filled with flawed people. There was the third grade Sunday school teacher who told us that Jesus was sitting in an empty chair and would ‘get us’ if we misbehaved. Later I learned that she could use language that would make a sailor blush. And in high school, I was the new kid and many of the girls (both at school and church) were not overly nice to me. It didn’t matter. This was where I belonged…until I didn’t. When I left for college, I left the church as well complete with lots of anger. My journey back is a long and convoluted story for another time.
There is a joke that ‘church people’ think that a pastor’s life is easy, filled with reading the bible and praying all day to be interrupted by the occasional hospital or home visit. The only time a pastor really works is believed to be on Sunday. What good Christian wouldn’t want to spend all day every day reading the bible and praying? Perhaps surprising, a fair number of folks do seem to believe that’s pretty much all that I do! After spending a day with me during the week, a teenager once commented, “I thought you only worked on Sunday. Who knew that you do so many different things!” Don’t you just love how kids are so spontaneous and honest?
There was a time when I would have tried to answer “why do you want to be a pastor?” with examples of holy moments in worship and during pastoral care. There have been so many such moments…some joyful and some painful. I have baptized babies, teenagers and adults. One elderly gentleman confessed to me that, although he had been considered a church member for 50+ years, he had never been baptized. His baptism was scheduled, but his military unit shipped out early and he missed it. What a joyful day we had when he was baptized. On two occasions I have baptized babies moments after birth…one right before and the other right after they died. We can talk theology if you want, but loving care for parents that offered hope in the midst of hopelessness were holy moments. I’ve led Confirmation classes and Confirmed young people into the life of the church. These have all been joyful. I’ve married couples as they’ve professed their love for one another…most recently at the wedding of my best friend’s daughter. I’ve officiated at funerals and sat with the dying. I once curled up on the bed with a church member and her dying mother as we sang hymns. More than once, I’ve been the last person someone has seen. And more times than I can now count, I have stood with family as a loved one died. I’ve given the order numerous times for life support to be turned off so that a family member didn’t have to do it.
I have been honored and humbled to be present for the most joyful and most painful moments in peoples’ lives…both places where I’ve glimpsed the best and the worst in people. Most weddings and baptisms are joyful…but I’ve known my share of bridezillas and, let’s call them highly stressed, parents. I’ve sat with the dying where nothing but love filled the room. And I’ve managed intoxicated children as elderly parents died. I once broke up a fist fight between siblings literally over the top of their dying mother. I’ve been present when loving grandparents were told that their grandson had been murdered. And I’ve told a 10-year-old (whose father had died two months before) that his mother had lost her battle with cancer and would not be coming home because there was no one else to do it.
Anyone would want to be a part of the joyful, fun stuff. But why would anyone “want” the rough, painful stuff? The answer is: no one really does. To be a pastor is not a job that one chooses. Rather God chooses you. Some go easily; still others kicking and screaming; while others never go at all. I did a little kicking and screaming. My life was well set when God came calling again. I was finishing my training as a therapist and having great success. While still telling God, “no way,” I became the Clinical Director at a non-profit agency and things just got better. I was well on my way to being the Executive Director. My path was set. I was real clear with God: I was ready years ago and you didn’t make a way. My life is set now. Go away and leave me alone. God was equally clear with me: Now is the time. Not then. Now.
I started seminary to get God off my back. Really. I had no intentions of changing my life. After the Special General Conference, again God became very clear with me: Now. This is why now. So the answer to “why do you want to be a pastor?” is both complex and simple. Many people “want” the fun and joyful parts of being a pastor. As for the rest, if God has not called, let it go. The fun and joyful times won’t be enough to carry you through the pain and even heartbreak that is part of this life. But if you are called, there is no better life.