by Brian Gerard, Senior Minister, First Christian Church of Louisville
My first full-time call as a local church pastor was almost my last.
Within one week of my arrival I was called a racially charged epithet during a meeting. Certain that I had said something to provoke the event, the elders of the church asked that I apologize to the one who said it. To be sure I handled the conversation appropriately, the chair of the elders accompanied me.
I knew then it was going to be a bumpy ride. I thought about resigning, but we had just moved halfway across the country and had bills to pay. Sometimes necessity dictates order, so I buckled up and prepared myself for what may come.
The biggest part of that preparation was to live into what I had been taught by teachers, mentors, and colleagues about clergy spirituality and self-care. I did everything one is supposed to do including daily prayer and devotion, exercise, peer groups, spiritual direction, social relationships, and even regular worship at other churches.
All of these things helped, but they were not enough. They were not enough to handle the letters slipped under my door, the visits to my office intended to offer helpful advice, the continuing accusations about my motives in ministry, and the constant calls for evaluation and correction. These things were such regular occurrences that one member of the congregation would call me whenever he caught wind of something brewing.
Don’t get me wrong, there were some great people in that church. Some of the best people I have ever met. I also know that there were times I did not help the situation. I am sure that my lack of experience combined with a fresh out of seminary confidence spiced with a dash of my own issues added to the struggle.
In spite of the challenges, we were able to do some really good things in ministry including numerical growth, property expansion, and the development of a more inclusive church environment. There were some really good days in ministry and for those I am grateful.
However, for every step forward there was a price to pay. My health suffered. My marriage suffered. Most discouraging, my faith suffered because I thought I was doing everything a pastor was supposed to do to remain strong in faith and service but it was not enough.
After four and a half years of trying I knew it was time to go. I also felt that if this was ministry, I wanted no part of it. After much thought, my wife and I decided we’d give it one more try at one more church.
I am so glad we did. Twelve years later I am still happily serving that congregation and it feels like we are just getting started. My self-care practices haven’t changed much. If anything they are more sporadic. Yet, I am as spiritually healthy and charged for ministry as I have ever been.
In that reality, I have learned something about ministry. No matter how spiritually healthy a pastor may be, he or she cannot survive in a spiritually unhealthy system. I’ve also learned that even when there are wonderful people present who see what is happening and are willing to work toward healing it is a task easier said than done.
I am all about the church continuing to focus on clergy self-care and spirituality and am glad to see LTS emphasizing its importance. Pastors cannot lead others in faith if we are not feeding our own faith and well being. That said, it is time for the church as a whole to become a stronger voice in encouraging and in some cases demanding that congregations/church related institutions take a look at their own spiritual health and practices. This is not the clergy’s sole responsibility.
I assure you, even most well cared for pastor’s soul cannot bear that burden.