Come down from the ladder

When it comes to education I’ve really had to work hard over the years. One of the messages I heard loud and clear in the church was that in order to earn the respect of others you need to be theologically trained. I was kind of a late bloomer when it came to my education. It took me like ten years to complete my undergraduate and I didn’t actually go to seminary until I was in my early thirties. School has always been a little hard for me, but by the grace of God and a whole lot of support from friends and family along the way I’ve done okay. If I were to unpack this a little more I imagine a ladder. For some reason the ladder image for me is something that I’ve felt like I had to climb in order to receive whatever it was I needed to show the world I was indeed called by God to serve the church. When in all actuality, one of things I’ve learned over the last ten years of pastoral ministry, is that you can see those you serve a whole lot better if you come down from the ladder.

Back when I was wet behind the ears and I thought that my book shelf needed every commentary ever written, I thought that what others wanted in a pastor was what I had learned in seminary. At least that’s the message I picked up and most likely misunderstood when I was younger. I thought knowledge was what won people over for some reason. I knew a whole lot of smart people and I always felt that I had to at least keep up in order to fit in. I must confess that somewhere along the way I’ve felt the need to prove to others that I am worthy of the call I have as a pastor. I even fell into the trap in making sure that the pieces of paper nicely framed on my wall were the first things people noticed every time someone entered my office. There was even a time that I thought my heavy duty pastor robe , my super pastor cape was something that I had to wear to prove that I had been given the authority and responsibility by the larger church to be a minister and that the robe gave me some kind of holy super powers and that for some reason my preaching was better if I wore the robe. Not!

There is a sweet older woman in my church that always asks where my robe is and why I don’t wear it. I would sometimes feel bad for not wearing it. There was one particular moment when I realized the robe brought her back to a particular time in her life when church was the thing to do and where people looked up to the clergy person standing up in the great pulpit in the sky with the heavy duty robe that said they were theologically and pastorally equipped to wear the robe. She reminded me often that I earned the right to wear the robe and that I worked hard for it. In my previous church we usually wore our robes during what many churches call the “traditional” worship service.

In my last post I shared that this coming May will be ten years since I’ve graduated seminary. I thought something that might be cool or at least therapeutic for me was to process what I’ve learned over ten years of pastoral ministry and maybe those things I would have done differently. So, here are the first couple of things that stand out for me. There are probably a million other things, but ten seemed like a good number to start with.

1. “Lose the robe and hide the degrees.” Degrees and robes are important but what folks really care about is a pastor who is willing to serve at ground level and who cares about people first. I’ve often noticed and have actually felt uncomfortable when folks walk into my office and the first thing they notice are the pieces of paper on my wall and the books collecting dust on my bookshelf. The pastor of tomorrow will have their entire theological library in the “cloud” and the pastors office will be at a different location everyday (sorta is already), spending time with people, depending on who has free wifi, free coffee refills, and some tasty treats, so the pastor won’t the have to respond to the, “you’ve read all of those books and wow you must be smart” comments. My favorite snide remark I get when I do where my robe is, “What’s that for?”

2. I’ve learned to stop, listen, and ask questions, and listen some more. If I could go back and rewind time, I’d listen better and ask a whole lot more questions and learn not to talk as much. As a young minister the tendency is to jump right in and show the world that you’re capable and that you’ve been given the rubber stamp from above to be the cats meow when it comes to pastoral ministry. When in reality the best thing a new pastor should do is listen first, ask questions, and listen some more. I must say I feel like this is an area that seasoned ministers as well as the recent seminary graduate can improve on daily. It’s something I’m still learning to do everyday. If anything the call of the pastor is to show the church what real community looks like and sounds like and that part of learning what it means to be the church is that we need people to listen well if we’re going to be the church in the world. If anything in my effort to listen well, I’ve tried to at least remember names of the people I meet. I’m not the best at it, but I’ve found that the key to building relationships with people is the pastors ability to recall to memory a persons name. It goes a long way in earning the right to be heard. Part of listening well means not always trying to fix things either and being okay that there might not always be an answer as quick as we’d like one.

More to come.

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