Earlier this week I was reading Eugene Peterson’s book Under the Unpredictable Plant. In it, he shares that someone once asked him his favorite part of being a pastor, and he answered, “The mess.” Yes, being a pastor is messy, which contributes to the creative side of allowing God to be God in situations that don’t always fall under the category, “Stuff I Learned in Seminary.”
As I thought about this same question, my quick answer was, “I get to love people on my own terms.”
I’ve worked with more than one pastor who felt the need to micro-mismanage his staff so they’d behave in ways that made him comfortable. Regardless of their gifts, talents, backgrounds and personalities, these pastors made sure their staff understood what was and was not acceptable in the ways they spoke to and related with people. I had a sense they were trying to make me into a mini version of themselves, and something in me always rebelled. They wanted to control my sense of humor, what passages of Scripture I could teach on, how I could speak to people and what stories about my life I could tell. In spite of my unique gifts, talents and skills, they seemed determined to make me in their image. Needless to say, I didn’t last under their leadership.
This manipulation went beyond the basic and necessary training a good leader engages in when communicating the vision, mission and culture of this particular local church. They seemed to think if the church members saw a staff person as more loving and forgiving, more personable and likeable, more capable of handling God’s Word and feeding the spiritual appetites of the congregants, there’d be competition on the team. Instead of working together as companions in the Kingdom, these pastors often viewed others with a wary eye, watching for any sign their staff might be better pastors than they were. I walked many a year in different churches not with the hopeful challenge of, “What would Jesus do?” but with the fearful question, “Would the pastor approve of this?”
Now I’m the pastor, and I get to love people on my own terms, not on the terms of a leader who is more afraid of his reputation than in promoting the Kingdom. When it comes to forgiving and restoring people, I don’t have to wait years for the senior pastor to put the divorced piano player back on the worship team. When it comes to humor, I can be myself without the senior pastor giving me the evil eye while his children get away with saying anything they want. When it comes to teaching the Word, I can preach any passage I want without the senior pastor telling me that some people will be offended at those verses.
I now enjoy the freedom to do my own imitation of Christ without having to worry about what someone else will think or approve of based on their fears and anxieties. Don’t misunderstand me: I am a good team player. I know the necessity of supporting leadership and being of one mind and purpose. But when that purpose is to make the pastor look good at the expense of the spiritual life of the staff, then something is truly amiss.
I think about these things every time I have a staff meeting. I’m always checking myself and wondering:
- Am I encouraging this person to be who God called them to be, or who I want them to be?
- Have I prayed about their gifts and where they fit best on the staff?
- If what they did makes me uncomfortable, am I uncomfortable personally, or because it was scripturally out of line?
- When it comes to correcting my staff, am I doing so in order to raise their level of leadership skills, team support and Christian maturity, or because I have a personal problem with their behavior?
I’ve come to learn that one of the greatest mentors in my life is my previous pain. It reminds me how much I hurt and how much I don’t want anyone under my authority to feel that pain. Ever. I want everyone who works with me to say with joy and enthusiasm, “Pastor Jim gives me permission to be myself in Christ Jesus.” For me, that is one of the greatest compliments I can receive, and it is one of my favorite ways to love people.