Fascinating people

One of the things that has attracted me to the ministry is a fascination with other people. My fascination, however, has not led to complete understanding. I’ve taken a few courses in psychology and I’ve studied human behavior, but we are creatures of infinite mystery and diversity and a lifetime is too short to develop full understanding. That keeps me engaged. People surprise me. I can’t always anticipate what they are going to do. I often don’t fully understand the reasons they behave in one way or another. I’m terrible at predicting what will happen.

I think that I may have thought, early in my career, that I would master the tasks of being a pastor and that when I reached a point later in my career, I would know how to do my work. There are certainly skills at which I have become more accomplished. I know more about leading funerals and assisting families with grief than was the case when I was first ordained. I have learned a lot about not taking things personally and not seeing myself as the center of the church. But I don’t think I’ve mastered anything. I enjoy leading worship and I’ve been told that I am skilled at the task, but there are weeks when I am disappointed in my own leadership. Sometimes the rhythm gets off and I can’t seem to regain a sense of balance all the way through a worship service. I have attended over 500 church council or board meetings and I am still surprised by how any particular meeting might go.

I am old enough to know that I won’t ever fully understand other people. That doesn’t make the pursuit of understanding any less meaningful, however. In some way, knowing that I still have much to learn keeps me engaged in the process.

I’m still learning the art of humility. This week has been another lesson. Here is a tip for every pastor I know: Tell yourself, “It is not about me.” Repeat that phrase over an over. Remind yourself of it again and again. Don’t forget it. And even when you know it isn’t about you, you will have days when you take everything personally. At least that’s the way it is with me.

It isn’t hard to grasp the idea that the future of the church isn’t about me. I do enough funerals to know that I will not live forever. In the future the church will have other leaders and those leaders will make different choices than I might. Leadership is never about controlling an organization in the first place. Sometimes, however, another faithful member of the church will say or do something that feels like a kick in the gut. When I was younger I reacted and that person or the meeting where the event occurred got treated to a burst of my anger. Like most people, I’m not at my best when I’m expressing my anger. I’ve learned to spare others the outbursts, but I haven’t learned to avoid the pain. If I back up, I can remind myself that it isn’t about me. The mission and ministry of the church of Jesus Christ has very little to do with making me feel good. If I’m occasionally uncomfortable, all I have to do is to read the Gospels and look at the discomfort that Jesus’ disciples endured. The season of Lent is a season of learning over and over again about the suffering of Jesus and the pain of loss experienced by the first generation of disciples. Being faithful isn’t about being comfortable.

When I look back over four decades of ministry, I do have a bit of pride over the fact that when there have been times of conflict, they haven’t been resolved by driving people out of the church. For the most part the people who have hurt me the deepest have remained in the church. Through prayer and the support of God and other faithful people, I have figured out ways to deal with others without discarding or discounting them. I have learned to get beyond the event or incident and go on with the work of the church. Sometimes it has required monumental effort. There are times when it would be easier to simply ask someone to leave or to make their circumstances so uncomfortable that they would choose to go. I’ve read plenty of management books that tell employers how to avoid firing an employee by making work conditions such that the employee will quit. I’ve observed other pastors who employ similar techniques with church members. I know that this isn’t “my” church and that I should never act to take it away from another person. It is sad when a church loses a member. It is a tragedy when a member loses a church.

Each day, then, becomes an opportunity to start over. Some days I need to pick up the pieces of my shattered ego and some days I need to start by crafting a heart-felt apology. Today isn’t that dramatic. I’m not suffering from a major wound. I’ve been hurt worse than the little things that have recently occurred. I just need to dust myself off, examine my attitude and maybe invite a church member to have coffee sometime in the next few days. We are blessed to have a church that is not enmeshed in conflict. Because I have good connections with my colleagues, I have watched others go through situations that are far worse than a little failure to communicate. In fact I have a meeting this morning with colleagues from other churches in this community and I know that one person will be leaving a pastoral position within a couple of months amidst significant pain and conflict. Another is struggling with a decision that needs to be made soon about a major shift in career. Another is seeking to move and hasn’t yet discerned God’s call for the next portion of a career. It is the nature of the ministry to be engaged in change and transition.

Meanwhile, my fascination with people continues. God of infinite wisdom and creativity has given us people of infinite variety. Loving those people means never being bored.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!