Once upon a time, I had a “nightmare boss.” Tough as nails, so they say. Smoked like a freight train. Prided herself in being brasher and brassier than any of the men. We called her all sorts of nasty, demeaning names that shall not be repeated on the pages of a Christian blog.
One day, I got the shortest straw on delivering a package to her house. I remember feeling an ocean of dread as I rang the doorbell to her house while awkwardly looking down at my shoes. A wave of uneasy nausea was brimming in the top of my stomach. Awkwardly, it was the middle of the afternoon and she was still in her robe and pajamas. It’s always weird seeing someone you work with in pajamas. Much to my surprise, I didn’t receive a brusque command to get off her front porch (which I was half expecting). Instead, I received a warm welcome and invitation to come into the house. The first thing that hit me was an absolute wall of cigarette smoke. The second thing that hit me was how sweet she was being. She invited me to sit down as she laid her frail body down on her couch in exhaustion. Inexplicably, she began to share stories and pictures about grandkids. All the while, she coughed a nasty, raspy cough that seemed to rattle in her chest. As she removed a tissue from mouth, I could see blood clotting on the surface.
All at once, it clicked in my mind.
She was dying.
So we talked about her cancer. The doctor’s had given her slim chances of living that long. We ruminated on the love of Christ. We talked about the eventuality of death. She told me that the whole “tough gal” attitude was just an act so as to make it in business. I felt like I made a new friend that day.
No more than a month later, I sat squarely in the back of a Methodist church for her funeral. I have a couple weird memories of that funeral. I remember that I’d never had a suit dry cleaned before, so I accidentally wound up wearing the infamous (and ever-present) dry cleaner tags attached to my suit to the funeral. I remember the music was horrible. I also couldn’t stop thinking about our previous meeting. Her fierce public persona was so out of kilter with the meek private one. In public, so strong … In private, so weak. Above all, I remember thinking that I didn’t want to spend my life hiding my true face. I vowed to never to fake being strong.
Until God called me into ministry.
When I was first called into the pastorate, I fell into the all-too-familiar trap of unrealistic pastoral expectations: A breed of Seminary training that unabashedly measures pastoral success (or failure) by church attendance and evangelistic numbers … A pastor search committee that wanted the new “young” pastor to bring in younger people … A congregation that expected me to solve multiple ongoing conflicts and single-handedly revive the church without changing anything. And I took all of these worldly manufactured hopes, dreams and expectations and placed them squarely on my shoulders. Surely I could handle it, right?!?
Our modern church culture tends to lay every church success or failure in the lap of the pastor instead of the feet of Christ. If pastors aren’t careful (and I haven’t been), we can buy into this very man-centered false view of how churches succeed. Article after blog after church growth salesman/charlatan deem that the pastor’s leadership brings in butts and dollar bills. The church rises and falls on the pastor’s leadership. And the end result often winds up being a frazzled form of overcommitment, saying “yes” to anything and everything at all hours of the day (and evening) to push forward the success of the church. Or trying to please everyone with a huge axe to grind. Or constantly choosing church leadership time over family time. Or pretending to have everything cleanly and pristinely together when in private you’re dying inside. Or singing the wrong R.E.M. song: “Shiny Happy People” vs. “Everybody Hurts.” Or clutching every heartbreak inside instead of finding a friendly ear to bend. The end result is mind-numbing stress, endless pressure, crippling malaise and a relentless desire to run off to a sandy beach in Miami with Jimmy Buffett. It’s just like the well-trodden pastor joke: Most pastors quit their jobs every Monday.
Over the course of the past year, God has been teaching me that this false pastoral strength is absurd. In this journey of heart change that God has been doing in me, I had what the doctors called “the world’s smallest heart attack.” While I was laid up in hospitals and home, a not-so-surprising thing happened: The church went humming right along for a few weeks without me there whatsoever. I believe that God was sending me another needed reminder of my own personal weakness and who was really in charge of His church.
In the midst of the heart attack saga, I recently had a ministry mentor ask me: “Is letting other people know about your ministry struggles a sign of strength or weakness?”
I paused uneasily struggling for the “correct” answer: “Strength?!?”
Baffled at my answer, my mentor flatly and plainly shot back: “No. It’s a sign of weakness. So do you think that there’s anything wrong with a pastor being weak?”
My answer: “I don’t know.”
We then focused on Paul’s lamentation and praise of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” And that’s a radically different approach to the pulpit. Whenever hardship, persecution, suffering and angry deacons come to my doorstep, consider delighting in that weakness. Whenever the trials of broken microphones and blown-out projectors come my way, boast that Christ chosen me worthy of weakness. In these moments where we feel like we need to be peeled off the floor with a spatula, the power of Christ can properly ebb though us. When we lay down our pride, egos and church growth books, we allow Christ to have His way in His church.
So let me change my answer for the entire world to hear: I am a tremendously weak person.
There … I said it. Weak, weak, weak.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, I am called to boast about my weakness. I must delight in my weakness. Because my weakness allows Christ to be strong. My weakness demonstrates that I am not the Christ. The church does not rise and fall on this weak pastor … The church rises on Christ alone. And that’s the way it should be.
To my friends in ministry, you are weak too. And there’s nothing wrong with that either. Because our churches belong to Christ. So lets surrender the church from our unsteady shoulders and put them into His capable hands.
When my friend died 10 years ago from cancer, I wrote a song about my feelings after that funeral. I’ve been thinking lately a lot about the words of that song lately:
Let go to the weakness and find You there … Empty myself and breathe You in … You’re tearing away my thick skin … And I don’t know what I was afraid of … So Lord I let go
I pray that I’m never too afraid to revel in my own weakness so that Christ might become strong.