Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Irritable Clergy Syndrome

We were sitting in a local restaurant one evening. It is a small place where the tables are so close together that you can hear the conversations that are taking place around you while making no effort to eavesdrop. Two couples were sitting at a table next to us. One of the gentlemen was holding forth in very firm and loud tones about his pastor. He said something like this: “I get so tired of that preacher dragging himself around like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He ought to be showing the joy of the Lord in his life. I’ll tell you this: I wish that I worked for the Lord all the time; I’d always have a smile on my face.” I wanted to step over to his table and offer some corrective words. I didn’t, though, because that kind of church member might punch you between the eyes.

Had I said anything to him it would have sounded something like this.

Brother, I can understand your desire to see your preacher feeling chipper and looking radiant all the time. Who would not want the person who is called by God to tend to the flock of which you are a member to experience perpetual joy? I would encourage you to pray daily for him with at least as much passion as you’re talking about him tonight. I would also encourage you to act on the impulse that you are likely to get from the good Lord when you pray for your pastor to get up, go see him, and sincerely ask him if there is anything that you can do to help him so that his burden might be lightened just a little bit.

Trust me, he may not have the weight of the world on his shoulders but he is carrying a heavy load. He is trying to prepare sermons that adequately present the truths of the gospel to the people who will hear him. He is trying to point lost people away from their sins and toward the Savior, and not too many people are anxious for such direction. He is trying to help you and the other members of the church to see whatever hypocrisies you harbor and whatever unchristian attitudes you display and not too many of you really want to hear about that. He visits the sick, he prays with the dying, he counsels the troubled, and he pacifies the angry.

And here’s the thing, brother: chances are that he really, really cares. He truly cares about the Lord, about the church, about the sick and the sin sick—and brother, he really cares about you. If he didn’t care he could walk around with a spring in his step and a lilt in his voice, but for him the burdens are real. To complicate matters more, he feels called to perform all those acts of ministry that I mentioned but he probably spends more time dealing with administrative and troubleshooting tasks to which he does not feel called and for which he is not particularly well trained. Oh, and there’s one more thing: he does all of that with the full knowledge that some of his folks are talking about him behind his back, kind of like you’ve been doing here in earshot of quite a few people, some of whom, chances are, aren’t Christians and are judging the church by your words about your pastor. So, brother, pray for and try to help your pastor. Remember this, too: whatever you are—mechanic, lawyer, doctor, teacher, accountant, truck driver—whatever you are, if you are a Christian, you work full-time for the Lord just as surely as your pastor does. I’ll bet you don’t show the joy of the Lord in your face and with your words all the time, either.

Yep, he would have hit me between the eyes. Now, let me be clear about something. The members of the churches that I have served as pastor and the members of the church that I now serve were and are supportive, helpful, and encouraging. I have been blessed and I am grateful. Still, all churches and pastors deal with such dynamics to some extent; unfortunately, some are terribly afflicted along these lines.

In December 2006, the Times of London ran a story with the headline “Evil-minded parishioners making life hell for clergy.” The story reported on a study that had just been published entitled The Future of the Parish System: Shaping the Church of England for the 21st Century. One of the authors of the report, Sara Savage, said that priests in the Anglican Church were being torn down by the requirement they felt to be nice to everybody, even to those church members who were very nasty in their own behavior. The problem with some church members, she said, is neurosis that borders on psychosis, but even where problems are not that severe, the pressure to keep the volunteers that are necessary to keep the church running happy can prevent the minister from being confrontational. She termed the problems that can develop for pastors “irritable clergy syndrome.”

The truth is that sometimes the problem lies with us ministers as much as it does with our parishioners. We try to be more than we are; we attempt to be superhuman in our responses to life and to people. I once heard William Willimon tell another “overheard in a restaurant” story. He said that two women were discussing their pastor in pretty negative terms. This went on for a while. Then, one of them said, “Well, after all, he’s only human.” The other lady replied, “That’s all we expect—but he’s not doing a very good job of that!” We pastors could help ourselves if we would accept our humanity and develop it fully, even when that requires being sad, angry, disappointed, and even indignant. Our parishioners could help us if they would encourage us to be fully human and if they would not be judgmental when we show that we are.

I guess that sometimes I display symptoms of irritable clergy syndrome. I’m happy to report that up to now it has been episodic and not chronic!

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