In my former life I taught college. There are a lot of similarities between the pastoral work I do now and the teaching I did back when. I study and prepare. I speak in front of groups of people. We all know that a pastor does a lot of teaching. And it’s also true that a teacher offers a lot of pastoral care—especially when you teach college freshmen.
The class dynamic is also not unlike the congregation. You have a group of folks who have—in one sense or another—signed up to be in a certain place, at a certain time, for a certain purpose. Some of them take this seriously and show up regularly. Others show up if they happen to wake up in time and and can’t find anything better to do. Some of them are there for the institution’s intended purpose: learning or worship. Others are there because their parents make them come. Or because they are creatures of habit. Or because it’s their only chance to sit next to the person they have a crush on. (True story from my church.)
There is, however, a significant difference between a congregation and a class. It’s a difference I don’t think about much—except for May, when my husband and my daughter and about a fourth of my congregation and my Facebook friends are in the final days of the school year. It is May, with friends’ posting about grading final papers and my daughter crossing off days on the calendar, when I inevitably realize that, as a pastor, I have to keep going.
Yes, I have to keep writing sermons and planning worship and attending meetings. But in some ways that’s the easy part. The harder part is that I have to keep going—to keep doing all of these things—with and for the same group of people.
I’m going to tell you something that will probably not sound very pastoral: one of the best parts of teaching for me was getting rid of the students who drove me crazy. No matter how obnoxious a student was, I always knew that I only had to put up with them for one semester.
The church, though, doesn’t seem to work that way. The same people tend to show up for years. And the most irritating people do not self-select and move on to another church after four months.1 (Actually, a few of them do, but not many.)
This means that my natural leadership style of passive-aggressive conflict avoidance is not as effective as I would like in the congregational context. Rather than simply girding my loins and waiting for the end of the semester, I actually have to talk with people and try to work through whatever it is they are doing that is making me—and the rest of the congregation, and probably Jesus—crazy. I have to have conversations like:
“People really enjoy being able to hear themselves when we are singing hymns. If you might turn the organ down just a smidge.”
“Please use a kind voice when you ask the children, for the love of God, to stop tearing through the church like a bunch of hooligans. . . . Also, the children have no idea what a hooligan is.”
“The dishes in the kitchen—even the nice dishes–are actually there for everyone to use. Even the kids. Even the AA group.”
“I’m sorry you think I don’t talk about the blood of Jesus enough in my sermons. Perhaps we can have a Bible study series on theories of the atonement.”
“While we are all concerned about your health, could you please refrain from giving graphic descriptions of internal organs and/or bodily excretions during the ‘joys and concerns’ time every week.”
These are the types of conversations I never had to have as a college teacher. And this is the time of year when I consider what my alternative self in my alternative life would be doing right now: grading final papers and thinking “good riddance.”
Instead, I am trying to be a grown up and have difficult, faithful conversations. Which, I know, is good for my soul. Still, some days I look longingly at my daughter’s calendar with so many days crossed off, the glorious last day of school circled and waiting just a few boxes away.
1As always, my discussion of annoying people in congregations is NOT based on the lovely folks of Peace Mennonite Church. It is mostly gathered from stories I have read and heard from my less fortunate colleagues.
Joanna Harader serves as pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, KS. She actually loves being a pastor and you couldn’t pay her enough to go back to teaching college. (Well, someone could pay her enough, but they wouldn’t.) She blogs at SpaciousFaith.com.
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