“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us from any difficulty life can throw at us” Timothy Keller.
A big thanks to each of you who have walked through these 6 weeks looking painfully close at the life of church ministry. Thank you to each of my guest bloggers who all have put something of themselves on the line to speak out in print on this subject. I hope that as you’ve read you have found value in some form. It has been a tremendous blessing to me to interact with each of you as we’ve walked down this little cobble stone path together. I say cobble stone because they are some of the most beautifully landscaped pathways, yet they are very difficult to walk on without tripping, stumbling, and turning ankles along the way because of their uneven surface. The most beautiful paths are indeed the hardest to walk, but always worth it!
None of us walk our paths alone. Not well. That’s why I close this series out with a guest who writes from one of the most powerful perspectives, that of friendship and lay leadership in the church.
This girl is so dear to my heart. She has fought with me and for me and stood me back up many times when I was ready to call it quits. She has seen me, known me, and chosen to love me anyway. This rare gift has fortified me from some pretty hard things! Thank you my friend. I leave you in her capable hands.
I met Whitney and Michael a few years ago when I found myself nervously walking into a very new church environment. Some friends had invited us to visit their church, and years later we finally found ourselves there. My friend described Whitney to me and I remember laughing and saying, “She sounds like someone I would love.” I had no idea how absolutely right I was, and the truth is, I wasn’t looking for or expecting to find the kind of deep friendship that I did. I just wanted a pastor’s wife that I could like and trust. My first impression was that Whitney looked awfully young and adorable to be a pastor’s wife.
That initial impression wasn’t all that long ago, but it feels light-years behind me. Slowly we cultivated a friendship that has become the dearest I have. But it didn’t happen immediately. We got along immediately. I liked her immediately. But deep friendship with ministry families isn’t an overnight process, and for so many good reasons.
I’ve never known a life that didn’t involve church membership. I’ve also never worked in vocational ministry, but lack of expertise never seems to deter us from voicing an opinion on the internet, so here I go.
I want to say things that maybe Whitney wouldn’t. Or things that other ministry family members won’t voice until the toll of an isolated and often misunderstood life held to impossible standards has wrung them out to a place of exhaustion and bitterness. Again, with no degrees, only my life experience, and some pretty decent powers of observation, I want to tell you what I have seen. It’s not all bad. But it’s real and gritty and carried by people who are human and deserve to be seen as such. I hope some of it will be enlightening to you.
The truth is, there are all kinds of ministry families. Most of them are incredible humans who live remarkably humble yet interesting lives, but some of them are outright evil. Not the truth that you expected me to start with, right? But it’s an important one. Society holds the church under a wary eye for a reason. Pastors, youth ministers, men and women who have used God as their scapegoat – each of these have been guilty of abuse and mistreatment throughout history. I have personal experience here myself. I’ve felt the sting of pain in the name of God, abuse and mental manipulation and words that sliced me into pieces because I wasn’t “good” or “holy” enough, according to someone’s opinion.
Ministry families live with the knowledge of these abuses every day. They see the TV shows that depict another crooked pastor, the actual news stories telling of abuses, addictions, embezzlements, etc. They live under the societal perceptions of their role. There will be people who idolize them for it, yes, but the deeply held venomous feelings of others are just as strong.
No one resents abusive authority figures more than dedicated ministry families. Carrying on in this role when its sanctity is spit on repeatedly by those who wish to exploit it takes courage and longsuffering and a true commitment to sincerity if they are going to continue to keep their hearts open to the people who truly need them.
The fight for integrity and self-preservation is constant, and it frequently has the unfortunate and unintended side effect of isolation.
Without having lived that life myself, my window is limited, but I’ve noticed so many causes for this isolation.
Veneers of some persona or another or empty cups looking to be filled tend to stand between people in ministry and others when it comes to relational connection. And that’s okay. That’s why we need ministers and minister’s wives, isn’t it? I would venture that each of us has walked into church projecting something or looking for something. It’s part of our humanity and why the church exists – to help us through our brokenness and pride and point us back to Christ.
The mistake we make is to place our human leadership on a pedestal that is so close to God himself that we deprive them of their right to be human. Because, regardless of your expectations, they will be human. They are human.
Somehow we find it hard to see people as both human and yet called to something that is truly divine in its nature. This struggle exists because it’s a true contradiction. A whisper from God to someone flesh and blood. An invitation to live sacrificially, called to serve people who will use and then discard you, drag you into their lives and sometimes attempt to use you, pretend to want to know you but have ulterior motives, silently undermine you while you try to love them, and hold you to such high standards that they are impossible to live up to.
When life calls you to the face-to-face interaction with and service to the darkest and worst moments of others’ lives, where do you bring your own brokenness? Can you bring it anywhere? Are you expected to hurt alone every time it stings and just suck it up; consider it an occupational hazard?
As a girl who grew up in the church for her entire life, grappled with some hard questions surrounding its very existence, and has come to see our desperate need for it to be lived out as Christ intended, I want to push back and insist that these families can and should be truly known and seen.
I don’t want to write a numbered list of How To Befriend Your Pastor or Pastor’s Wife. Maybe you don’t and shouldn’t click with the members of your ministry family on a level that leads to deep, unfiltered friendship. Pushing for you to pursue that would only encourage more contrived relationships and no one benefits from those.
But if you want to be close, trusted friends with someone in ministry – if you find yourself gelling with someone in ministry in a real way, there are a few things I’d like you to know.
Firstly, you can’t have a fragile ego. You just can’t. Your person is someone you will have to share with many other people because of the life they lead. If you can’t accept this, you will remain disappointed and hurt. The simple truth is that when you’re pouring into the lives of others so regularly, there isn’t bandwidth to nurse the insecure sort of relationships that require constant reassurance. It will sound like a harsh truth, and maybe that’s why I’m saying it and Whitney isn’t. Maybe she wouldn’t, but I will. Life will call them away unexpectedly. Fun plans with them will be interrupted. Texts might not be returned sometimes. Decide if you’re ready to serve someone who is busy serving others.
Secondly, there will be things you can’t know, and it’s not personal. Things you can’t know until later or things you will never get to know. Decide if you can handle that. So many times early in our young friendship I said to Whitney, “I can handle being your friend, Whit. You don’t have to tell me what’s happening, but I can sense that something is, and I’m praying for you.” Maybe she believed that I could handle it, maybe she didn’t know yet. But the truth is, why would she have believed that statement before time proved that I meant it – that I even had the capacity to live out that declaration? Wisdom requires that people who live a life of ministry guard themselves for reasons that are not selfish. Their health affects the care they can give. Their confidence protects the dignity of so many people. If you can’t be someone who receives the, “I can’t talk about it, but I need prayer” text and be okay with not knowing if or when you will know the story, this friendship might not be for you.
Trust is everything. Don’t break it. The cost of broken trust in a life that makes it difficult to form those deep relationships in the first place? It’s a high one that can devastate for a long time, reinforcing the unfortunate ministry tradition of isolation. I deeply believe that we have a responsibility to defend the right of ministry families to be human beings, and human beings cannot be healthy without real connection.
Scripture absolutely outlines criteria for leadership and to sidestep that would be worse than wrong. I cannot and do not suggest that we abandon leadership standards. I am asserting that people are hurt by hurtful words no matter their role or vocation. Kids of all parents need more adults in their corner with no ulterior motive behind their advocacy. Human beings need trustworthy friends, but in the role of ministry, friendship feels like a risk. I can’t help but see it. I can’t spend a lifetime in the church and not see hurt ripple across the faces of leadership when the people who you thought loved you unconditionally were the very people who walked away or wounded you, sometimes causing disaster in their wake. So friendship is a risk, but a necessary one.
Lastly, if you’re friends with a ministry family – a human, probably kind of messed-up-just-like-yours family who is as real as they come and yet living a life of real integrity – you are incredibly blessed. There aren’t words for the blessing that the Shafer family has been to our own. We’ve grown to love one another’s children like our own, celebrate and weep together. I am humbled to be asked to share here. I had no idea when I walked into that unfamiliar church environment and saw that dark-haired beauty that I would be gifted with a friendship so unique and precious that it humbles me to tears.
Earlier I mentioned the contradiction of ministry calling on a human being. I must tell you, that contradiction is so beautiful to witness up close. You get to know someone who struggles, grapples with emotion, and experiences failure sometimes just like you do, and yet there is enigmatic beauty; breakthroughs of such wisdom and love that you know these things come from a strength and insight that only God can give. It’s remarkable – made more inspiring when you’ve seen the humanity of the person you witness God using.
See your ministry friends. Get to know them beyond the surface. Learn who they are, and then when you see the remarkable, human person underneath, decide it’s worth it to join them in this crazy, interesting, slightly dangerous but also miraculous life.