Teaching Our Community to Care for Us

Ten years as an at-home mom prepared me in surprising ways to be a lead pastor. In both situations, I’ve learned that:

  • You’re part of the community but also responsible for building the community.
  • Most of the work you do is noticed only if it’s not done
    • At home, people expect dinner to appear on the table and socks to appear in their drawers.
    • At church, they expect the bulletin to be filled with important events and for a sermon to appear every Sunday morning.
  • You will have moments of resentment, and resentment is a sign that you need to share your heart.

It would be natural for my children to feel entitled, and for me to feel resentment, if I were treated as a full-time servant. One day, I decided that everyone would benefit if my kids learned to appreciate what I do for them. And so we have taught our children to say “thank you” not just because it’s nice to be thanked but also because it’s good for them to learn gratefulness.

In other words, if I were to put up with their entitlement for the 18 years they’re with me, I would end up with a lot of resentment in my own heart, and they would leave home as something less than whole and happy adults.

Now, of course, parishioners aren’t children, so I don’t want to overdo the metaphor. Still, it is important for parishioners to be grateful for their church and for their pastor. The responsibility for teaching them this often falls to the pastor when the church is small, there is little denominational oversight of these things, the congregation is young, or the community is very transitional. In my case, all four are true.

Let me share how I’m learning to navigate this.

Last year, I noticed I’d been on staff seven years and was due a sabbatical. We, like most smaller churches, don’t have a head of HR who keeps track of such things. I’m the closest thing we have to head of HR, and for any other member of staff I would say, “Time for a sabbatical!” But no one remembered this for me, so a part of me felt a little resentful.

I decided, as the head of HR, to inform everyone that the Lead Pastor was due a sabbatical. I did so partly because I believe that it’s good for a church if their Lead Pastor takes a sabbatical. In my submission to the good of the church, I raised the issue. Of course, they were happy to let me go. And the sabbatical was good both for me and the church.

I’m also navigating these questions this Christmas. The folks in my congregation are incredibly positive and encouraging. (If they weren’t, then I guess I would need to consider how to pastor them toward that.) Because we are by a university, many of them are young and always coming and going, so each Christmas it’s a different set of faces. As a result, those of us on staff don’t receive many Christmas cards or gifts.

It is important to note the following:

  • We don’t care about being lavished with expensive presents, but a heartfelt recognition of any way we have served folks is always meaningful.
  • Ultimately we find our affirmation in the Lord, but there are also healthy ways the Lord shows his affirmation through his people.
  • This is not about being treated in a special way – because pastors feel that they are above their people or lords to be spoiled – but about being part of the community.

In a very awkward moment, I raised with our elders that:

  • It’s good for the community to take a moment at Christmastime to celebrate good things.
  • It’s good also to remember the things that can be invisible, like a vibrant church community.
  • It’s my job to help them do that, even if it means teaching them to thank me.

In the past, the elders designated a member of the board to buy each staff member a gift and to sign a card on behalf of the church. It was nice, but it didn’t involve the congregation. This year, the elders are seeing that, as spiritual leaders of the congregation, part of their role is to teach people to take care of the pastors, just as we take care of the people. The elders have taken on the challenge with gusto and it’s beautiful, even if uncomfortable.

If we’re honest, it feels good to imagine we don’t have any needs. It feels very spiritual to say, “I won’t ask anything from them. I’m here for them, not the other way around.” There are certainly ways that we can’t burden our congregations with our needs, but how are we helpful if we’re not human? Won’t we serve them best by (wisely) letting them see our needs? As someone who needs words of encouragement, it is okay to let my congregation know that, not for the sake of my own ego but so that I can keep investing day after day, year after year in this place.

The scriptural metaphor of the ox treading the grain makes me think that God is okay with this approach. We have committed ourselves to our congregations. We’re taught to be servants, to sacrifice for this work. If our good and the good of the church are interwoven, perhaps there are times when we need to take care of our own good for the sake of the church.

The worker for the church community is to live off the fruits of the church community. The fruits of the orchards we tend are not limited to financial gifts. We are nurturing warmth and appreciation, spiritual maturity, and gratitude. The Lord wants us to share in those fruits, too.

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