On How We View our Congregations (A Thought for Tired Pastors)

Awhile ago an excellent pastor with many more years experience than I gave me this little book to borrow. “You can’t have it,” she said “but you can borrow it.” I took one look at the cover and thought “Ummm….” I know one should not judge a book by its cover, but there was something about the cover that screamed “This will not be helpful” to me. Trusting her judgement, though, I began to read the little meditations, one by one. It wasn’t long before I realized this is the type of book one keeps at hand at all times. It’s the type of book that is passed on from person to person. It’s the type of book you loan out and say “I need it back.”
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I did give my friend her copy back, but only after I bought a copy for myself. I refer to it whenever I feel stressed or overwhelmed or insufficient or tired. It contains little poems called “thoughts,” and each thought contains many profound truths. For those striving to develop or maintain what we pastors (and others) refer to as a non-anxious presence, this book gives profound insight.
Though there have been many lines in this book that have spoken to me, the one that I return to time and time again is this one from thought 17, called Congregation
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How do you feel about your congregation 
deep within your heart? 
That is what they will become. 
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Powerful. Pastoring a congregation is a unique calling. People view the work of ministry as being “set apart,” and with good reason. On the other hand, being a minister or pastor is very much like any occupation or calling. There are good days and bad days. There are times of productivity and results and times where we feel like we’re spinning our wheels. Joys and challenges. I feel fortunate to have a job that I love, even when there are the inevitable trials and difficult days.
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I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in some online spaces where pastors gather and that is the trend of putting down one’s congregation.  I understand the desire to blow off steam, for sure. Everyone needs a safe space to vent or share frustration, but it makes me so sad to hear people I know are talented and gifted pastors putting down their congregations and writing them off as stupid or idiots.
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Worse, still, is the affirming echo chamber that I hear when a fellow pastor does express frustration with his or her congregation. Rather than listening critically and offering empathy or help, it seems that we’re all too quick to type in a hasty comment of agreement and piling on. Does this really help our colleagues or their congregations?
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More helpful, I think, might be a reminder that our congregations are flawed, just as we are. Some congregations have real systemic problems and need real intensive therapy (just as we, ourselves, go through periods of instability and sickness and need to reach out for care and therapy). For the most part, though, our congregations are doing the best they can. Our congregations aren’t filled with idiots who are trying to make our lives miserable. They’re filled with flawed people who keep showing up at church, listening for God’s word. If we feel attacked, we might very well be the target of an attack, but it does not necessarily follow that our congregations are idiots and stupid. Maybe they need help. Maybe we do, too.
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I write with fear and trembling, because I don’t want to be preachy to my fellow ministers, all of whom are putting one foot in front of the other, just as I am. On the other hand, I don’t feel like the message is my own, it’s a gift from Rev. Martin, in his little book The Art of Pastoring. It changed my perspective, and maybe it will change someone else’s, too.
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What do you feel about your congregation, 
deep within your heart? 
That is what they will become. 
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