There is no guilt like a pastor’s guilt.
It’s mostly self-inflicted. Sunday by Sunday we rabbit on about spiritual ideals and aspirations–stoking visions, exhorting righteousness and inspiring faith. We so look the part in our pulpits and vestments, imagining ourselves Zeus-like amidst the community of faith. But then the services finish and we head home–home to weary spouses, burnt toast, and fractious children. There’s not a pulpit in sight, just unpaid bills and forgotten birthdays. The vision of our finer selves crumbles under the weight of the mundane. The Sunday morning shoes may be shiny, but our socks have holes.
We can carry this guilt in several ways. Hiding it works well, though doing so results in a pastoral dysfunction called shifty-eyes-syndrome. It’s a learned behaviour for pastors–part paranoia, part survival strategy. It’s what happens when we’re constantly alert to who’s looking. It’s not major pastoral fails we fear exposed, just the daily indiscretions of being human. The pedestal is cracked so we drape it, hoping no one will notice.
Option two is to conquer it–to rise above our ordinariness; to live into our vision of god-like virtue; to renovate the pedestal! But the constant self-flagellation that accompanies our inevitable failure wears us down. The simple truth is, we are not god-like and never will be, no matter how many sermons we preach, degrees we accumulate, or prayers we pray. We just get weary from striving.
In my experience, the only real option for pastors is a good daily dose of humility. Let’s be honest, no matter how high the pulpit, we are not special. While called to a particular role, gifted in a particular way and invested with particular responsibility, we really are nothing more than oddly particular–in an ordinary sort of way. Of course, spiritual aspiration is a good and virtuous thing. With St Paul, we all press on toward the goal. But such aspiration is only constructive when harnessed with humility.
To be honest, the whole guilt thing is fraught. It’s certainly never been a constructive force in my ministry. Its partner shame lurks in the shadows and only ever wounds. What’s more, as I look back at 25 years of ministry, it’s actually been the moments where I’ve allowed the holes in my socks some exposing light that I have had any lasting impact. Allowing our frailty to be gathered up in what we offer in ministry adds a good dose of integrity. Without it we’re hollow.
A bit of pedestal sitting is alright I suppose; an occupational hazard we must learn to live with. Regardless, we need to be careful not to stay there. Frankly, to constantly hide our imperfections from view is nothing but exhausting and, ultimately, not terribly helpful. Perhaps taking our shoes off from time to time and dangling our sock-clad feet over the edge, holes and all, is a choice worth making. As long as our feet don’t smell!