Like a kitchen sponge, pastors absorb. It’s part of our role. We are not clinicians with clients. We are pastors within communities. Professional distance is not our thing. Enmeshed in the relationships of ministry, we soak things up. Like pastoral dishrags, we absorb pain and struggle, disappointment and anger, anxiety and longing. And we do it every day. It may not be listed in our job descriptions, but a certain amount of absorbing goes with the territory.
Sometimes it’s part of our daily commitment to listening. As pastors, we listen empathically. We feel with people. It’s not that we feel pain for them. Though I often wish I could relieve others of their struggles, I can’t and I shouldn’t. Differentiation is a good and healthy thing. The fact remains: our availability to absorb something of the pain of those we care for, ‘to walk the mile and bear the load’, is a mark of good pastoring.
At other times it’s gathered up in our role of representation. Whether we relish it or not, we pastors are the public face of an institution much bigger than we are, and one that has caused its share of hurt and exclusion. Sometimes we are at the receiving end of the anger that results, anger that has to be directed somewhere and at someone. As pastor of a historic city church—one that has establishment written all over it—I absorb my fair share of community angst and disappointment. It’s hard to avoid.
And then there is the soaking up that is more personal and closer to home. Routinely, we pastors must absorb disappointments in our own ministries or in the ministry of the churches we lead. Certainly these deeply-felt critiques can be unreasonable or misplaced—words that say much more about the critic than they do about the church or its pastor—but we still hear them. And then there are those that are justified, critiques that identity failures we have no choice but to own. Our willingness to absorb does not always set things aright, but it’s an essential first step.
Whatever it is that we absorb—pastoral, institutional or personal—there are moments when the vocational dishrag sits limp and heavy in the sink, so full of all that is has soaked up it can take nothing more. There comes a time when the dishrag has to be wrung out and left to dry before being taken up again. Frankly, dishrags that are not routinely soaked, rinsed and aired begin to smell.
Identifying ways to wring out the dishrag on a regular basis is essential to our longevity in this business. The disciplines of dishrag laundering are worth noting for every pastor, no matter how elementary they sound. Here are three of mine.
Confession—Daily rituals of personal confession go a long way to keeping the dishrag in good shape. By confession I do not mean simply, ‘I have sinned.’ Certainly confession is about owning our failures, but even more it’s about naming our daily dependence upon God and acknowledging the boundaries of our humanity. Every morning I pray a simple prayer which includes the words, ‘Lord, grant me the humility to know my limitations.’ We know its truth: there are no messiahs in the church apart from Jesus. Our daily confession puts that into words.
Accountability—Pastors need places and relationships in which they allow others the right to speak into their lives, to name what they see and voice what they hear. If the dishrag is on the nose, you need someone who can tell you. Call it whatever you will—spiritual direction, peer supervision, mentoring, or simply meeting with a colleague for coffee and honest conversation—the routine rituals of accountability in pastoral leadership are non-negotiable. Discerning the difference between healthy absorption and slow drowning is something we can’t do alone.
Rest—I’ve learned the lessons of rest from experience. Like many others, it’s only been in failing to give rest its proper place I’ve learned its worth. Frankly, the stench of an unrested pastor can fill a room and the damage we do to ourselves, our churches, and those we love is nothing short of rank. Leave a heavily soiled and wet dishrag to sit unlaundered for too long and there’s no other course of action than to bin it. Routine disciplines of rest provide the space we desperately need to keep the dishrag in use longer term.