I work on a church staff with ten other pastors. These guys are amazing. As I penned a note in the copy of Faith Without Illusions that our senior pastor was kind enough to purchase, I realized afresh that there has been a shift of sorts in my conception of who I was writing to.
When you write for a potential publisher a “book proposal” (a 5-7ish page document freighted with angst, anxiety, and often ludicrous hopes!), you are supposed to supply a note about the “intended audience” of the book. At first, I envisioned an audience of college students and 20-somethings. The more I wrote, the more I thought about 30-somethings and 40-somethings. Then, as the writing process continued, I began to think that the primary audience would be seminarians. I was pleased to read someone suggesting somewhere that Faith Without Illusions should be required reading for seminary students—much of the material I address surfaced during my experience in two different divinity schools.
But the more I wrote, the more I realized that I was also writing (perhaps preeminently writing?) to pastors.
We sometimes associate the pastor with “The (Wo)Man.” We assume that the pastor is the one behind all the churchy stuff we experience and do not like. We assume the pastor is responsible for all the petty issues in the pews that so annoy us and make us cynical.
Let me say, after a decade or so of pastoral ministry, that there may be no one more likely to be disillusioned with God and the church than the pastor. The laity on the fringes are often stereotyped as the primary cynics in the church. But this fringe existence often protects these cynics from seeing the grimy underbelly of the congregational funk in which the pastor lives and breathes. And yet the pastor is not permitted to be disillusioned. The pastor must put on the happy face, shake the hands, offer the kind words… even if the gut reaction is to fly out the church doors before those with the freedom to claim cynicism can get to them. You think laity have a hard time listening to the sermon? Sometimes the pastor can’t wait for the end of the sermon either. But the cynicism of the pastor is not permissible. So it lies dormant, seething, souring… becoming more and more dangerous.
I wrote Faith Without Illusions not just for edgy, jaded 20-somethings, not just for struggling seminarians, not just for college students needing spiritual elbow room, but for pastors.
I conclude the book with Paul. If anyone waded in the filthy, messy, disillusioning waters of pastoral ministry, it was the great apostle. But Paul did not seem to suffer from cynical “burn-out.” His apostleship was denied by the Corinthians, his teaching was flatly rejected by the Galatians, and racism, materialism, social elitism, and sexual immorality abounded in those early churches under his apostolic guidance as much as churches do today. But Paul persisted in the pastoral labors, from behind prison bars, while under house arrest, and while sailing on sea-tossed ships. He was a hopeful realist. Resurrection undergirded his potentially disillusioning experiences as a pastor… and somehow infused him with a refreshing sense of liveliness as he labored and loved.
So to you pastors out there—here’s to hopeful realism from another guy in the ecclesial trenches. Thanks for all you do.