Leave Me Alone So I Can Do Ministry!
“Oh Pastor, you’re so busy. I don't want to bother you,” she says as she makes herself at home on my office couch.
On my more gracious days, I respond easily, “Oh you’re never a bother. Come in. How is it with your soul?” On my less-than-gracious days? “Oh for pity’s sake, yes I am busy and no, as hard as I try, I just can’t bring myself to care about your cousin’s neighbor’s IBS. Sorry. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sermon to write.”
Thank the merciful heavens I have never said that aloud. But oh have I thought it. Here I am, trying to do the important work of ministry, and I’m stuck listening to a lengthy description of someone’s physical ailments, arranging meals for sick people, and finding a home for a washer and dryer set.
I am well aware of the value of delegation, saying no, and all those lovely things we say to ourselves to minimize contact with the hum-drum underbelly of ministry. But that’s not the point, is it? The point is that at the root of my irritation with so-and-so’s excessive texts about her nephew’s cousin’s bowels is not a self-righteous concern for the proper use of my time, but rather an inhospitable spirit, a spirit that refuses to create space for the Other, especially the annoying, over-sharing Other who sends “urgent” texts at all hours.
So this isn’t an article about setting healthy, appropriate boundaries. Someone else can hash that out. As a pastor, I need, with eyes wide open, to look into my own soul and be honest about that pesky inhospitable spirit that malforms and manipulates pastoral care from a blessed vocation to an annoying, time-sucking burden. What feeds that inhospitable spirit? And, most importantly, how do I starve that greedy spirit and, in its place, nurture a hospitable space in my soul from which I can nourish and love the parishioners with whom I have been entrusted?
My Inhospitable Spirit
The unholy inhospitable spirit is hard to pin down, as it slips through our fingers disguised as any number of other things, like a commitment to productivity or dedication to a delegation-driven leadership model. Sometimes it identifies itself as a harmless impatience or mild defensiveness. Not healthy, but surely not detrimental to my ministry, right?
The Enemy is so tricky that way, softening a harsh lie by whitewashing it with a more acceptable, more palatable lie. Productivity is king! People’s tithes and offerings are paying my salary so I better work as hard as I possibly can to accomplish the work of ministry! But lurking under the veneer of that seemingly innocuous concern for ministry output lays a dangerous temptation: to be, as Henri Nouwen says, relevant. This temptation to relevance elevates doing important things for God over embodying the faithful presence of God to the world, a much less glamorous discipline to be sure. When I allow my heart to be captured by the need for relevance, an inhospitable spirit creeps in, leaving me wearied and annoyed by my pastoral care responsibilities.
Perhaps the most dangerous temptations through which an inhospitable spirit takes root in my heart are the simplest, the most human: impatience, defensiveness, pride, and fear. Let’s be honest for a moment—no one enjoys a play by play of someone’s gruesome medical procedure or a detailed account of a marital dispute. But when impatience flares up in my heart, I am unable to hear the heart of the person before me, the woman concerned about a distant relative’s medical condition or the young man stressing about his upcoming move. My ears get clogged with my own self-importance, whispered reminders of all the things I could be doing instead of this.
I’ve noticed in my own heart that even as I seek to listen attentively to the needs, fears, and desires of my parishioners, my own “stuff” floats into the conversation uninvited. When a member of my flock shares how lonely they are, I hear, If only the pastor would have called; if only the pastor would restart that one perfect ministry we had years ago; if only the pastor… And the most vulnerable parts of me feel exposed, leading me to defend and justify myself. Simply put, I want to end the conversation as soon as possible to avoid facing those painful feelings. In the fertile soil of my vulnerabilities, an inhospitable spirit emerges and flourishes.
The Benedict Rule
What’s a pastor to do? I have found guidance for defending against an inhospitable spirit from St. Benedict, whose name has resurfaced recently as Christian leaders argue the merits of the “Benedict Option.” But I’m drawn to him for different reasons. Benedict founded many religious communities throughout Europe and wrote what came to be known as “The Rule of Saint Benedict,” a handbook for how the monks under his leadership were to live and work. The Rule revolved around the sacred practice of hospitality, and I’m not talking about fancy napkins and coordinated bath sets. For Benedict, hospitality was a spiritual discipline that encompassed receiving all guests as if they were Christ. Benedict emphasized the gracious reception of the poor and of pilgrims because “it is especially in them that Christ is received.”
The part of Benedict’s Rule concerning hospitality that captures me is the role of the Superior (the lead monk) in receiving the guest. The Superior took the lead in welcoming, receiving, and serving the guest, as far as possible. If the Superior was fasting when the guest arrived, the Superior would break his fast for the sake of the guest, with few exceptions. The hospitable welcoming of a guest by the Superior took precedence over a fast, the quintessential spiritual discipline!
In the first years of my ministry, I would have attributed this element of Benedict’s Rule to the importance of example: the Superior should model hospitable Christ-like behavior to the monks in his charge so they will follow his lead and do the same. But now, a few years into this ministry gig, I don’t see it that way. Benedict knew that the Superior’s heart and devotion could easily be captured by the “important” tasks of leading a monastery, and to protect his own heart against the infectious disease of an inhospitable spirit, the Superior must put into practice the very ordinary, unglamorous disciplines of hospitality, like washing feet and sharing meals.
And so too with me. How easily I am captured by the glamorous work of sermon writing and delivery, curriculum writing, speaking at special events, and praying for community gatherings. How easily I become annoyed or fatigued by the bland needs of the people entrusted to my care. Lord have mercy on my soul.
May we take a cue from St. Benedict and instill in our lives the disciplines of hospitality, to welcome all, especially the poor and needy, the “high-need” parishioner. May we listen to the hearts of our people without preemptively jumping into “fix-it” mode or erecting our walls of defense to protect our own vulnerabilities. May we be present to our beloved flock, in body and mind, that we might extend to them the compassionate love of Christ. And ultimately, may we release them into God’s care.
By adopting these ancient but timely practices, I’m learning to guard my pastoral heart against the temptations of relevance, self-importance, and the pervasive seed of an inhospitable spirit, and to instead nurture a heart of Christ-like love, compassion, and hospitality. I’m learning to respond to my congregant’s cousin’s neighbor’s IBS, not by rolling my eyes, but by setting aside my sermon outline and fully embracing the person sitting across from me.
Stephanie Dyrness Lobdell is co-lead pastor, with her husband, Tommy, and worship pastor at Mountain Home Church of the Nazarene in Mountain Home, Idaho.