By Loren Seibold | 25 June 2019 |
On June 30, 2019, I take formal leave of the Seventh-day Adventist ministry, after 40¾ years as a church employee.
I fall into that category of people who are entirely too introspective. Introspection is sometimes thought helpful for spiritual growth, but I fear it isn’t necessarily conducive to a happy life. I have occasionally wished that I were someone who skimmed the top of the waves rather than sinking into them, which has meant having to study the depths of whatever I am involved in.
I mention this only because impending retirement stimulates introspection, and its relative, retrospection. I’ve been reliving old experiences, searching for people from the past, remembering good moments and (being naturally melancholy) assembling regrets.
Ministry as a Job
Very few people like their jobs always, at every moment. I think the problem with ministry is expectations. You can’t help but come to it thinking that because you “accept the one principle of making the service of God supreme,” you “will find perplexities vanish, and a plain path before [your] feet” (The Desire of Ages, p. 330).
Someone on a Facebook pastors’ group I read said that Seventh-day Adventist ministry was their “dream job.” A couple of pastors clicked “like” on that, and I was delighted to see it. I still hope that most Adventist ministers hit the ground with giddy energy every day—that I was the lone person in Seventh-day Adventist ministry who didn’t find all my “perplexities vanish” when I took up this calling.
Ministry had some features that fit me well. First, like most pastors, pursuing God and faith in God was what I felt I had to do. Had I not studied theology, I would have spent my life wondering what I’d missed.
I’m not sure how well-informed my decision was to follow an interest in theology into pastoral ministry. There were pastors I admired, and it was the job open to me at the time. Most pastoral work, I discovered, isn’t theological—even though theology is mostly what they teach you in college. Ministry requires people skills more than theological education, which is why some of the happiest pastors are good communicators and skilled people people, even if theologically uneducated. (It is odd how strongly the notion persists that pastors must be theologians, when in either ministry or evangelism they end up brokering a fairly small set of religious ideas. Case in point: Doug Batchelor is better liked and more successful than many who have a more sophisticated and wide-ranging theological knowledge.)
As a person who is conscientious, but more a list-maker than a schedule-follower, I liked that ministry let me set my own agenda. Also, I fall into the “creative” category, and at least in the realm of writing and speaking, ministry let me be a creator. I’ve written thousands of manuscripts (essays always more comfortable to me than books), and I believe I’ve made a contribution to the church through my writing.
I was never a Dwight Nelson or a Charles Bradford, but I think most people liked my preaching—though one lady in my congregation detected that I was a Jesuit and kept a list of the secret Roman Catholic keywords in my sermons. (Nothing has so embarrassed me about Seventh-day Adventism as the ubiquity of this sort of rubbish.)
I also remember fondly many happy moments: weddings, infant dedications, and even a few hopeful funerals—as well as the times when some project (evangelistic, building, or otherwise) paid off. I was most fulfilled sitting at a bedside in the nursing home, praying for a family in their home, listening to a life story, even just offering a word of encouragement at the church door after a church service.
I liked baptisms, too, but I’ve never understood why church leaders have elevated that as the only thing worth a pastor’s effort. Baptism is just a first step. I’m more impressed by follow-through than first steps. Just like marriage, a celebration at the beginning means little compared to long-term faithfulness.
I loved most of the people, and I tried at least to understand all of them. I served in small churches and large, among the rich and the impoverished, in cities and small towns, and though I naturally had more in common with some than others, I did my best to serve without favoritism.
I am an inadequate musician, but in little churches I was able to at least sit at the piano and lead hymns. I made up for lack of talent with volume. But often enough I was the only keyboardist available—thus my mother’s insistence that I take piano lessons did pay off. (Someone joked recently, “The conference should have paid you a bonus for that.” “No,” I said, “had they heard me, they would have deducted from my paycheck.”)
It might be nice if a pastor would accrue as a friend every person from every church in every place he’s served. But being a pastor is a role, and when you leave and someone else steps into that slot, you fade from the memory of those you left behind—which is as it should be. Carmen and I are grateful for a handful who remained attached to us beyond our tenure, who don’t seem to remember my many failures and multiple weaknesses—or who remember them, but are kind enough not to mention them.
And occasionally someone will write me a note and say, “You made a difference in my life.”
What Makes Ministry Hard
There are pastors who complain about what long hours they put in. I think that’s mostly self-imposed. Compared to a lot of our professional friends, we have enviable schedules. I’ve also heard pastors complain that we are paid too little. I’d counter that we have good insurance, subsidized graduate education, a reasonable though not fat salary, a few tax benefits that others don’t get—and how many people would love to send their kids to good private colleges with the subsidies church workers receive? Also, as long as you behave with ordinary common sense it’s hard not to remain employed.
What I must say about ministry, though, is that emotionally and relationally it can be brutal. It is an odd and uncomfortable role to be in. You don’t get to enjoy a church community in the same way your church members do. Some elevate you to sainthood, others regard you as the antichrist. Standing in for God is a dangerous thing.
So a lot depends on where and with whom you worked, your skills, your ability to manage the stress of a public life, and your sense that you are doing something God wants you to do.
What It Takes to Be a Good Adventist Pastor
I grew up in a family, an era, and a religious group, in which it was considered ungracious to claim too much credit for yourself, no matter how successful you were. As we were instructed, “Those men who are the most humble are the men to whom God will say, Come up higher. I can work with you” (Ms 42, 1900). I once followed in a church a pastor who had an astonishingly entitled sense of confidence, and I was always in awe of how he had managed to make people so sharply conscious of what a skilled preacher he was, what an irreplaceable leader. I never knew how to react to it, because I’m more likely to note my deficiencies and hope someone contradicts me.
Now, at the end of my career, I think I know better what a good Adventist pastor needs to be, and I think I can say, without false humility, that I wasn’t quite it.
A good Adventist pastor should enjoy being the center of attention. People will forgive you a great deal if you’re an extrovert.
A good Adventist pastor should take control. You can’t just trust people to do their work. It’s an asset to be a bit bossy. People want someone who will stand up and say, “Just follow me. I’ve got this.”
A good Adventist pastor should have an air of piety. Never mind that no human being is especially holy, you should look and sound holy, and hope you don’t get caught being human.
A good Adventist pastor has a bipolar understanding of truth and error. It probably doesn’t hurt to be downright opinionated about certain things, to be the guy who is convinced he knows the absolute truth. In seminary we were taught a nuanced and complex theology. When I got back to the field my conference president told me that the theology I’d studied had only confused me, and that my job was to present as few doctrines as necessary to get people baptized. (Oddly, it didn’t seem to matter that those who did the most baptizing rarely kept the people they baptized: just baptizing raised them on a pedestal.)
I once thought it was important for a pastor to be sensitive, to be a good listener, to have a feeling of what was going on beneath the surface. But I now think a thick skin may be just as important: it would save you from a lot of pain, because as a pastor you are the perfectly-situated target for projection of whatever or whoever angry people are angry at: the church, God, their families, or even themselves. I would now aver that a valuable qualification for ministry is to have the emotional hide of a rhinoceros.
With regard to this last: one of my biggest sadnesses is how often the people you serve won’t come to your defense when others attack you. It is the hardest thing for me to forgive.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.