Dear cadets, especially Jeff and Sheena:
You’ve been waiting for years. Some of you have been waiting for decades, paying off debt, selling homes and cars, working through complicated hearts and minds in order to get into – and through – training. You’ve prayed, studied, lost sleep, sat through lectures so dull that you missed the joy-filled physics lectures from high school. You’ve listened to officers who’ve “been there,” heard about the glory days and the horror stories.
You’re weeks from commissioning. You’re working on the songs you’ll sing, practicing walking and sitting, staring at the commissioning uniform and trim hanging in the closet. It’s not much of a change, really. Red trim and a star instead of blues and bars. You can’t wait. You’re a bundle of nerves and excitement. Red shoulders… You’ve been waiting.
I am hardly the voice that your instructors want you to hear. I am the warning, the cautionary tale. Maybe that’s why I want to say something to you at all.
I used to wear red trim. I have been where you are. When I was in training, my session mates were sure we would be the exception, that none of us would leave. On one hand, I wish that had been true, that some of us had had different experiences as officers. On the other, I knew it was unrealistic.
I hope that your experience is so much different from mine.
For whatever it might be worth, here are the things I wish I had known years ago:
1. Your ordination is not given by The Salvation Army. They may be the ones to legally register you, but ordination comes from God. This is, perhaps, the most important thing. God gives you your ordination, your pastor’s heart, your love for people. That doesn’t go away. Ever. Never ever ever.
2. Most “fire” will be “friendly fire.” Unless you are in a developing country or one riddled with war, chances are, the most devastating and perpetual conflict will be with those in your corps and with other officers. Become students of conflict resolution. Try to make sure you are sending out as little fire as possible.
3. Your faith will change. You will have seasons of doubt. These are generally good things. If your faith doesn’t change in unexpected ways, you’re doing it wrong.
4. Position statements are not doctrine. There is no doctrine about abortion, homosexuality, pacifism, or the death penalty. You don’t have to agree on position statements. You won’t agree with everyone on them. This does not mean they, or you, get to judge another’s state of salvation/faith/intelligence because it is different.
5. Do not let the SA become all that you are. Please, my darlings, hold tight to what makes you so special. Stay weird, even if it means you’re not at the Cool Kids Table at officer’s councils. Keep on with your DC Comics glee, your intense love of the Oakland Raiders, your knitting needles. If you are a Cool Kid, sit with the dorks. The quiet officers, the officer who brings a Muppets blanket when she’s cold, or the one who laughs way too loudly.
6. There is life outside of the SA. There is ministry after officership. I know, you’re either nodding along and saying “I know, I know,” or you’re absolutely certain that it won’t be you, because you’re in for life. However, life, and officership, will take you in directions you cannot imagine. Please don’t ever think that this is the only way for you to fulfill your calling.
7. DHQ and THQ are not always right. Never be afraid of them. Ever. They only have as much influence and power as you give them. Do not let them intimidate you. Intimidation is the primary tool of the insecure fool and impotent manager. In the same vein, do not think that the red on your shoulder is license to intimidate employees or soldiers.
This may sound like a gloomy list, and I suppose that, when compared to a lot of what you have heard, it is. My goal isn’t to frighten you or make officership sound horrible. I just wanted to tell you a few things I learned that weren’t in the brochure, some truths that I wish I had known and held onto during my time wearing red.
You are both stronger and more fragile than you could possibly understand right now. Time and strangers will help you discover that. Whatever your journey is, however long it lasts, you are loved. By God, by me, and by every little boogery kid that walk through the door (even when none of us seem to be good at communicating that).
Please take care of yourself. Ask for help. Let others help you. Be ready to help others.
And breathe. No matter how many people are in the audience, just breathe. You can do this.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had a double Starbucks day, but today is one. In fact, today might be the first double Starbucks day I have had since I resigned from professional ministry. Last night, I worked until 11, and then had to be back at work at 6 a.m., which doesn’t sound all that awful until I factor in the half-hour drive each way, the fact that I am never actually out on time, and still had to eat dinner when I got home and shower when I got up, and, perhaps more significantly, my brain is more likely to misbehave when I’ve not slept well. My first cup was a venti dark roast I picked up on my way in to work. When I got to work, the place was full of customers. Men just standing there, talking about nothing and drinking their coffees. I think I may have grumbled a hello as I stalked through them to get to the office.
I did not feel very pastor-y today. I didn’t want to have to see or interact with people. I didn’t want to listen to anyone’s problems. And for the love of everything holy, I did not have it in me to be gracious to other crabby people.
As a pastor, I should have known better: people seem to know when I feel least pastor-y, and that’s when they demand it.
My first shifter got a running start on pushing my buttons. She refuses to take on any responsibility, but wants to do all the management tasks that make her feel like she has authority. She has been in the store longer than anyone else, so she feels like she can do whatever she wants. She is forever telling me what she thinks I should be doing and is frequently disrespectful, particularly when she has an audience. It wasn’t even 7 a.m. when I was venting in my office, via my cell phone, to my sister.
I needed to be gracious in how I dealt with her. But oh my God, why today? Couldn’t she have waited until tomorrow to be in such a spectacularly awful mood?
I spent more than an hour trying to deal with a vendor whose delivery was every kind of messed up you can imagine: wrong products, wrong quantities, wrong prices. We scanned and counted and crossed things off of lists, and still, we got nowhere. There was no combination of things that got us to the right ending.
I needed to be patient. Of all the days to demand patience, today was hardly the best choice, but there we stood, reviewing stacks of Monster energy drinks and trying to sort out $3000 worth of beverages clogging up the hallway.
As a pastor, I should have known better: the universe knows when I can’t handle one more thing, and that’s when it throws its best curve balls.
My two favorite people to work with are Carol and Abby.* Abby works at the sandwich counter in the store, is barely nineteen, with a pixie face and her dark hair up in twin pom poms that look like Minnie Mouse ears. Last night, we were talking about tattoos, and I told her that the verse written in Hebrew on my right wrist reminds me that no matter what is happening, God’s character is constant. She told me about her tattoos, from the matching bow tattoos she shares with an aunt to the flower on her arm “just because it’s pretty.” Her grandmother, Carol, works on my side of the store. She’s in her mid-fifties, with bottle-blonde hair, pink iridescent lipstick, and a voice that tells you that she has had a wild life. She’s shamelessly herself, chatty, funny, caring, loud, and has the ability to make people feel like they are the light of her world, just by being on the other side of the counter. She’s always talking about her dream of owning a food truck, making good, reasonable food for people in an environment where she can cook, hang out, and live the life she loves. Sometimes, despite the fact that I know she doesn’t have much of an income, she will make a bunch of food and bring dinner for everyone at work just to let us know she cares. I adore her. Last night, I got to work with both Abby and Carol, and it was really great.
When Carol came in today, she looked at me and said “Honey, you look so tired, and a little depressed. Hard day? is everything OK?” I said that I was pretty tired, and that it had been a hard day, but that I was otherwise OK. She asked about how things are going with a guy that I’ve been seeing, and I filled her in on the latest. She was, as usual, glad to hear that things are going well.
“I’ve had a hard day, too,” she finally said. “You know I went to that [lung] specialist today, and that asbestos disease that they talk about on TV? Well, I don’t have that, but it’s almost the same thing. My lungs are all folded up and full of shit and there’s no treatment or anything. I’m gonna get a second opinion, but if it’s this disease, I didn’t do nothing to cause it, but then it’s like, six months and I’m gone.” She wiped under her eye. “Don’t tell nobody. I’m not saying anything until I get a second opinion, and if I talk about it, I’m gonna cry again. So don’t tell nobody, OK?”
Regardless of the work polo I was wearing, I was immediately in “pastor mode” again. I listened, and told her that I wouldn’t talk about it with anyone in the store (given the fact that none of you know her/where I work and names are changed, I figure this isn’t violating her privacy). I was stunned. She has been in and out of emergency rooms for her breathing, and her condition was generally overlooked by the staff at the income-dependent medical clinic that she went to for far too long.
She’s too young. Too nice.
She doesn’t deserve it. I mean, how many people do you know who, when given a six-month sentence, go to work a few hours later and are first concerned about how their raggedy boss is doing?
I’m glad she feels like she can tell me these things. She’s part of my little unofficial mini flock, now that I am in a different kind of ministry. I doubt she thinks of me as her pastor, but she does think of me as a friend, and that’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.
As her friend, I’m devastated, heartbroken. I am so very angry that it is happening to her.
I’m helpless. My years of pastoring taught me well that I cannot fix anything. I can guide, love, teach, pray. but I cannot fix things, and that is the cruelest reality for pastors. Every pastor I know wants to fix things, and not one of us can. I’m reminded, again, by the verse on my arm that God didn’t change from one minute to the next. God is still God, diagnosis or not. No matter how hard that is to comprehend today.
So I do what I can do: I can love. Listen. Grieve. Pray. Be a friend. And drink this tea at Starbucks while I brainstorm how to do those things better.
*Names are changed.
I should be sleeping. I have to be up for work in a few hours, and I’ll no doubt regret this in the morning, but I won’t sleep if I don’t write it.
A few months ago, my friend and fellow pastor told me about how often people seem to be drawn to him for the kind of listening ear and compassion that is the earmark of a good pastor, even when they don’t know he’s a pastor. I get it: he’s often a pastor as well as a friend to me, even though he didn’t necessarily sign up for the gig. I remember telling him that being a pastor doesn’t have to do with a title.
And then I resigned my role as professional pastor, and felt like my pastoring days were over.
I always felt weird thinking of myself as a pastor. I often feel like people are a huge mystery I’m always studying, only to find myself more and more bewildered by them. I certainly care for people, and have tried hard to maintain that, despite whatever hurts I’ve experienced. But pastor? I’m no meek Mother Teresa. I’ve spent days at hospital bedsides, but I can’t even wager a guess about how much of that time was painfully boring. Do you have any idea how often I (and the rest of the pastoring population) think “oh mercy, will you people stop talking and complaining for five stinking minutes!!!!” — only to immediately feel horrible for having had that moment of humanity? It’s in the billions of times, often before our first cup of coffee is done.
So because I felt so human in my pastoring, I often felt like I was missing something. Surely if I was a better pastor, I would feel less human. Less cranky. Less “strong-willed.” Don’t get me wrong: I spent all those hours in hospitals and listening and serving because it was what I wanted to do. It’s the only way I know to be, despite how human I am.
Officially, I am anything but a pastor now. Given the total crap economy in this former industrial city, the best job I could get with some measure of immediacy was as a manager at a truck stop. In a lot of ways, I hate it.
“I have to eat at work, because we have no food at home, other than what I can afford for my daughter,” explained one employee, as she ate the overcooked hotdog that had been pulled from the grill and had been destined for the garbage. A single mother whose oldest kids are in college, she does what she can to make it while her youngest is still home. Last month’s paychecks fell just so that it looked like she “made too much” for food stamps, so she is cut off until next month, when the state will deem her poor enough again. I hadn’t asked about – or particularly noticed – her eating the hotdog. I hate that we throw food away, so if anyone wants to eat it, fine by me. Yet for some reason, she felt comfortable offering such personal information. Maybe she was afraid I’d be mad at her for eating it, but I doubt that’s the case. It was shortly after she had asked about my tattoo (Deuteronomy 6:4; a giveaway that I’m a person of at least some kind of faith). Later that shift, she told me about her shaken faith, nearly obliterated by the death of her grandmother, who had been the religious glue in the family.
“You know, I – I – *sigh* I’ll be honest. I’ve just gone through a real big transition, and I just – I needed a new start. I got a new career, a new life, and so I painted the house. Then I colored my hair. Then I got my neighbor’s scissors, flipped my head over, and I chopped. Then I flipped my head up and chopped some more. And then I thought, ‘OK, now I’m ready.'” All I had done is compliment the in-store Subway manager about her hair. I didn’t expect for her to share about her tough season, or how she was eager to start over. Those are the kinds of things people tell pastors, not gas managers.
I’ve been trying to think about why my employees/coworkers seem to be so open and candid about their struggles. None of them know I was a minister. None of them necessarily know I go to church. I do listen a lot, though, whether it’s because I don’t know what to say or because I think they just need ears to hear their words. I don’t really offer solutions or answers because I don’t feel it’s my place as their boss to weigh in on how to deal with personal matters, so I say a lot of social worker sort of things like “I can see how that would be really hard to deal with.”
A lot gets said about the “ministry of presence” and “active listening” when in seminary, but I almost think I have more time for it now than I did when I was a professional. Instead of trying to figure out how to get hurting people to come into my church to be ministered to, I’m the one they see for hours every week.
I wish that these two things were taught to the lay people in our congregations. They are the ones who have the most contact with the outside world. How different would the church be if it was made up of people who were present and listening in their own communities? Not beating them down with immediate evangelism or invitations to some overly programmed Women’s Ministries function, but just listening.
I didn’t have a congregation for a few months while I was unemployed. I got to join a new congregation that I absolutely love. While I still kind of hate my job, the last two days have helped me see that while I may not be where I would pick, and while I am still trying to figure out how to not feel so embarrassed about my job, I am still a pastor. It’s a continual lesson in humility, but it’s not like I’m the first person to find themselves in an unorthodox, unofficial ministry position.
Hopefully, I’ll remember this tomorrow, when I am stupidly tired and maybe a little more cranky – and human – than a pastor should be.
On the table in my office sits a green canvas post-bound book containing roughly fifty years worth of church membership records. In the front, a list of pastors who have served here, with their dates of arrival and departure. Then, pages of records of members, most of them “former.” There’s a little more information on their pages – dates of conversion, marriage, enrollment, etc.
Today, the night before my “Farewell Sunday,” I took the book out and did my last bits of record-keeping. I put in the date of my farewell. I marked a few records with post-its for the next official review by the new pastors and headquarters.
There were two that I had held off on… two that I could have noted and removed months ago, but I couldn’t.
The first was the record for my friend Dave, who passed away just after Thanksgiving in 2012. Pastors aren’t supposed to have favorites, but if I’m honest, Dave was my favorite. Hairy and smily, always ready to go rounds with me over our football rivalry, he made me laugh. He was dedicated to the work he did at the church – if it was open, he was here. If not, he was waiting for someone to come open the building. He welcomed me like family, and I miss him. It was a privilege to officiate his funeral, but I couldn’t bring myself to note his record until today.
The second record belonged to his granddaughter, a beautiful young girl who knew too much sorrow before she was killed at the age of seventeen, just two months after Dave. She and I shared a love of Starbucks and tattoos, and she sided with me against her grandpa when it came to football. We sang pop songs together in the van on the way to camp and talked about boys. Her death split my life in two, and I think about her just about every day. I did her funeral as well, one of the hardest things I have done. Today, closing her record feels personal. Years from now, other pastors will just see a piece of paper with almost nothing written upon it. No marriage, no adult enrollment, no leadership positions held. But I knew the girl whose life was between those dates. Along with a few pastors who came before me, I get to be the one to say “she was mine – I knew the girl who lived.”
Praise God, it doesn’t end there!
The last two records I handled today were additions. Two sisters who have come a long way in the time I’ve known them now join their brother as members of our church. Young teens now, they were just enrolled a few weeks ago. For them, their records are exciting: a name, birth date, and junior enrollment date, beside which, I get to write my name as their pastor. For all the pastors who will come after me, I get to be the one to say “I knew them when…” Years from now, if they see their records, they’ll hopefully remember me. In the mean time, I get to hope for all that’s in store for them: marriages, adult enrollment, all kinds of adventures in life await them! I placed their records in last so that I was leaving on a good note.
It will be hard to say goodbye to people tomorrow, but I know it’s time for a new adventure for me, too. On the pastors line for me, all that’s there is my name and two dates. Nothing that speaks of the mountains I climbed while here, or how changed I am. Nothing in the book at all, unless you know the lives of the other records that bear my name: Dave, Becca, Angel, Jada, and Donald. They are where my story is told.