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.