One of my elders, a highly successful businessman and manager, lectured me on my need to be more available to my staff. “I always have my door open,” he counseled, “and my reports know they can drop in at any time.”
“I like that idea,” I said, “but there’s a problem here. I spend quite a bit of time in my office counseling with people about matters that require a closed door. Plus, I’m supposed to prepare an excellent sermon each week, and that takes study time. I can’t always leave my door open.”
My elder wasn’t convinced because he wanted me to function like a CEO, or at least an effective line manager.
I’ve saved this model for last both because it is common and because it is so extremely problematic. Many people in your congregation will look upon you as a parent. This is especially true if you are near the age of their parents. But it can also be true if you are close to the age of their children. Pastors are infused with a parental aura.
A year after I arrived at Irvine Presbyterian, a man came to meet with me. He said, basically, “When you first arrived, I didn’t want you to be my pastor. I realized that, before you showed up, I always had older pastors and I thought of them as father figures. I liked that because my relationship with my own father was a mess. But you’re younger than I am. How could you be my father? I’ve been struggling to let you be both my brother in Christ and my pastor.” This man’s openness led to a productive conversation and a long relationship in which I served in the brother/pastor role.
Sometimes, people project their parental “stuff” onto pastors and it isn’t pretty.
During my first years at Irvine, a major leader in our women’s ministry persisted in writing me nasty letters that criticized not just what I did but also my motivations. She was convinced I was using the church as a stepping-stone to greater glory and would soon abandon her and the rest of the congregation.
As we met to talk about her unhappiness with me, I asked about her family. Turns out (no surprise) her father abandoned her and her mother. She had been projecting her experience of her father onto me. (This story has a happy ending. This woman and I became good friends and partners. She ended up moving away from the church several years before I did.)
There are ways in which pastors are, indeed, like ideal pastors, doctors, psychologists, teachers, friends, handymen, magicians, CEOs and parents. Yet, I believe people who equate pastors with one or more of these roles will inevitably struggle with who pastors really are and what they’re really meant to do.
For now, I simply want you to be aware of the cultural models that are relevant in your situation. When your church members and those in your community think about your role, to whom do they compare you?
I’m sure there are other roles and identities against which pastors are compared in our day. If you think of any, please add a comment.