Similar to the new “Monday Brief” series which will reflect upon my thinking throughout the course of pastoral care in the liturgy, I hope to offer the pastors and worship leaders who read this blog a bit of encouragement each Friday as you look forward to your work. As always, this blog reaches an audience of around 500 from a variety of traditions, so take what is appropriate to you and feel free to discard the rest.
I spent time this week with four different pastors in various settings, and the tenor of our conversations centered around confidence. In my previous post, I reflected upon an article in The Mennonite in which the authors talk about toxicity in congregations, particularly from chronic negative behavior that is unaddressed. The article discussed the high cost of such negativity on the mental health, emotional stability, and self-esteem of pastors in their work.
As I listened to these various pastors talk, and I thought about my own journey and my current spiritual state, I was disheartened by the lack of self-confidence in so many pastors (myself included). We have been targeted, destructively criticized, publicly shamed, and carry the weight of deep emotional hurt from so many in our congregations, all the while feeling constrained to stand up for ourselves against those who bully us and others. While this demonstrates the need for strong support from strong lay leaders, and for healthy boundaries and self-care when dealing with parishioners and personal growth, it reveals the undercurrent of our lack of self-confidence in carrying out our God-appointed task: fear.
I look ahead toward many Sundays with fear, and my dear pastor and worship leader friends, I know you do, too. We are afraid that, in the doing of the work God has called us to do – comforting, correcting, proclaiming, unsettling, challenging – we lay ourselves open to more attacks, more destruction, more hurt. And, for some of you, I know that you lay yourselves open to the possibility of being forcibly terminated. The fear of a loss of income, loss of credibility, loss of your home oftentimes determine whether you say what needs to be said. These are real and legitimate fears. And sometimes, you are simply afraid of being hurt one more time by persons who never change their behavior. So we guard ourselves and shrink from our work as spiritual fathers and mothers to our people.
The most commonly repeated sentiment in the Bible is some variation of “do not be afraid.” I personally preach on this often in our current political and cultural climate, both with the ongoing military conflicts and the violence and vitriol in our civil discourse. Fear is a powerful emotion, perhaps the most powerful we have. It is evolutionary; it is sometimes impossible for us to not be afraid of someone or something that holds the potential to wound or destroy us.
The narrative lectionary text for this Sunday from which I will be preaching is the story of the three men in the book of Daniel who are cast into the fiery furnace for refusing to pay homage to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. Their response in the face of real physical threat is remarkable: if our God can save us, we will be saved; if not, we will still not bow down. I do not doubt they were afraid. But in the midst of their potential fear, they stood up and said what needed to be said. They were confident in the face of fear.
Pastors and worship leaders, I know your anxiety and I stand in solidarity with you in your fear. But be empowered. Be bold. Do not hold back from the work to which you have been called out of fear. Comfort those who need comforting, discipline those who need to be disciplined, and proclaim the good news that challenges and uproots every part of our lives. It is not ego or arrogance for you to be confident in your work. It is following the example of Jesus.
So, I will do my best to be confident in my work this weekend, no matter how scary it may feel or how hot the flames from the furnace feel against my face. Will you try, too? We may get hurt, but at least we will have been faithful. And in the end, that’s what matters most.