Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

The Ministerial Microscope

During the first two years of my undergraduate college education, I studied to be a minister. As part of my studies, I interned in three different churches in the Seattle area, teaching a Sunday School class, leading youth groups and giving an occasional sermon at ill-attended evening services.

MinisterI short-circuited my pursuit of the ministry, choosing instead to major in English literature with a minor in philosophy. In a weak attempt at glibness, I joke that when I got the call, it was the wrong number.

The truth is I didn’t become a minister because I didn’t think I was up to the job.

Joining the clergy, regardless of the faith, is serious business. It is an occupation that requires round-the-clock devotion, yields puny pay and frowns on human imperfection.

The job involves finding the inspiration to write relevant and motivating sermons every week, preside joyously over weddings and pensively over funerals and visit sick people in the hospital, nursing homes and hospice settings. That’s in addition to reading the Bible (sometimes in Greek or Hebrew to gain deeper insight) and prayer. Ministers are supposed to quote Bible verses at will and know the right thing to say in just about every situation.

Ministers are magnets for people’s problems. Couples contemplating divorce. Addictions to alcohol, drugs and pornography. Unquenchable guilt for past bad behavior. Spiritual doubt. Career insecurity. Petty beefs. Ugly gossip. Ministers hear it all. Unlike therapists who ask questions, ministers are expected to give answers.

It is pretty hard to give a pat answer like “it’s God’s will” to somebody on the verge of a breakdown. For many ministers, other people’s drama is a regular part of their weekly routine. It’s like being on a perpetual reality TV show set. It’s exhausting. And it can be disenchanting.

In addition to nurturing and caring for their flocks, ministers also must be paragons of virtue. What constitutes a paragon can vary greatly from denomination to denomination, faith to faith and church to church. What doesn’t vary is the constant gaze of parishioners on their spiritual shepherds. Leave a lousy tip for a waitress, buy a shiny new car or sneak into the liquor store and chances are good someone in your flock will see it and share it. You might expect a call from the head of the deacons.

God may be a minister’s ultimate boss, but the church elders tell them what to do – and not to do. God does the calling; those guys do the firing.

Jim Ledbetter, who left his American Baptist parish work to minister to ministers, once told me a top problem for clergymen is dealing with being human. Temptations that trip up average people ensnare ministers, too. You might get away with one apology to the congregation for a transgression, but that’s it. For most ministers, talking through a problem with your favorite bartender isn’t an option.

As a ministerial student, I was shocked by professorial warnings that a common cause of pastoral downfall occurs when providing comfort to women who are victims of domestic abuse. A reassuring hug in counseling too often turns into a different kind of abuse. We were coached to be empathetic, but wary; comforting, but aloof; loving, but not lovers. This wasn’t the kind of ministerial instruction I had anticipated.

Ministers, perhaps because of their lifelong quest to overcome sinfulness, are caricatured as unsmiling, strait-laced personalities. But ministerial trainees are often the class cut-ups. They can be outgoing, engaging, even entertaining. Those traits can come in handy, especially at church camps. But they also can sour relationships with the people in the first pew, who as often as not are the ones who tithe the most – and let you know it.

Idealists can wind up with repressed and judgmental congregations. I interned at three churches  in three different denominations and saw both the repressed and judgmental congregation types. They expected no wrong from you, and weren’t especially interested to hear about their wrongs from you.

One of my best friends and his wife came face to face with a judgmental congregation when they adopted two multiracial children, who many fine Christians scorned, especially after the couple had a biological child.

Watching a gray-haired eminence pontificate Sunday mornings in an airy temple is not reality TV of the life of a workaday minister. Most ministers work in a more confined space. Their individual walk with God is often interrupted by reminders of hell on earth.

I respect men and women who serve faithfully as ministers. It is definitely a calling, if you can stomach living under a ministerial microscope. Most of us don’t.




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