In a recent conversation, my best friend Chase–who is notorious for his questions–asked me, “What has been the most surprising thing about being a pastor?”
My mind raced over the last year.
During my first year of full-time ministry I’ve preached many sermons, baptized infants and grown-ups, taught a weekly Bible study at the local prison, presided at funerals, helped launch new small groups and Sunday School classes, and much more.
It has been a busy year and has gone by quickly. I’ve tried to set boundaries, build relationships, continue learning, mature in Christ, and grow into my pastoral identity. I’ve also discovered for myself the truth one of my seminary professors revealed during an aside from one of his lectures, “The only way you can make it in pastoral ministry is by prayer.”
After running all this through my mind, I answered Chase, “The most surprising thing about being a pastor has been the way people trust me and give me access to the deepest parts of their lives.
A few weeks back I was at a summer camp for middle schoolers called Summer Games. Each night has a theme, and that particular night’s theme was “pray with a friend.” After my friend David preached an amazing message, they invited kids to grab a partner, pray with them, and then continue rotating and praying with others. They also invited them to come forward if they’d like one of the pastors present to pray for them.
I didn’t know a single kid there.
Yet for two hours, the students prayed with one another and lined up for me to pray with them. The students confessed all sorts of specific sins and struggles they were dealing with to me. They also asked me to pray for God to help them break free from everything holding them back from knowing him fully. Most of their parents, siblings, and friends have no idea about the things they told me. But because I was a pastor, they trusted me and felt that they could come to me with their whole hearts.
Numerous times people have pulled up to the church, asked to see a pastor, and then invited me into the deepest–and often darkest–parts of their lives.
I didn’t personally know the people involved in the first two funerals I presided over nor the first deceased person I sat beside and prayed over. Yet, the families touched by these incidences embraced me and welcomed my presence.
On a recent trip to Guatemala, someone heard I was a pastor and invited me into their neighbor’s home to pray over a man who was on his deathbed.
Similar situations have happened over and over again.
All of this has been surprising to me because my generation places a high value on relationships, earning trust, and gaining the right to be heard. Yet, people have allowed me to enter into their lives just because I was a pastor.
That’s the question I’ve often thought about over the last year. Why do so many people give me access to their lives just because I have the word “Pastor” before my name?
While reading Richard John Neuhaus’ book Freedom for Ministry over the last year, I think I’ve discovered part of the answer. Neuhaus writes:
All our talk about lay ministries and the ethos of democratization notwithstanding, the minister inescapably represents the Church. … [The pastor] is the palpable sign of the supportive community and the community’s Lord. Of course Christ has preceded the pastor. Of course Christ’s presence is abidingly immediate to each believer. Of course, of course. But in such times of crisis these commonplaces are frighteningly distant and abstract. It is the personal character of The Presence in the person of the pastor that is believable and consoling.
Perhaps with the rise of the “nones” this won’t be as true in the future. But for now, all pastors would do well to remember Neuhaus’ observation that “the connection between the representative and the One represented is very strong.”
Pastors, what has been the most surprising thing about ministry to you?