Monday, January 24, 2011

Looking at the Pastorate

I want each one of you to go put on your steel-toed boots.  Because I’m about to step on some toes, I’m afraid.

Adam and I were married in July, 1989, and he started seminary in August. We were young, idealistic, energetic. He was 23. I was 26. He wanted to be a pastor. We lived on the campus of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss. I had lived on this campus since 1973, because my dad worked there, so I knew the seminary, the students, the buildings, the faculty and staff – in fact, I knew the whole churchy world inside and out. I thought.

Now, it’s 21 years later.  Adam dropped out of seminary after a year and a half, because we’d run out of money and sold everything we could sell, to pay for tuition. We had a new baby, and Adam was working five part-time jobs.  The Lord has led us on a twisting, fascinating path since then. Adam finished his degree eventually.

We were in seminary with many different people, other couples with a similar goal to ours – to be pastors and pastors’ wives. I had friends from my single days who were students, and friends who married students. And over the years, I’ve heard where they’ve ended up.

I’m alarmed to say, that many, many of them, are no longer in ministry, and no longer doing pastoral work. Without even thinking very hard, I can think of at least 8 couples who’ve dropped off the pastoral bandwagon. They threw in the towel.

And when I heard their tales, I could hardly blame them. A young man, first-time pastor, trying to work with sessions full of men his father’s age. Huge generation gaps. Young couples with parenting ideas, or marriage ideas, or schooling ideas, that didn’t please the church members. Even now, we hear warnings about churches that “chew them up and spit them out.” The church members have lived in the Small Town for generations; the pastor is new. He doesn’t know how to work the social situation –  any social situation! --  much less the intricacies of church families inter-related for decades. He doesn’t know the sides already taken, the people who don’t speak to each other, the traditions that are sacrosanct. His wife is either too friendly or too shy. He is either too pushy and controlling, or too easily swayed. The complaints mount.

When I hear comments from my friends in their 40s, who are former pastors’ wives, they seem jaded, and who can blame them?  Their husbands’ calls were all wrapped up with their marriages, and their own relationships with God and with the church. How long does it take to disentangle the hurt from all that?

Shame on those churches.  However ….

Churches are little sheep folds. Sheep are generally foolish. They choose elders, and pastors, who are unqualified. How can sheep give instructions to the shepherd on how to lead them? But some men go in with an electric cattle prod instead of a gentle shepherd’s crook. Have you heard of churches that are ravaged by one bad pastor after another? The membership dwindles.  The sheep flee the bad treatment. The shepherd beats them over the head, week after week, about his pet theological point. I know of a man who preached a full year on the proper role of women in the church, because he thought his sheep needed it. When sheep sigh and pine from such repetition, some shepherds infer that they just need more of the same. Some shepherds are harsh, judgmental. Where did they learn such pastoral techniques?  Surely the seminaries are training them to lead gently, as Christ leads the church, through patient service and sacrifice? Why do some pastors come in with their own agendas, their own visions, and force those on a church? I could go on and on about other ways that pastors neglect the gentle, slow, hard-working calling of a shepherd.

Shame on those men.

I began this post because my heart breaks for my women friends who are ex-pastors’ wives, who are relieved to be out of that role, who view it as a misery and an oppression. (I know there are many others who love it.) It is too trite to smugly say, ‘Well, their husbands just weren't called.”

The church is broken. Maybe not all churches, not all pastors, but enough that we must admit that some are, and that it’s damaging not only our witness in the world, but damaging Christ’s precious bride. There will be a heavy, heavy judgment upon churches who reject God’s shepherds among them, just as there will be for those Jews who rejected the prophets. And what a terrible judgment for the men who called themselves shepherds, after the Good Shepherd, and then behaved like wolves!

We must examine ourselves. 


  1. Very well written and as one of the group from RTS with a husband driven out of the ministry, I think that your post points to the need for more church leadership (elders, deacons or ministry team leaders as some churches call them) to undergo training to be better equipped for their offices. Many good men make mistakes not out of malice but out of inexperience.

    Being called to church leadership does not mean you are perfectly equipped to lead. A little more humility and grace would go a long way when dealing with a rough patch. The same can be said for pastors, as well, but I see things a bit more clearly from the other side of the fence.

    Thanks for speaking a hard reality in a dignified manner. I hope this spurns some kind, insightful discussion about a topic that too frequently is dismissed.

  2. Thanks, friend. I too hope churches will address this "elephant in the room." Too many lives are damaged by it.


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