by Dale S. Ryan
I remember a conversation that my wife and I had as we approached the close of my seminary education. We spent long hours talking about post-seminary options, trying to discern what would be best, waiting for wisdom. I remember distinctly a moment when I summarized my desires something like this: “All I really want is to find a nice church, a church with nice people, that’s all.” What I did not have enough self awareness to say at the time was “I really want to find a nice church, full of nice people, where I could be the nice pastor. And I want a church where the nice people will be nice to the nice pastor.”
I did my best to make this happen. We did our very best to choose a nice church full of nice people. Eventually I accepted a position as an associate pastor in a large congregation that met in beautiful facilities situated atop a hill in southern California, across the street from a country club. It was a nice church by any standards. I set out to be a nice pastor.
I think you can probably anticipate what I could never have imagined at the time. I was deeply invested in the notion that I had chosen a nice church full of nice people – I really wanted that to be true. I remember when I responded to the first situation in the congregation involving the sexual abuse of a child. It was within a month of my arrival, right at the beginning of my quest to be a nice pastor. As I look back on my response to the situation I can see many layers of denial at work. There was a part of me that welcomed this kind of difficult situation. This confused me enormously at the time and I did not understand it at all. As I look back I can see that the situation had two quite perverse benefits – both of which I only dimly sensed and neither of which I could have put into words or have allowed to emerge fully in consciousness. First, an event like this allowed the nice people in the congregation to identify one of the not-nice people and to disassociate themselves from the not-nice. What could be a better confirmation of our nice-ness than our rejection of the not-nice. We had found the bad apple and would have a purer barrel when it was removed. Secondly, I welcomed the opportunity for me to perform as a nice pastor in a difficult situation. My status as nice pastor would be enhanced by my competence in ministry. I would be the resourceful, caring, gifted, competent pastor. People would be grateful. In the end the nice people would be nice to the nice pastor because he was so good.
As you might imagine, although my denial about the nice-people was tenacious, it eventually yielded to reality. After all the first case of sexual abuse in the congregation was not the last. It was just the first in a long series. Eventually I was forced to recognize that the nice people in my nice congregation were really just troubled people dressed up to look nice. They were in fact very troubled sexually. And in many other ways as well. Addiction and abuse were the rarely acknowledged, central themes in the life of the congregation.
This realization took a long time for me. And it made me angry. How could this be? I came to a church full of nice people and now all I see everywhere I look are people with problems. How did it happen that I did my very best to find a nice church and what I choose was a congregation whose main problems were big league problems: addiction and abuse? I was prepared to deal with tragedy – they had talked about that in seminary. I had some sense of how to respond when the inevitable, the unavoidable happened. But the day-to-day of being a pastor for me was not about the unavoidable. Sexual abuse is avoidable. Addiction is avoidable. It was not the tragic that confronted me each morning as I entered my office. It was the more confusing, more complicated, more entangled problems. Problems way past the mere tragic. For this I was totally unprepared. And I was afraid. I did not know what to do, what to say, or how to be. Nothing had prepared me for the level of dysfunction I sensed in the congregation.
So I got angry. It was, at the time, my main defence against the helplessness that seemed to overwhelm me on every side. I was not smart enough to know what to do or say. I was not competent enough. This was not what I had signed up for! What is wrong with you people? And where is the God whose gracious presence should protect us from all of this?
It was about this time that I remembered a conversation with a pastor who once told me that he loved the ministry, he just hated his congregation. That’s about where I was. How dare these people be not-nice people?
As I look back over almost a decade now I can see that the anger was a saving grace. It was inarticulate to be sure. It was messy, disorganized, defensive. But it probably saved my life. I was too angry to function. It was the anger that finally forced me to face the real problem. The real problem was NOT that the people in my congregation were not nice people. The real problem was that I was not a nice pastor. Not even close. I was way, way too angry to qualify as a nice pastor. Like most of us, my denial about the congregation broke long before my denial about my own issues. But it was not until I faced the fact that I was not the idealized, omni-competent pastor that I had hoped to become that anything changed for the better. I had to face the fact that I could not be always ready and able to help other people with their problems – I couldn’t do it because my own problems were staggering. All the unacknowledged issues in my own life that I had been trying to cover up by compulsively giving myself to others – all of these issues began to surface and demand attention. They were the real engine for all the rage I was experiencing.
I needed help.
Such a simple thing. Such an obvious thing. A no-brainer. Almost too basic to mention. But it took me years to figure it out. I needed help.
Now I am amazed as I look back at my early years in ministry. I am grateful for all the experiences I had and still feel good about having helped many other people with their struggles. But what stands out today, what looms over all, is the painful, terrible grace that led me to finally get help for myself. Of all the manifestations of grace, it was the one I wanted the least. My prayers, if spoken truthfully at the time, would have sounded like this:
Please, God, let me experience your grace in my competence.
Let me experience your grace in the giftedness you have granted to me.
Let me experience your grace in my service for you.
But please, please, God, protect me from experiencing your terrifying grace-full-ness in my weakness.
Looking for a nice church where you can be the nice pastor?
I encourage you to learn from my experience and the experience of many others in ministry. There is no nice church. And there are no nice pastors. There are only needy people and needy pastors. Jesus said it clearly and unambiguously. “If you are well, you don’t need a physician.” If you find a congregation that doesn’t need a physician more skilled than yourself, you are in deep trouble. And if you think you have found a way to be gifted enough, or dedicated enough, or competent enough, or kind enough, or skilled enough to solve other people’s problems, you are also in deep trouble. Sooner or later reality will set in. God’s grace is occasioned by our weakness. If you wish to experience grace, you must lean into your weakness rather than run from it.
All this is really to introduce you to the vision for the Clergy Recovery Network. Let me just say that the Clergy Recovery Network is not a place for nice pastors. It is a place for pastors who know they need help. It’s that simple. I hope that you will join with us in this little virtual place. Help us to make it a safe place for pastors who are struggling. The struggle cannot be avoided. But it need not be done alone. We can help each other on the journey.
May God grant you the serenity you need this day. And may your roots sink deeply in the soil of God’s love.