Taking off the pastor mask

April 13th, 2020
This article is featured in the Growing Spiritually issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

What felt like all-of-the-sudden presence of a global pandemic on North American shores put pastors on alert: Who needs care? Who has groceries? Who’s at risk? It’s what pastors do. But then the prohibitions of group gatherings started. No more than 500. No more than 200. No more than 50. No more than 10. Stay home. Churches were shuttered for Sundays faster than they are vacated after the benediction. The church couldn’t gather, and that's what the church does.

It’s also how they make payroll. Even with the advent of online giving, giving still dips when people aren’t attending.

“If you’re concerned about the pay check, then maybe the pastoral call isn’t yours.” It was a viral grenade launched into social media in response to pastors concerned about…well, their jobs. The intended encouragement was to remind pastors of their calling: to care, to look to the needs of others in their flock. If pastoral alert was slipping into personal alarm, then take watch.

I get it. We all get it. There are pseudo-pastors eager for cash grabs, or obsessed with church door-crashing attractions, or who crumple in the midst of crisis. There are hired hands posing as shepherds out there. No doubt it’s a winnowing time, but it’s completely reasonable to be concerned about the paycheck that feeds your family or the payroll that funds employees that are also under your spiritual care or the long-term impact of a worldwide illness.

Pastors feel both sides—the mystery of the pastorate and mundaneness of personal issues; eternal priorities and everyday pressures; soul care and cashflow. But with whom do we share these concerns? Who sees the mask, and who sees our face? 

It’s unreasonable and even idolatrous to expect pastors not to have personal concerns. At the same time, Peter’s urge to be shepherds remains: watch over, serve, be an example to the flock. Pastors know what it’s like to set aside the concerns of the moment for the cares of the many. But we do not always know how to clothe ourselves with humility. Is it an example to ignore our personal feelings—even ones that leap up in our minds in the midst of life-changing pandemic—for pastoral duties? Is it service to lead others through hellish times while ignoring our own?

The tension pastors can face is just that—the tension of the face: the tension of how much they reveal of themselves to their people. When does authenticity move from service of the flock to self-service? Carl Jung talked about the persona—the mask that people wear to form an image in the mind of others. Pastors must wear pastoral masks just to do the job. Pastors go through hellish times like other people and yet their work continues. If pastors didn’t wear any kind of mask, they would multiply hell even while they accompanied people through it. Pastoral masks keep us, and others, safe.

But this can’t be the end of the story, right? Aren’t masks to be taken off? What about being an authentic person and avoiding hypocrisy?

C.S. Lewis narrates this tension brilliantly in Till We Have Faces. Lewis’ final piece of fiction, which he considered his best, was not as well received by the public and often goes unread; it’s practically invisible next to several Lewis staples like Screwtape Letters and the Chronicles. I know why: It’s a tough read. It’s a slow burn. But to the one who perseveres, there are riches—especially, I think, in the wisdom of pastoral masks.

Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, tells the story of a girl, Orual, just entering into adolescence. The first part of the story is actually Orual’s complaint as an old woman, now looking back on her life. Eldest daughter of an abusive, sonless King, Orual has felt the tension of leadership her entire life. Orual’s father, suffering an injury and delving into madness, is incompetent and the most precious thing in all her life, her youngest sister, has been taken from her. Soon not only the King, but also the High Priest is nearing death. The Kingdom, slowly decaying and only recently past a plague of its own, is facing great threat. Orual is the one to lead.

And it is a mask that lets her do so. Her mask helped her stand up to her father and to develop an identity. A mask helped her triumph in one-on-one combat. But as she wears the mask, it is not an identity as Orual; it is an identity as Queen. Orual keeps the mask: Queen she is and Queen she will be. By various accounts, she is a good Queen. She makes the Kingdom more just, more learned, more profitable, safer. Her people love her. They also only know her with the mask, so that when she wants to be unknown, she takes it off. The tension pastors face is readily seen in this metaphor.

But the second part of the story is different. The first part is a complaint; the second part is Orual’s retraction, her correction. Orual is coming to see herself truly. Wearing a mask has been devastating to Orual. The results have been good leadership and loyal people, but she has gorged on the identity of her two closest friends—without even realizing it. Orual has no identity. Wearing a mask for so long, she has no face. She writes, “How can [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?”

Pastor, can you relate? Do you often feel that wearing the necessary leadership mask of pastor leaves the face beneath the mask faded? The pastor’s own spiritual life might struggle while others are being sanctified by God’s gracious Spirit.

The fix is not getting rid of the mask altogether. It is being mindful of what mask you put on and when, and how, you take it off.

Here’s what I mean. We are told to put on Christ and to clothe ourselves with humility. Think of the mask you wear as the face of Christ. The face of Christ is the face we are destined to have, but we recognize that we might not yet have it; we need to put it on. Our faces are being transformed and those in our care need to see Christ even while there must be people who can see our faces as they are—in the midst of transformation.

I expect that most of us know how to put on the leadership mask of pastoral ministry. We know how to attend to one’s trivialities, troubles, and trials and then to celebrate another’s blessing on the same day with the appropriate demeanor. But taking off the mask is tougher. How do we do it?

Read. Take the mask off by reading the written Word. Go to the written Word without a purpose. Read consistently from a section you are not about to “use.” Take a posture of humility. Orual describes her experience before the gods as like having a word being “dug out” of her. Let the written Word be like a hook that goes into you deeply and digs out the word that is buried deep within. Is there a word that captures your attention? Listen to it.

Write. Take the mask off by writing your words. How do you externalize? The benefit of writing is mulling. If a word isn’t quite right, we can redo it—erase and capture the emotion and experience. Words take thoughts captive, pinning them to the page with clarity. Write. Write. Write. Orual writes, “[The gods] used my pen to probe my wound.” But be mindful of who has access to these words.

Rest. Take the mask off by resting with the Word made Flesh. Reading and writing take real work. Putting on the mask facilitates the discipline of work; taking off the mask takes discipline of rest. Christ took Sabbath and he is our Sabbath. We take off the mask by humbly accepting the need to rest and being with him in rest. The mask comes off when we refuse to put it on.

Christ shines in critical times and in crisis. We need to put Christ on to be his leaders. We put on the face of Christ as our pastoral mask. But when the critical time and crisis is worldwide, pastors should expect some personal concern, too. It’s not evidence contrary to your calling; it evidence that you need a Christ. And we have one. Face him in the written Word; face him in your written word; face him in your rest.

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