The Illusion of Pastoral Effectiveness

February 27th, 2012
You're not a superhero (or a villian)

The acceptance of reality is always a liberation from the burden of illusion that we strive to justify by our errors and our sins. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 116

What are the illusions in my life that I accept as reality?

Wow, if I were to be thorough, we'd go on all day and not even scratch the surface. I know I have lots of illusions about my life and the world around me that aren't true, and I'm quite certain that I don't even know what most of them are!

But the one that comes to mind first deals with my vocation as a pastor. It's an illusion called "pastoral effectiveness".

I'm in my first year at Arlington, and while I know this church and I are a very good fit for one another, I know the "honeymoon" period is still ongoing. We're still getting to know one another, and the newness of it all is exciting. That's not to say that bad things will start happening, but the reality of human relationships is that after you start getting used to someone, you start to notice more things that bug you.

Attendance and giving have generally been trending in positive directions, and people have had a lot of nice things to say about me (which I do not take for granted, because there have been times in ministry when it felt like I couldn't do anything right in a congregation's eyes). We're starting a new worship service soon, as well as exploring the possibility of some other new ministries to our community. People's attitude about the church is generally very positive and enthusiastic.

So the illusion I'm tempted to accept as reality is that all of these good things are the direct result of me being a very effective pastor, and to imply by silence that God has only had a marginal role.

This temptation is especially strong right now because I'm interviewing for full ordination in less than two weeks, and the benchmark the Board of Ordained Ministry sets is seeing that a person has demonstrated "effective ministry."

Pastors certainly do have a lot of influence over the way things go in their congregation. Their leadership can help things go in positive or negative directions. But like the President, Bishop, or any other leader, pastors get more credit than they deserve when things go well, and more blame than they deserve when things go poorly.

So if I draw pride from the illusion that the times when things are going well are all because of me, I set myself up to be absolutely destroyed when things don't go well, because I will believe others when they place the blame entirely on my shoulders.

The truth is that, like any other relationship, the pastor/congregation relationship is a two way street. There's a lot to be said for chemistry, and all parties in the relationship have the potential to bring out the best or the worst in one another.

I believe that my time with Arlington will be judged successful in the final analysis, at least by the metrics and standards that our denomination is emphasizing right now. But I want my real goal to be judged by God as having been faithful to my task and have lived with integrity to who God has created me to be.

But none of those things will happen if I allow myself to live with the illusion that everything lives and dies on "pastoral effectiveness". I play my part, but this is God's work. The times that I forget this, I get in big trouble.


This post is part of the author's series of Lenten reflections on Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton. Read more at his blog, The Truth as Best I Know It.

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