- “I feel like a dancing bear. It’s my job to get up and perform for the crowd, and as long as the performance is good, everyone is happy. Except me. Something is missing and I don’t know what to do.”
It was early Tuesday morning. We met in our usual hangout, an out-of-the-way coffee shop where we could talk openly and candidly away from the ears of church members. We met there many times, and we had shared a lot of life in that little spot. We were two pastors talking about our kids, marriages, hopes, joys and frustrations with ministry.
On this day, when my friend walked through the door, we didn’t exchange the usual banter. He was struggling, and I could see it. He’d recently taken a new position, but some of the familiar frustrations were returning. It had been a short honeymoon. He was becoming increasingly disenchanted with ministry.
“Sometimes as a worship pastor,” he said, “I feel like a dancing bear. It’s my job to get up and perform for the crowd, and as long as the performance is good, everyone is happy. Except me. Something is missing and I don’t know what to do.”
We spent the next couple of hours processing what was going on inside him and some of the disillusionment he was feeling. I asked, “When do you feel most fulfilled?”
I was a bit surprised by his response: “I am most fulfilled when I get to sit down one-on-one with a person and walk away feeling like I actually pastored them.”
Here was a guy with incredible talents and stage presence. He has led worship in some of the country’s larger churches, and what was missing was his connection to people. His success had actually isolated him from the very congregation he was called to serve. He had moved from pastoring sheep to producing services.
I haven’t been able to get that conversation out of my head. What my friend articulated, I have felt.
It reminds me of a brief conversation when my own words surprised me. One evening I walked in the door after a long day of meetings, and my wife matter-of-factly asked, “How was your day?”
“Today I felt more like the vice-president of a corporation than a pastor in a local church. I miss connecting with people in the church.”
But the truth is, most days I was fine with it. People are a hassle. They are messy, frustrating, and often draining. It was easier (though less meaningful) to fill my days with running an organization.
Eugene Peterson said,
Pastoral work consists of modest, daily, assigned work. It is like farm work. Most pastoral work involves routines similar to cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds. This is not, any of it, bad work in itself, but if we expected to ride a glistening stallion in daily parades and then return to the barn where a lackey grooms our steed for us, we will be severely disappointed and end up being horribly resentful.
He’s so right. Over time, a subtle and incremental shift took place in my thinking about the work of pastoring. My focus shifted from ministering to people to managing them. I began to obsess about organizational development rather than people development. The wins began to be defined not by ministry to people but only the measurements of programs.
I began to view people as those we minister through rather than those we minister to. I know this is not an either/or proposition. There are both organizational and people sides to ministry. But my point is we need to lean into both aspects; we need to be good organizational leaders and yet we need to truly value and engage people.
One of the valuable insights I learned from Rick Warren is about the priorities of a healthy church. They are
(1) Purposes of God
The order is crucial, and it dawned on me that we had switched numbers two and three. Our programs (ministries) had leapfrogged people in our priorities and focus.
Our intentions were noble. We hoped our programs were the means of discipling and growing people. But if we aren’t careful, the planning, production, and participation become the focus, and the actual people the program was designed for get lost in the organizational grind.
Another factor fueling this problem is that programs are easy to measure. It’s easy to count the number of people in the seats, so that’s usually what ends up getting celebrated. But the size of a church or ministry doesn’t matter when it comes to caring for people. Some large churches are very personal and soft toward people. Some small churches are impersonal and hard toward people. It isn’t about size, but mindset.
It also has nothing to do with role or position. Even if your primary responsibility is organizational or operational, you can still treat people with personal care and attention.
The words of the great English Puritan Richard Baxter, more than three hundred years ago, have never been more timely:
The whole cause of our ministry must also be carried on in a tender love for our people. We must let them see that nothing pleases us more than what profits them. We should show them that what does them good does us good also. We should feel that nothing troubles us more than what hurts them.
Lance is the founder of Replenish ministries and is often referred to as a Pastor’s Pastor. He is also the author of the book Replenish, which is dedicated to helping leaders live and lead from a healthy soul. Before launching Replenish, Lance served 20 years as a senior pastor and 6 years as an Executive/Teaching pastor at Saddleback Church.