Friday, July 03, 2015

On being a ministry screw-up

I feel like a failure. My wife says I am not. My executive minister says I am not. My mentor says I am not. (Ok, my mentor and executive minister are the same person) It does not help much. I have prayed something similar to the prayer that J.R. Briggs quotes in his book "Fail" lately,
"Lord, I will do anything--make deliveries for UPS, sell insurance, work in a warehouse, work construction, substitute teach. I'll do anything, except ministry."
I say this for a while, and mean it. But, deep down, I don't feel like God has relinquished his call on me, either in this place or in ministry as a whole. But, there are days and moments where all I want to do is run as far away from here as I can.

Part of the reason I feel like a failure as a pastor and worthless as a human being has to do with the measurable statistics of ministry. Attendance is down at my church from 5 years ago (I got here 3.75 years ago). We struggle with giving, although this is the first year we have been in the black at this point in over a decade. Baptisms are not plentiful. Professions of faith are few and far between. Ministry initiatives often show short-term momentum, but fail to develop long term viability. Its heartbreaking. And, it is clear, everyone thinks it is my fault. And much of the time I am a part of the "everybody".

If I was smarter, better, more charming or more energetic then.....

I go to ministry workshops. They seem to be designed to hone my skills. Instead I go deeper into the hole of despair, hearing the success stories of churches around the country. Their programs and methods don't seem so viable in my setting. We are trying new things, but the decline continues, ever so slowly.

 I don't know how to turn it around. In my head I don't believe it is all my fault. I tell myself I can't do everything--because I can't. Our church is aging. Decline and growth in churches is exponential. Exponential forces are challenging ones to fight against.

In my heart I feel I am to blame. People are eager to point out why they think I am to blame as well. My weaknesses are apparent, and I was upfront about them from the start when this church hired me. Managing administrative details is not my gift.

I'm just a frickin loser.

Another reason I feel like a failure is that I feel very alone in the work I do. In the last four years I have had to confront several difficult leadership decisions and wave after wave of challenging circumstances.

The challenging professional circumstances include:

  • A decision to change from two services to one service after I had agreed to candidate at the church and before my arrival.
  • Blatant lies stated about me and my family by staff people and people in lay ministry leadership. Some of these people harassed my family around town, threatened bodily harm, and engaged in stalking behavior outside of my home.
  • Key lay leadership who brought me into service here in South Dakota has continually tried to undermine me. Behaviors such as having the previous pastor talk to me about how he did certain ministry work, refusal to follow through on commitments in a way that left me holding the bag at the last minute wondering what happened, occasional boycotting of church, vicious gossip, working behind the scenes to sow discord, and frequent volital emotional outbursts directed toward me have made my work extremely difficult
  • Having to confront religious groups attempting to take over outreach ministries that were housed in our church. These religious groups had a different faith perspective and mission than our own, and were even invited to participate if they would take specific steps not to identify or promote their religious perspective in our congregation. They refused, and several people are still angry with us for asking them to do so.
  • Staff member compelled to resign because of clear boundary violations with people in ministry care
  • Another staff member publically shaming me in worship, disregarding and disobeying direct instructions, and taking leave without communicating with me about it beforehand. Church leadership on such matters instructed me to ask her about her work agreement about such matters. I was told that it was unfair to ask about these things, and that she would take leave whenever she felt she needed to, but that no provision about paid leave could be a part of her job description. For probing for clarity about this situation, I was confronted in my evaluation forcefully, and mandated by the committee to find a mentor pastor as a punitive and remedial measure. Initially, further more aggressive punishment was mandated and the pastors mentioned below were suggested as mentors, but when this was confronted in a follow up meeting those items were rescinded.
  • An inability of the previous pastor and family to either fully engage or completely disengage from the church while still living in the community. They are incredibly gifted and likable people. I like them. But, they kind of hover around. and I find their continuing engagement with both difficult issues and with people in the church challenging and troubling. Ministry is challenging enough without having to compete with the former pastor who has a lengthier relationship to the people there. Also, the family's continual engagement with difficult people causing problems in the congregation fuels their disention instead of healing it.Then, they were also placed in another church in this community by their denomination, bringing some constituents of their former church (where I serve) to their new church. 
  • Another pastor affiliated with our congregation that takes funerals of church members without even including me in part of the service, a clear violation of his denomination's code of conduct, and a clear affront to me.
  • The recent resignation of an under-performing staff member still has me reeling. I am struggling with this not so much because of the difficulties that staff member had, but because of the way that the committees I am accountable to on such matters have responded. I checked and double checked with them to make sure my response to circumstances was in accordance with what they wanted done. Then, when I followed through with doing things the way that they requested, they would not stand with me or take any responsibility for addressing the shortcomings that they wanted me to confront. The team handing such matters kept concerns secret from me from over a month, meeting in the room with one another and the employee directly outside the parsonage window. They gave me a little helpful constructive criticism. They told me to continue the process of confronting and documenting her, but wanted a paragraph added to a disciplinary letter that none of them would sign there name to. In addition, they wanted to send me to class to address short-comings that they would not clearly identify for months, and still are not in agreement about. They also developed a lengthy manual about how to deal with these matters and other matters in the future.
  • We are criticized about not bringing in enough young people, but when we do so, and they attend church, many of them are treated coldly and not greeted by many in the congregation, which makes them feel unwelcome
  • In addition to this, with our lack of lay initiative and leadership, and our demands to get things done, I feel like everybody expects everything of me, and I have very few standing with me or beside me. And some of the people that are really pushing hard are stretched pretty thin too. I like working and leading collaberatively. I haven't found a way to pull that off here.
In addition the following personal challenges have also had to be dealt with:
  • A difficult pregnancy, a baby born and placed in NICU, followed by post-partum depression with Jennifer
  • My wife developing cancer and going through cancer treatment. I am not supposed to feel any sense of difficulty through this time, but I do. I feel like I did a lot to hold things together. I was glad to do this. I love my wife and my kids. But, I also felt like I was never able to recover, heal, or whatever from everything that I experienced in my role as a caregiver. Everything just went full on ahead, and I was left behind, exhausted, emotionally spent, and alone. None of this is really anyone's fault. I am not wanting to express blame here, but the circumstances do contribute to my sense of failure and aloneness. Why couldn't I be stronger? Why can't I adapt better? What's wrong with me? I feel I am a selfish jerk for ever having difficulties with this. After all, I wasn't the one that was sick.
  • My wife's job switching from part time to full time soon after she recovered from cancer surgeries and treatment, which meant her being gone 7 weeks so far in the last 9 months for training and meetings. This has also been challenging because my parenting philosophy and my wife's are different in this matter. I believe kids need more time with parents and family at home. My wife feels that two working parents with children in daycare is normative. My views of family responsibility are enmeshed with who I believe I am supposed to be as a minister and who we are supposed to be as a minister's family, as well as deep seated feelings of issues of abandonment and loss from my childhood.. I am unable to communicate this effectively, which leads to alternating feelings of anger and despondency. 
  • Because of my wife's success in her job, which I am very proud of her for, I feel like we are committed here for a while. This makes me feel trapped and doomed for failure. I can't run away to the next challenge so easy.
  • My father has made contining efforts to disconnect from me personally, emotionally and socially. This makes me feel deeply ashamed of myself as a person. Why am I so vile? Why have I constantly just been thrown away like this by someone who is supposed to accept, love, and care for me no matter what? My father has not made an effort to even meet my youngest child. My reactionary mind tells me that my child is enduring this because I am such an awful son and person.
  • Difficulty on my part to truly make friends in the community or develop any more locally based professional or peer networks. I am social with folks. I am friendly. But I am also isolated in my role as a pastor, have nobody to really just hang out with as an average guy who also wants to be around me, and thus feel not so much lonely, as very isolated and alone in life. I don't know if that makes sense to anyone else, but it makes sense to me.
The other day, when I told one of the denominational supervisors I was discouraged, he asked if I was discouraged or depressed. I said I wasn't sure I could answer that in the moment, but that I would consider his question. It was an insightful question. There may be depression I am dealing with, but I guess I prefer to call it discouragement because its triggers seem to be external, and in my experiences most people who are clinically depressed have internal stuff going on that does not allow the cloud to lift even when circumstances are more ideal. I think I am more prone to a melancholy personality. So...anyway.

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