A young minister who had been a pastor for about 10 years sat in front of me, tears in her eyes.
“I just don’t know if I believe anymore,” she said.
“Believe what?” I asked.
“In God…and in the goodness of God.” Her tears began to fall freely, and then she began to sob. Her shoulders shook violently and the sobs came from a deep place, like from the pit of her very soul.
After a while, her sobbing slowed down, her shoulders relaxed, but she looked at me with such pain in her eyes that I looked away. It hurt me to see that much pain in one who, I knew, had come into ministry with such high expectations and such joy.
“I can’t do this,” she said, finally. “Why would God put me in a place where I can’t do what God has called me to do?”
I didn’t answer right away. From where I sat, she had done a lot. She had overcome barriers. She had ignored being slighted by male ministers in the city where she worked, and just plowed ahead, forging paths for women who would come after her. She had embraced the poor, encouraged her flock to take care of “the least of these,” and her faith had been an example to, well, to me. And yet, here she sat.
As I listened to her, I remember having had a conversation with another pastor, this one a male, who asked me to read a book, Your Pastor is an Endangered Species. This colleague expressed the exasperation that pastors normally feel from dealing with the stuff they don’t teach you in seminary. My colleague said, “You have to really have a call from God to do this, or you won’t last.” I knew what he was talking about.
But this young woman before me was expressing emotional pain the likes of which I had not seen in a while. She felt like a failure. She was unsure of what she was doing “wrong.” She could not seem to find her “place” in her role as pastor. What she did know was that she entered loving God and wanting to serve God in this way, but now she wasn’t so sure she had heard God right. And…she wasn’t sure she believed in God anymore.
She was expressing through her sobs what Benedict XVI expressed this week as he talked about his papacy, the feeling that sometimes, God sleeps through the crises that come with our attempts to serve.
“I cannot pray like I used to,” she said, her tears multiplying. “It seems like God doesn’t hear, or doesn’t care.” I reminded her that many in the Bible felt like that, too, as a way of reminding her that what she was feeling was not unique or different. That was no consolation, however. Something had happened that had crushed her to her soul.
It occurred to me as I listened to her that, as a pastor, you have to understand that there will be plenty of valley times, where you don’t feel like you’re doing anything right or that God or the people whom you serve care…and you have to be willing to stand through that very lonely time, absorb the loneliness, and wait for God to bring the comfort that only God can bring.
My young friend, however, was in a different place. She was burned up and burned out. She said she felt like her very faith had been scrubbed out of her soul. She was always a loner, but now had isolated herself even more. I felt like I was looking at a younger version of myself.
“I am going to quit,” she said finally. “I cannot do this anymore. I love God, but I cannot do this anymore.” Her sobbing resumed.
I didn’t want to tell her that Jesus had felt her kind of frustration, too. Somehow, I knew that wasn’t going to fly. In her state of mind, she would have dismissed that as religious rhetoric and not at all realistic. Jesus was the son of God, for goodness’ sake. So, I kept my Jesus thought to myself.
But I wanted to help her know that she was not alone, that all pastors feel or have felt what she was feeling. I wanted to let her know that churches sometimes are not kind to pastors, but that God really did know and God did care. Knowing that is all you have sometimes. But she wouldn’t have been able to hear it.
After a while, her sobbing stopped and she just sat before me. I waited for her to speak, and after what seemed forever, she finally did.
“I loved my people,” she said, “but they threw me under the bus. I cannot …and I will not …do this anymore.”
I didn’t press her. Whatever it was that happened, she didn’t offer to tell me and I knew not to ask. The wound was still too new. I just asked her to be still for a moment, to pray, and fast, and wait to hear from God.
I wish seminaries would offer courses in dealing with the people of God, and courses in helping would-be pastors identify their personality traits, including strengths and weaknesses, so that they could go into church situations a little more emotionally prepared and armed. Learning to do Biblical exegesis is good, learning Hebrew and Greek is good, but nothing prepares you for the people/relationship angle of being a pastor. And truthfully, some pastors are good at it, but I would surmise that a whole lot more are not so good.
Those people end up feeling more than the people with good people and administrative skills that “God is sleeping” sometimes. News commentators kept emphasizing that Benedict was a scholar, not an administrator. He was a “good man,” but a “bad pope,” someone else wrote. So, in the office of Pope, Benedict must have felt, must have carried, what my friend was explaining to me…and what I myself felt about me being a pastor as well: that we were/are good people, but not so good at the pastor/pope thing.
My friend resigned from her church. She went back to school to pursue other career options. When I see her, she seems freer, happy, relieved. I would imagine the pope feels that way, too. I don’t know where she is in her struggle to believe in God.
Me? I am realizing anew that though it seems sometimes that God is sleeping, God is never absent.
A candid observation…