Monday, October 14, 2013

Being a Pastor

I just finished my first week of work in over a year. Since I moved to London last November I have spent a majority of my time filling out forms and going through various avenues in order to get my marriage visa, which would allow me to work here in the UK. I finally got it all worked out about 3 months ago and then began searching for work only to just find a job last week. During this long search it has been hard not to look back and wonder where I might be if things had gone a little differently. When one examines my resume, particularly my education it’s easy to see that what I was really trained to be was a Christian pastor or minister. The truth is getting a master’s degree in theology from an evangelical seminary really does not provide you a lot of opportunities for work outside of a church.  University level teaching could be a possibility but to do that I would have to continue in my education and get a doctorate, which at this time is not possible so currently I’m kind of stuck in the middle. 

When I look at the role of a pastor I can’t help but think that despite that fact that I am no longer a Christian I would still be really good at the job. I know the bible, I know the proper doctrine/dogma of the church (multiple ones) and I know what the Christian god(s) wants from his followers. Further I know I can present these things to congregants in a way to interest/challenge them. Beyond just Sunday sermons I believe I would be a good leader, counselor, delegator, budgeter and friend. Perhaps most strangely I think that despite my lack of faith I would still have fun being a pastor and work always seems to go better when it is something you enjoy doing. Not to mention I could make quite a bit of money doing it, certainly far more than in any of the other jobs I seem qualified for at this point in my life.

The teaching a pastor does must be challenging because the pastor has to teach the congregation the proper doctrines, which they as believers have already accepted as true and make them seem new or fresh. Of course this isn't true for all pastors and congregants. Some people like coming to church both to hear the same things over and over again and to know that they are hearing the same things over and over again. But most of the newer evangelical types of churches are led by pastors who are trying to make Christianity seem new and modern. They are trying to take old doctrines and put a new spin on them in order to show people how these things can relate to their modern life. I know this because I did this for most of my life and as I said before I think I would still be quite good at it. In a way pastors are trying to make things that most people find boring more interesting. The pastor must provide the shorthand version of the church’s biblical and theological teachings and do it in such a way that none of the congregants walk away questioning why they believe such things. Now don’t get me wrong the congregants should walk away from a sermon with questions but those questions should surround how they can change their lives to better match the church’s teachings not whether those teachings are true. Similarly the congregants should not walk away with any reason to doubt their beliefs but rather they should walk away only doubting themselves, their lifestyle and their lack of faith.

One of the key ways to accomplish all this is through guilt. The pastor must make their congregants feel guilty so that they can than provide the “good news” and bring a sense of comfort to their congregation. This use of guilt provides the pastor a way to hold the listeners’ attention, to stir their emotions and to peak their interest all while staying within the tight framework of their doctrine. Also by creating and sustaining a need that only the church can fill it ensures people will constantly come back for more. Still a pastor cannot focus solely on the bad or they might lose members of their church. No, the pastor must balance the good and bad in their message very carefully and remember that people usually want to feel better in the end.

The pastor must also function like the church’s blanket and insulate its members from other beliefs that might challenge their own. Now some pastors are better at this than others. Usually the ones that are better are the ones who don’t insulate themselves from conflicting beliefs but rather study things that oppose what they already believe and preach. But those types of pastors are difficult to find. I think most pastors are like their congregations in that any time they actually spend in study is used to study books or ideas that they already agree with, which at best will provide them new ways to say the same things. Now this is understandable because people only have so much time in their life and most people want to use it to do things they already like doing not looking around to see if there is something they are missing from their life.

I believe most pastors are quite genuine with what they do. They truly believe what they are teaching and think that they are doing their god’s will. They are seeking out their god and trying to hear that god’s voice and teach others what they find. The problem is that they restrict what they can find from the outset by already deciding what their god can and can’t tell them. If they hear a voice telling them to study and obey the Qur'an well that clearly isn't their god whereas if they hear a voice telling them they must raise money for a new church building than it must be their god or at least it can be. Granted any voice they hear will likely only tell them things that already fit within their framework of belief since the voice is really coming from their own mind. One of the hardest things for me to realize as I grew up was that when you limit what you study and where you search for answers you predetermine what you can learn in your spiritual journey and the journey becomes quite limited even hollow.

Finally, beyond the teaching, the study and the guiding comes the money. The fact is while most pastors won’t or can’t admit it one of the most important measures of success for their job, like most other jobs, is the money. If the coffers are full than they are doing their job well whereas if they coffers are empty than they are not doing their job well. Now I certainly don’t think most pastors are in it for the money, I know I wouldn't have been. But the fact is that they need the money and whether people choose to notice it or not after every sermon the collection plates are passed around for the congregation to donate and thus validate the pastor’s message with money. This is one of the reasons why a pastor must be careful what they preach because even though it is really their job to say the same things over and over each week they must not say it in a way that bores their congregation because the money will stop coming in. Conversely the pastor can’t be too wild or controversial because they don’t want to push anyone away nor do they want to produce questions or doubts that may lead to a divergence from their set doctrines and thus a decrease in church attendance also leading to less money.

So would I be a good pastor? There really is no way to know but I believe I would be. I'm surprised how often I find myself thinking even dreaming about being a pastor because it’s a job that involves things I like doing and things that I believe I would be good at. Also sometimes I just miss being in church and having that community to share things with. Plus I can’t lie it would be nice to make more money, which also happens to be tax free. 


  1. Just for clarification to anybody who reads this piece it was not meant to describe all pastors from all denominates but rather only some, mostly the conservative evangelical type which I grew up with. There are numerous churches and denominations which are quite open to other ideas, religions and beliefs. I've been a part of some of them and they are wonderful places to be in community with other people who care about the world and people around them.

  2. Did you know the UU split from my denomination (UCC) way back in the Boston/Harvard days. You can find the UU in London. I used to attend a UU church in Cleveland. Great, vibrant congregation.