Beating Your Head against a Wall
It’s not the most inspiring metaphor for pastoring, but truth be told, that was the first picture that came to my mind when I thought about being a pastor. For twenty years I worked in a ministry with university students, and sometimes people would ask me, “Mark, why don’t you become a pastor of a church?”
“Why? Because I don’t like beating my head against the wall.”
I would go on to explain that one of the things I loved about student ministry was that those I worked with were at a point in their lives when they were so open to change. It seemed to me that pastors had a much harder assignment; so often they were trying to convince those who didn’t want to change, to change.
Turns out, I’ve been a pastor of a church for nearly ten years now, and I’m very happy to report that there are no deep scars, bruises or contusions on my forehead. I have been happy to discover that human beings are by nature more malleable, at any age, than I had imagined. I’ve also been fortunate to land in a community that is mercifully free of a lot of the intransigence and small mindedness that can make the life of a pastor severely testing.
But my community isn’t perfect. By times, I’ve been exasperated – with people who can never get enough of my time or attention, with people who do hang on ferociously to “the way things used to be”, with people who seem wilfully stuck in ruts that become a slow form of suicide for them, and for the people who love them.
Beating one’s head against the wall can feel like part of the pastoral calling. I would guess that there are times for all of us when we get deeply frustrated with the people we’ve been called to serve and lead and love.
One of the insights that has taken me through some of these seasons of frustration comes from Archbishop Francois Fenelon. Fenelon lived in 18th century France. He was Archbishop of Cambrai, called to serve in a time of great turmoil in the Catholic Church. Fenelon was a deeply spiritual man, and no doubt at times he was asked just how he was able to maintain his wits, and his hope, as he tried to give leadership to a church and to a royal court that was so worldly and so fraught with dissension and division. In one of his spiritual letters of counsel, Fenelon writes that his exasperation with his diocese was always tempered by another intimate reality that he knew all too well, namely, “I am a large diocese to myself, more overwhelming than the external one, and which I am unable to reform.”
Frustrated with our external dioceses? Then let’s take a few minutes to reflect on how resistant we can be to God’s will and ways in our own inner lives. How can we dare be exasperated with those we serve when in fact our own inner lives are every bit as unruly and difficult to manage or change as any community of God’s people?
In another letter Fenelon notes that we all have a tendency to be tender and forgiving toward our selves, but hard and demanding of others. Too true! And again our leap to the judgment of our congregation or of certain people in our congregation always needs to be tempered, even corrected, by the realization that too often we’re the people Jesus had in mind when he confronted those who focus on the splinter in another’s eye when they had a log in their own. The Archbishop’s insights have stuck with me. They’ve been really helpful. Maybe an integral part of the pastoral calling is to learn to be as patient with our congregation’s weaknesses and contradictions as God is with ours.
Mark Harris is the senior pastor at Grace Chapel in Halifax, N.S. He taught high school for a few years and was involved in student ministry with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship for twenty years. Mark did theological training at Acadia Divinity College and Regent College. A passionate Detroit Red Wings fan, Mark also loves to read novels and to listen to a wide range of music. He is the author of three books, including The Light that Lives in Darkness (Gaspereau Press, 2006).