“I’ve witnessed first-hand the power of ideas, I’ve seen people kill in the name of them, and die defending them… but you cannot kiss an idea, cannot touch it, or hold it… ideas do not bleed, they do not feel pain, they do not love…” — V for Vendetta
In other articles on this website, I’ve written about some of the challenges of working in ministry. But out of everything, perhaps the hardest of all is how ministry changes friendships and relationships.
Maybe we’ve all been there at one point or another – we’re about to speak in public, and nerves overtake us. Our palms are sweaty, our stomach is in a knot, and our minds race with what we will say, and how we will say it. We cannot escape wondering what others will think of us.
Speaking in front of an audience is one of the most blatant forms of exposure. All eyes are on us – how we look, dress, and communicate. We put our life stories and ideas out there, vulnerable to judgment and critique. We give something of ourselves, but so often it’s in front of those who don’t really know us.
I’ve been there, and I’ve seen many others in ministry wrestle with these paradoxes. I’ve talked with pastors who walked off the stage after sharing more personally than ever before, and yet felt more distant from their congregation than ever before.
Why does it happen?
Certainly, when you put yourself and your ideas out in front of others, not everybody will like what you have to say. And many will never be in a position to go beyond your stance on an issue, to really get to know you.
However, there’s an equal danger and vulnerability that ministers (and leaders) face, not from criticism… but from respect and admiration. And I’ve seen that in two ways.
People love you for what you can do (or produce), not who you are.
And closely related to that:
People love you for who they want you to be, not who you truly are.
Expectations, expectations, and more expectations – there’s no denying or escaping that pastors and ministers live with pressures from so many people, many whom they don’t even know well! Much of that happens because congregations start to fall in love with what a certain pastor or leader represents to them. They fall in love with an idea, more than a real person.
This doesn’t just happen with ministers. In many households, children grow up under the pressure of trying to be who their parents want them to be, whether in terms of personality, intelligence, or career choice and success.
I also see this in dating and relationships all the time. I sometimes ask engaged couples, “Are you getting married because you love the other person, or because you’re in love with the idea of being in a relationship?” Because ideas are flawless in our own minds, but people will disappoint and fail us. And whether it’s in family or in ministry relationships, this can lead to the devastation of crushed expectations when people don’t meet our hopes or standards. Or on the other side of things, it can lead to the burden of leaders, spouses, or children performing to try to meet peoples’ expectations of them. And pretty soon, those leaders become defined by a picture of what others want them to be.
It seems so innocuous at first – who wouldn’t want to be respected for what they do, especially when pastors or leaders experience great fruitfulness and influence in their ministry? Isn’t that part of what we see as God’s blessing? And yet, respect can come alongside great loneliness. I’ve seen countless ministers (and friends of mine) who are placed on a pedestal, with a box of expectations, and people feed them compliments and accolades about “how much they’ve changed their lives.” People think they are giving these leaders what they really want and need. But what ministers truly long for (and this is our deepest desire, isn’t it?) is to be known for who they are. To know that they don’t have to perform to earn people’s love.
I remember when I was leaving the San Francisco Bay Area after many years, my closest friends threw a farewell appreciation party for me. They arranged a full day of activities and gifts, and made it one of the most memorable and special days of my life. But in the midst of it, I found myself asking, “What have I really done to deserve something like this?” It was so difficult for me to accept it, that I actually tried to come up with a list of different things I had done for my friends, to earn me what I was receiving.
But I then realized, that these friends weren’t trying to repay me for favors! They simply knew me as a person, and loved me for that. And in that moment, I felt richer than ever before – knowing that this was what love and friendship were about. It’s not something we have to prove. It’s not something we have to compete for. It’s abundant and free for all to experience and embrace!
Like anyone else, I will probably always struggle to some extent with accepting grace, and working through the complexities of how ministry impacts relationships. But through it, I think I’ve come to a better understanding of the grace of God, that frustrates those who want or need to earn love and acceptance. I’ve learned that true friendship comes from those who won’t judge or respect you solely on what you do, but love you for who you are, with all your flaws and failures. True friendship comes from those who can love you for who you are… not who they want you to be.
This is my story, and these are my fears, my insecurities, and my struggles. This is who I am. And each day, I’m learning to accept and embrace that more, and step into the calling that God is inviting me into. And one thing I know: He won’t leave me alone on this path, but has gifted me with true friends along the way. Not because I deserve it… but because He loves me.