This month marks the 31st anniversary of my ordination. I have spent about 28 of those years serving congregations as a pastor. As October rolls around, officially "Pastor Appreciation Month," I'd like to share my perspective on how you might appreciate your own pastor.
Recently, a younger pastor, also a woman, wrote to me:
I find being a pastor an incredibly awesome and wonderful calling. In what other job can I study God's word, proclaim the gospel, pray, reach out to the hurting--and get paid for it? I feel blessed and privileged to be able to serve in such a position.
I feel encouraged just by reading those words--that being female has not been an impediment to the vocation this woman has received.
When I was ordained in 1983, I was at the tail end of the first wave of women ordained in my denomination. I was aware of women serving in some congregations, including my home church. But, it was a relatively new phenomenon. I didn't have any female mentors, or even role models, from whom I could learn. As I observed my mostly male colleagues at seminary, I often felt out of place, sometimes questioning my goal of becoming a pastor or wondering what shape my ministry would take. Would I wear a shirt with a clerical collar? Did I really need to carry a brief case? Did I need to be as solemn and "professional" as most of my male colleagues seemed to be?
These may seem like superficial questions but, without role models, I wondered if there was room in ministry for me to be the person I am--to be female. Did I have to fit into a male model of ministry or could I contribute my own unique perspective and life experience?
I'm encouraged that my younger colleague finds her ministry, as she defines and shapes it, to be meaningful for her and well-received by others. Over the years, I have sometimes had to forge a path that was new to me and strange to others--a woman pastor, married with three children, trying to balance demands of parishioners with those of family, trying to be nurturing while also serving in a leadership role that demands discipline and authority. Some of those demands may not be that different than those that a married male colleague would face, but the mere fact that I am a woman puts a different spotlight on how I handle those roles and demands.
When my children were young, church members, and even my male colleagues (I worked on a multi-staff church) sometimes pushed me to place a meeting or church event over a family commitment. My husband was very supportive of our dual career marriage, but there were times when I needed to be home with the children, or picking them up somewhere, or attending a school event. The men I worked with had wives who were not working outside the home at that time and I felt pressure to be more "flexible" than I wanted to be for the sake of my family. I was afraid that my commitment to my family might reflect poorly on my performance as a pastor, especially as a woman pastor.
So, one way to appreciate your pastor is: Don't expect the impossible! A pastor can't be in the church office five days a week, and out in the community reaching people for Jesus, and visiting sick and older congregation members, and being with family and/or friends, and getting enough exercise to stay healthy, all at the same time!! Expect your pastor to spend time with friends and/or family.
It's not easy being a pastor these days, especially in contexts where egalitarian leadership is not affirmed. Take the time to get to know your pastor as a person--and gender is certainly a part of that knowledge! Don't shove your pastor into a preset mold, but rather learn and observe her strengths, areas of challenge, delights, and frustrations. Examine your own attitudes for hidden biases and preconceived ideas about how a pastor "should" act. See how you might come alongside and serve your congregation and the Lord by offering assistance rather than criticism.
Another pastor friend of mine has been very encouraged that, in her current congregation, "being a woman is just not really a big deal." How does she know? People of all ages attend her Bible studies and find them helpful and stimulating. And they tell her so! Never underestimate the power of a spoken word of encouragement or a specific note of praise, especially in contexts where female pastors are still a rarity.
When someone is ordained in our denomination, the congregation promises to pray for, encourage, respect, and follow the pastor as she guides them, listening to the word that she preaches, welcoming her pastoral care, and honoring her servant leadership and authority. That's a great check list by which to examine your attitudes towards any pastor. As I look back over 31 years of ministry, I feel most affirmed and encouraged when I am allowed to do my job just like a male colleague--when I can preach, teach, administer the sacraments, provide pastoral care, and point people to Jesus.
My younger colleague that I quoted above says that her biggest challenge is "to move people beyond seeing church as simply a safe haven." She wants to see people from outside the church welcomed in. She wants all people to hear the good news in Jesus Christ and be transformed by the Holy Spirit. Joining in solidarity with that goal is the best way to appreciate the hard work of any pastor, male or female!