One of the realities that I’ve become accustomed to, though still not comfortable with, in this wild world of church leadership and clergy life is the presence of a feeling of competition among colleagues. I remember hearing in seminary about this as an unfortunate but unshakable fact of our shared profession – something like calluses are for people who work in construction. It was something that was bemoaned with the same passionless fervor that our Chicago winters were – with resigned indignation encircled by the gentle shrug that accepts that it’s just the way things have always been.
In my naivety I remember finding this to be odd. Why would we consider ourselves opponents when our collective work is so great? How could we consider ourselves combatants even as our cultural relevance wanes? I searched the scriptures for the place where God talks about keeping a record of our comparative worship attendance but couldn’t find it. I read the Gospels but kept missing the part where Jesus said we were all just racing each other for his love. And, looking for an endorsement of our competitive and detached ethos in the Epistles is a rather embarrassing proposition. Paul (who was a better pastor than me, not that I’m keeping score) seems to be very committed to the notion that we are all very much playing on the same team, and that we are fools when we lose sight of that (see 1 Cor 3, among others).
Don’t worry – I’ve grown up since then. I’ve learned that all my colleagues are actually gunning for my appointment. I know that my successes directly belittle theirs, so I meticulously crop and color correct social media photos to show how magnificent my ministry is. I grieve each time I read about someone who had a better attended community even than ours. And I am sure to pad my numbers, point only to exaggerated wins, and bury any struggles I’m facing when I talk to a fellow pastor. I mean, a competitor.
In all reality, I have learned a great deal since I graduated. I have witnessed how the overarching displacement of the church from the center of societal life has festered into feelings of scarcity that permeate many parts of our life together. Most relevant to the reflections here, perceived scarcity has not bound us together but driven us apart. Instead of looking to one another for strength or developing an interconnected reliance on those who most understand our struggles and joys, we have allowed our lapse in relative power to increase the distance between us.
But this is not the whole story. The truth is that there are appointments that have greater desirability in the collective perception of our clerical community. It is certainly fair that it doesn’t always seem as though everyone is treated fair, most especially with the handicap of limited knowledge and the obstacle of our human need to fill in the unknown with assumption or rumor. Our colleagues don’t all share the same skillset, nor occupy the same station of life, nor posses the same calling. And we pastors, no less than our people, do sometimes find ourselves grumbling that we weren’t given the same gifts as her in preaching or the same calling that he has in caring.
Further complicating matters is the truth that our work is hard. It can be isolating at its best – even when we don’t complicate that ourselves. We grow discontent, disenchanted, and disillusioned, and perhaps a bit weary from the journey. We wade in life’s beautiful and brutal – sometimes in the very same day. Of course, the geography of our Annual Conference certainly doesn’t aid in fostering a sense of connection, nor do the divides that are fresh in our minds and easy to point to. And then there is the paperwork… though perhaps that is worth exploration at another time.
In all, the presence of a sense of competition is just the reality it was promised to be in seminary. Likewise, my discomfort for it has not changed. And while I know it is not in vogue to draw distinctions between my colleagues who have had more years (sometimes decades) of ministry than I have, it is something that I’ve witnessed far more in my colleagues who are far more experienced.
Against this background, the TiM program has allowed me to experience a different way of doing life and ministry. It has afforded me the opportunity to envision a collegiality that I aspire to have throughout my career. In short, the TiM program has cultivated an understanding of ministry in partnership instead of competition amidst the crucible of the transitory period of early vocational ministry.
It began with a bunch of people, just a few steps further down the road than me, reaching out before I’d ever stepped foot back in the Great Plains. It was concretized at my first TiM retreat and the Annual Conference that followed, as I had people who patiently (and with much internal laughter, I am sure) guided me through the ins and outs of the time there. What I found in them were people who were genuinely interested in me, and who celebrated that I was joining them in co-ministry in our different corners of the conference. They shared and listened openly, albeit with a weird fascination about what my “base” and “phase” might be.
It continued as we gathered together. It continued as some made their exit and other entered the program. What remained constant was the sharing of the joys and heartaches of our personal lives and the vulnerability to speak about our hopes for the Church that is yet to be. We waited anxiously together as people wondered about new appointments, bemoaned ordination delays, and wanted to throw their hands up in the air because church people are, in the final measure, still people. We engaged in conflict, and usually it was healthy (excepting that one time that I yelled and cursed about our pilgrimage for a ten minutes). We sparred about theology and polity and swapped reading suggestions. For the most part, I think we have prized relationship over rightness. We have usually celebrated instead of compared. I have learned from the gits of my colleagues (that’s pastor speak for borrowing their ideas) and marveled at temperaments different from my own. I’ve even leaned on their strength and patience when I felt I might have reached the limit of my own.
We have not been perfect. But I think we’ve modeled a different way of being in ministry. The TiM program, our leader, and my colleagues have worked – often swimming upstream – to cultivate a different way. This is a culture that I inherited and have sought to nurture. It is a culture that shares a collective responsibility for the Gospel that we witness. It is a culture that knows we’re likely to end up cynical, burned out, angry, and detached if we try to go at this wild and crazy calling as cavilers.
So, as I look to my future status as a graduate of the TiM program, I know that the onus of responsibility moves to me. It becomes my responsibility to take the patterns that I’ve learned and apply them to my life. As I think about collegiality and the impression that the TiM program has left on me, I know that these will be some of the primary things that I carry with me.