This week began with an interview at a church to which I had applied a few months ago. I don’t want to comment too much on the interview itself, because this is the internet, but I closed my Skype window, sat back, and realized I was frustrated — with myself.
I have been applying to churches for months now, and the application process, like in any job, invites self-promotion, presentation, and posturing, all of which I find wearying. To be fair, none of this is the fault of any church, or any person, at all; this is…I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it’s just an instinctive human desire to win people over, to impress people, to be “the best.” Maybe it’s sinful human nature, sewing fig leaves to cover inadequacies and shortcomings. Maybe it’s just “the way things are.”
Nevertheless, I was frustrated after this interview, because the questions asked were perfectly appropriate and reasonable questions to ask someone considering a position in church leadership, and yet they repeatedly found their way through to some of the more sensitive areas of my self. I finished the interview, and realized that I had honestly shared my heart, and my hopes for ministry, but along with them, I had shared my inexperience, my learnings by failure, and my fumblings. I was frustrated with myself because I felt that I hadn’t really put my best face forward.
“40 Under 40”
This week, the Christian Reformed Church in North America’s Young Adult Leadership Taskforce (YALT) released their “40 Under 40” list (in answer to Christianity Today’s recent “33 Under 33”). This is a list of Reformed church leaders “under 40 that [are] doing something very innovative and/or [are] influential beyond their home church.” The list is outstanding: 20 CRC leaders and 20 RCA leaders, representing a wide diversity in leadership styles and settings, and what’s more, I have some good friends on this list, and I gladly celebrate them!
But as I read this list, I found myself getting envious and discouraged, particularly after Sunday’s interview. Honestly, I felt like the servant with the one dirty talent, standing in line behind the servant with his shiny 10 talents, and the industrious servant with his 4 talents. What’s wrong with me, that I can’t get this talent to multiply? Am I not ready for more? Will what I have be taken from me? Obviously this is not YALT’s desire in publishing this list, and we should be cheering on our fellow Christians in the good works they’re doing in faithfulness and fruitfulness. And yet…
When a friend shared it on Facebook, I had to read this article at Relevant about the religious origins of superheroes. It summed up a lot of the reasons I find Marvel comics so compelling, particularly the character of Spider-Man:
The origin of Spider-Man was unique in that Spider-Man does not act particularly heroic throughout. Instead, Lee and Kirby had Peter Parker show off his new powers on TV, and even pass the buck on stopping a robbery. Of course, that arrogance ended with him losing his uncle and surrogate father. Instead of ending with the usual Sturm und Drang of most superhero stories, the final panel of Amazing Fantasy #15 has Parker shuffling off into the night, under the now famous caption explaining that he is “aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come great responsibility!”
This is precisely the reason I loved reading Spidey comics in high school and college: he’s a kid who takes his abilities seriously, and feels directly responsible when things fall apart around him. I resonated with that. “Responsibility” was even one of the words that shaped and articulated my calling to ministry during that same time.
And a friend and colleague in ministry posted on his blog about his first visit to a spiritual director. I so appreciated his refreshing honesty about how he is continuing to follow the Spirit’s leading, and find ways of getting what he needs to be healthy in ministry. He’s an example for me.
Initially I hoped that having a Spiritual Director would be really cool, like a spiritual merit badge. I now realize that I signed up for the next step in taking responsibility for myself and this process is going to hurt. Like surgery that cuts to heal and breaks to make whole.
He very honestly articulates some of my own journey of transformation; I highly suggest you go over and read it.
And then, just as all of this reading and reflecting was leading me further and further to consider how I had maybe let myself down in sharing my shortcomings during this interview, Rachel Held Evans shared her interview with J. R. Briggs, who organizes the Epic Fail Pastors Conference and authored Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure. My curiosity was piqued, and as I read, my soul was soothed. Briggs shared:
The biggest barrier to talking openly about failure (or the sense of failure) is fear. Pastors are always wondering, if I talk about this, will this cost me? Will it cost me my job? Will it hurt my family? How badly will my reputation be damaged if I share how I’m really feeling? Will people hold it against me? Will people be disappointed and leave my church?
We have to talk about failure because if we don’t we perpetuate the façade that the pastor has it all together. Masks are readily available for pastors and when we refuse to be honest and go into hiding, we’re tempted to reach for a mask to give the impression we’re someone that we’re not. And there are numerous ornate ministry masks available to pastors. But when we put on the mask we put aside the cross.
I felt encouraged, that in my being honest about my shortcomings and past ministry failures in this interview, I had perhaps not shared the best or most successful version of my self, but I had shared my actual self, the self that is not Wonder Pastor. That is a “successful” interview, when they see me as I really am and we can honestly discern together, instead of trying to decipher each others’ pretenses.
From Responsibility and Failure to Grace
And as I re-read YALT’s “40 Under 40” list, I remembered that these are all fellow servants of Jesus Christ that I had been so jealous of earlier in the week. I also remembered that the pastors I know on this list — and I’m sure the ones I don’t know, too — are all devoted to stripping off “success masks” and being faithful to Christ. I pray that this list is not just a new “ornate ministry mask” for these brothers and sisters, and it saddens me that almost all of the comments on this list are so fixated on defining and categorizing these pastors and leaders into “liberal” or “conservative” camps. I pray that we would forsake such petty divisions, and all follow together our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)
Amen and amen.