The Thistle

Encouraging the Patience of Pastors

The small, grass-filled space seems barely large enough to hold a three story building. I’m talking about the spot where the old administration building once stood. Besides that, the grass has so effectively grown thick and green that newcomers might imagine the lot has always stood empty. That is, except for one strip of bare ground—narrow but long—which, despite Eric Kessels’ best efforts, has utterly rejected seed, water, and fertilizer: a despoiled, barren line.

It is not random, that strip of ground. The rear sidewalk used to lie along that path. Ironic, perplexing even, that a multi-ton building can stand on a spot for 50 years, and yet three years later the ground has so completely healed that grass freely grows. But the ground beneath a strip of cement—two and a half feet wide and some thirty feet long, two inches thick—after the same lengths of time, is still scarred. The principle is reinforced that the burdens of world once un-shouldered may leave little mark; but, the places where the careless trampling of relationships have worn us bare may never (or only very-slowly) heal.

This is the pastor’s narrative—that fruit may fruitful grow widely in innumerable places, and yet some lives will for years reflect the brokenness of their stories even more than the application of grace to those tempered scars. Some men will remain gruff. Some women will appear bitter. Some children will express disdain. Some pastors will lament dismay.

A Problem of Prolific Velocity
What makes the soil of that one spot resistant to growth is not an aftereffect of the weight of the cement—insignificant compared to the building itself. But 50 years of stamping, traipsing, marching, walking, and running feet have so compressed the soil beneath the cement with such concerted repetition that it remains barren.

Such is always the effect of repeated relational injury. Our songs reflect as much. John Gorka sang, “I don’t feel like a train anymore, I feel like the tracks.” A poem I wrote several years ago began,

Too long the desires of the world have traveled through my garden lot,
and trampled down the flowers planted, broken limbs and every pot,
left worn the ways meant for grass, left bare the places saved for life
and made a joke of Godly peace, and made a home of trouble strife.

Most telling, and most famous, are these words Lee Hazelwood wrote and Nancy Sinatra sang:

You keep saying you’ve got something for me.
something you call love, but confess.
You’ve been messin’ where you shouldn’t have been a messin’
and now someone else is gettin’ all your best.
These boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do
one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.

Kind of says it all, doesn’t it? When people walk on us, it does more damage than the weight of a building just resting on our backs. The problem with adding speed to mass is that much less does more damage.

Once Upon a Pastorate
Jeff (not his name) emailed this week: “A transition to a different church is not out of the question for me.” After further conversation, he confessed that his feelings of neglect and marginalization were the result of fear, specifically the senior pastor’s fear that Jeff was actually being effective. The senior pastor has faced challenge upon challenge—theologically, pastorally, to leadership, to orthodoxy, to his person—and he’s tired. He’s an old, barren, dry stretch of ground beside a field of summer wheat. Jeff has been in the church for eight months.

Chris (not his name) emailed in January as he was departing another church. After six months into the call, he began to clarify the church’s vision for themselves in that community. Not seeing one, he presented, defended, and began implementing a vision. The church has had several pastors who came to town, began implementing their vision—with little or no real knowledge of and even less relational capital in the community. Needless to say, this pastor-church relationship ended badly.

The fruit of the Spirit is…Patience
I would argue that most ministry leaders struggle most with patience. It is downright, earth-grinding, soul-wrenching, blood-letting, tear-inducing, exhausting to minster to a person who seems, despite our every effort, resistant. And we grow impatient.

There is a place for shaking off dust and calling down woes, but in my experience it is many years down the road from when we actually give up being patient. We love talking about Jesus’ three years with his disciples as if that’s the standard: three years, and I’m out of here. Let’s suppose that Jesus spent 5 days a week with his disciples; some were married and others had jobs, so we have to assume there were times they weren’t with him. Five days a week, say eight hours of waking time, for three years is roughly 780 days or 6,240 hours. If ministry leaders are honest with themselves, their time with a congregation amounts to two hours on Sunday, an hour midweek, and an hour for a one-on-one lunch: four hours a week. At that rate it would take 1,560 weeks, or 30 years, to have the same exposure to their people. The same people they are often so quick to give up on.

Even after some 6,240 hours, Jesus looked across the dirty stretch of road at his disciples and said, “I have to die” (Mark 9:31). And they “did not understand what he meant.” In fact, “they were afraid to ask him about it” so they decide to debate which of them “was the greatest” (Mark 9:32-36). Jesus didn’t give up. He taught us patience.

Celebrating the Long Road
Hard ground makes us cynical. How many people have been condemned to hell by men—only to be saved to heaven by God—through prayers that lambast their fruitlessness? Surveying the fruitless tree, the master said, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fit tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?”

“Sir,” the man replied, “Leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit near year, fine! IF not, then cut it down.” (Luke 9:6-8).

I find it interesting that this section of scripture is often called “Repent or Perish.” Yes, that’s there, but couldn’t this parable also be called, “One more year.” One more year! That’s the cry of the patient farmer, the patient parent, the patient pastor. One more year, Lord. One more year to minister to this man, that woman, to reach that child, to love that lonely widow, to shepherd that angry father. One more year! It’s the cry that celebrates the long road of faithful ministry to those places where the traipsing feet of harsh relationships have stamped out any human hope of growth, but answers in the night with, “One more year, Lord. One more year.”

Waiting for Grace (or Grass)
Eric Kessels hasn’t given up. He or one of his grounds crew is weekly out watering and fertilizing, aerating or over-seeding the entire lot where the old administration building used to stand. He hasn’t given up on that thin stretch of sidewalk-compressed soil. He is patient—crying in his actions, “One more year”—as he labors on what, to now, appears fruitlessness. But patience, and time, and faithfulness may yet well tell another story.

May it for you as well.