I’m guessing it was all just stress. I’m like a canary in a coal mine; sooner or later, my internal stresses always show up in physical ways. This particular funny feeling was probably just the load I’ve been carrying for the past several months shifting on me. And what kind of load would that be? Well, now you’re asking. I got my form to fill out for my annual interview with the DS: my 2014 Pastor Self Evaluation. The first question is, “How are you . . . really?” I felt like putting down T-Bone’s response:
You ask so many questions, what answers shall I choose?Wiseacre-dom aside, the question still must be answered. And the fact is, I’m stressed. Way stressed. I’m not complaining; neither am I bragging. It’s just a condition of (my) life. If you really wanna know, here are the biggies.
Is it Plato’s heebie-jeebies or just Existential Blues?”
1) I’m a pastor. Stress is in everything we do. We really do care about the people in our charge and worry over them. They’re not customers. They’re not employees. They’re people we were sent to love and teach and pray with. When one comes to Christ, we are exalted. When one wanders off, we worry. And we feel responsible – most of all, to God – for our work. So, a lot of us are pretty driven people. We find it hard to relax and turn off the job. That’s the good stress, the stress that comes from loving God and others and wanting to do the job right. There’s also a twisted form of stress that drives us – drives us hard – in the attempt to avoid criticism. Even in parishes like mine, where criticism is rare, I am my own biggest critic. Learning to put aside the negative stuff is a constant need – which still leaves the positive stuff – and it’s all stressful, to one degree or another.
2) What time of year is it? It’s appointment-making season for United Methodist pastors. Every ordained UM pastor – and every member of said pastor’s household – feels a certain stress at this time of year. Even someone like me, who has no reason to expect to be moved this year, will feel on edge between Easter and Memorial Day. We just do. It’s like growing up in the Army, with its frequent moves. I knew a lady who grew up in a Methodist parsonage who wasn’t even a Methodist any more, but who spent twenty years of her adulthood feeling depressed every spring, until she finally figured out why. It wears on you.
3) I’ve got two huge programs coming up that I’m in charge of. Our Venturers are going to Sea Base in less than three weeks. Getting that all put together, securing commitments, getting the money paid in and the arrangements made and the crew ready is very stressful. On the personal side, I’ve been working on losing weight and strengthening my swimming, and that’s stressful, too. Plus, this year’s superactivity comes on the heels of last year’s, which took place in October rather than the previous summer. Yeah, we went to Great Britain, and that was even more expensive and stressful than Sea Base. So, two superactivities in one calendar year.
Then, there’s the Tenke Jamboree in the Dem. Rep. of the Congo in July. All that’s got to be in the bag about a month before we go, because there won’t be time to deal with it in the midst of summer busyness. I took that program over last June. It was stalled. We had only two people committed to going, and maybe a thousand bucks in the bank. In the last year, we have assembled a team of five Americans, coordinated with the Africans, made all the arrangements and raised about twenty-eight thousand dollars. I have chewed this dough every day for the last ten months. It’s going to be great, I’m sure, but you have no idea what it takes of one’s personal resources to push this thing up the hill to the launch pad.
4) The world is falling apart. I realize there’s not much I can do about that, but it worries me. To start with, there’s the mess our country is in. I alternate between rage and despair several times a week. Our government is so broke and so dysfunctional. Our values as a society are so decayed. Foreign threats loom on the horizon, and our leaders are so clueless. I get to vote now and then, but in between, the announcement they make at the amusement park still holds true: please remain seated until the ride comes to a complete stop. It’s a looong way to the next Congress. It’s an even longer time till the next Administration. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
I have usually tended to sublimate my political passions into church work. That, I can do something more about; besides, it’s seemlier for a preacher who doesn’t want to be thought too political. So it is particularly distressing to look at The United Methodist Church – in which I have worked for nearly forty years – and see the mess it’s in. The covenant is crumbling. Schism is already happening, if not yet formalized. There may not be a UMC by the time I retire; equally likely, the UMC I retire in may not be something I want to admit to a relationship with. For someone in a mood to contemplate one’s legacy, the meaning of one’s life’s work, it is just heart-breaking. And what of all those colleagues – and parishioners! – whom I will leave behind when I retire? What of them, will the Church be what it should be for them? My parishioners have, most of them, no clue of the maelstrom we are descending into. I don’t want to alarm them, either. But if you’re asking, this has been on my mind daily – sometimes hourly – for a very long time.
So, I turn to those parts of the connection where I have a more direct stake, where I am more likely to have rewarding experiences. I turn to the Annual Conference, and I don’t recognize what it has become. We do a lot of things I appreciate, yeah, but the Conference itself seems to do its best to treat people badly. I don’t enjoy going to Annual Conference. There’s very little real business; it’s mostly just a trade show or convention (a kind of thing which I would sooner take a beating than attend). Once I fulfill the few commitments I have left this quadrennium, programmatically, I doubt that I will ever attend an Annual Conference session again. There’s nothing there for me.
And then, there’s the arena in which I have made my most significant contributions to the ministry of the wider Church – Scouting ministry. The divorce between GCUMM and NAUMS – and the poisonous, nasty, spiteful stupidity that is now coming at all those who don’t belong to the “in” group – makes me sick. The one place where I always felt at home in the Connection is being taken over by buttheads and drones. I feel violated. And I cry for the kids and families who need our ministry the most.
5) Well, it may be my destiny to lose everything by the time I retire. If so, let it be. To quote Job, “Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to retire. I have a house to build. Finding the time and the money and the physical strength to get that done is becoming increasingly difficult. I may not have it done by the time I retire, which means camping out in the cabin for some months before I have a house ready to move into. And what if I decline too much physically in the meantime? I’m still in pretty good shape, but I can’t do what I used to do. I mean, it’s not that I can’t do what I did ten years ago; I can’t do what I did two years ago -- what about when I finally retire? And, of course, there’s the general worry over health insurance and the cost thereof. My greatest fear is to wind up old and sick and poor.
So that’s the load. And before you spring to offer me advice, let me assure you, I’m doing what’s important. Every day, I place it all in God’s hands. When the stress rises up and I feel like I’m going to fail, my constant prayer is that of Mary, “Lord, let it be to me according to your word.” And he takes the strain of it and enables me to do what I do, to keep going, to keep thinking and teaching and loving and working and so on. But even though I can testify that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” that doesn’t mean that the things I need him to lift off me are gone. I have to place them in his hands every day. If I get busy and forget, there they are. And sometimes they shift or catch me by surprise or something, and then – well, I get physical symptoms. Usually, it’s my Tourette’s that kicks up. But sometimes it’s pangs and pains. Or restless nights. Or exhaustion.
It is what it is. I’m neither bragging nor complaining. I’m just saying, that’s how I am . . . really.