Much has been written about the demands on a local church pastor: to be omnicompetent,1 to be an expert on theology, organizational management, and social psychology. She must be intelligent, likable, funny, wise, charming, and savvy. The list of disciplines and characteristics in which one is expected to excel is long and unrelenting in its demands.
I’ve felt that pressure for much of my twenty plus years of local church ministry. This pressure has a deleterious effect on my soul. I either try and push to live up to these expectations or experience shame that I simply cannot measure up. And when I’m pushing and posing – or sulking and feeling ashamed of myself – I find I’m not a very good pastor.
So for the last ten years or so, I’ve been experimenting with learning to be wrong in public, to embrace repentance and growth as a natural part of being a human and a leader. I knew I had to get over my own resistance to being wrong if I was to embrace true humility and growth in Christ. I consider it as important to be transparent about what I’m learning as a leader as it is to be confident in what I already know to be true.
So in this spirit, I want to share 10 things I’m (still) learning as a pastor over the past 10 years of my ministry to the local church. These are areas that I’ve identified within me where I was wrong, lacking, or needed to learn again, particularly regarding my work as a local church pastor. Most of these areas are ‘in progress,’ and all of them are where I’m embracing the goodness of repentance. These areas of potential growth are as follows:
- My Relationship with My Body: From ignoring it, abusing it, or even warring against it, to taking care of it.
I was able to live distant and detached from my body for much of my life because of my upbringing. I could get away with treating my body this way because I was young. It proved to be an effective way to manage my trauma. It was only when my metabolism slowed down in adulthood, and I began to identify the trauma in my life and how it was stored in my body, that I began to feel old, tired, and anxious. As a result, I had to have a DTR (‘Define the Relationship’ talk) with my body. Learning to take seriously the embodied nature of my physical and emotional health has awakened me to the depth and beauty of what my body has to teach me about Christian spirituality as well. Learning to take seriously the embodied nature of my physical and emotional health has awakened me to the depth and beauty of what my body has to teach me about Christian spirituality as well. (1/10) #10things Click To Tweet
- My Relationship to My Voice: From staying quiet until I think I know everything, to speaking up even if it means I’m not entirely certain.
I spent many years wanting to get all the facts and be one hundred percent certain before I spoke about anything: theology, cultural issues, etc. But as I’ve embraced repentance and being wrong in public, it’s freed me up to speak up and out about things even when I’m uncertain. This has been expressed in various ways in my life, but particularly in how I speak about racial justice and sexual abuse survivors in Christian churches. Far too often, fear of being wrong had more dominion over me than love for others who were suffering, and as a result, I failed to move towards them in compassionate justice. If I commit some hasty or foolish mistakes in an effort to speak out and up for others, so be it. I’d rather live with that embarrassing mis-step than stay silent and safe in my pride and fear. Injustice flourishes when those who have the platform to speak hesitate or refuse to do so. Injustice flourishes when those who have the platform to speak hesitate or refuse to do so. (2/10) #10things Click To Tweet
- My Relationship to My Neurodivergency: From feeling ashamed about or ignoring the impact it has on my life, to taking it seriously and talking about it more with others.
It’s only been a few years since I’ve had a solid diagnosis of ADHD, and a similar amount of time that I’ve been aware of the term ‘neurodivergent.’ Learning to love myself so I can love my neighbor includes the hard work of self-care for how ADHD presents in my life. This includes: advocating for myself with others so they can understand and help me, identifying all of the ways I’ve moralized characteristics of my neurodivergency so that I can be more patient and compassionate with myself, and taking agency over my life (diet, environment, rhythms, life hacks, etc.) so that I can better function and operate as a neurodivergent person. The learning curve here is steep. Learning to love my neighbor as myself includes the hard work of self-care for how ADHD presents itself. This includes advocating for myself as a neurodivergent person so others can help me take agency over my life. (3/10) #10things Click To Tweet
- My Relationship with White Conservative Christianity: From making sure I signaled to all the powers-that-be that I’m ‘one of you,’ so as to not lose power and access to resources, to directly naming syncretism and complicity with evil and violence, even when it costs me personally in terms of opportunity and access.
The last seven years or so (specifically, since the 2016 U.S. Presidential election), I’ve experimented with a more direct approach in my speech concerning the deep syncretisms and compromise I and others have experienced in white conservative Christianity in the United States. It’s been something of a wake-up call to realize that the group of people I learned to love the Bible from often use the Scriptures in sub-Christian ways.
I’ve experimented with a more direct approach in my speech concerning the deep syncretisms and compromise I and others have experienced in white conservative Christianity in the United States. (4/10) #10things Click To Tweet
- My Identity as a Man: From trying to prove that I’m ‘one of the good guys’ when the #MeToo movement began, to accepting that I’ve internalized some places of deep misogyny and unhelpful narratives on masculinity that hurt both myself and the women around me.
This journey, along with my journey of coming to terms with how whiteness and white supremacy work in my life, opened my eyes to how ideologies and beliefs can live in our bodies irrespective of intent, motive, or desire. Coming of age in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I was socialized into a culturally acceptable misogyny that must be reckoned with for my sake and for the sake of others.
- My Vocation as a Pastor: From ignoring the church hurt and leadership failures caused by local church pastors (of which I am one), to acknowledging and attuning to the harm and pain caused by the misuse of power and authority by pastors in local churches.
As a young pastor I had one goal: to not be a ‘Gentile leader’ that Jesus warns his disciples (See Mark 10:42-45). In my efforts to not lord it over others as a pastor, I failed to take seriously the power and authority I had as a pastor in the church. I contributed to disappointment, confusion, and harm because I treated parishioners as peers and friends, setting up unhelpful dynamics and unreasonable expectations. A part of my repentance and learning here has been to speak up and out in solidarity with those who’ve experienced church hurt. I’m learning to see power so that I can love others better in the way of Jesus. In my efforts to not lord it over others as a pastor, I failed to take seriously the power and authority I had in the church. Because I treated parishioners as peers, I set up unhelpful dynamics, causing confusion. (6/10) #10things Click To Tweet
- My Relationship to My Affluence: From thinking the power of ‘Mammon’ operates primarily through desire (i.e. what happens internally ‘in my heart’, both in intent and motive), to understanding how Mammon ‘works systemically’ in shaping my moral logic, psychology, sociology, and ecology as it makes claims on my time, attention, and affection.
The reign of Mammon doesn’t need my consent to have dominion in my life or in our world. That last sentence above was a bombshell for me: that my affluence ‘disciples’ me into a way of being and seeing the world that is in tension with the Kingdom of God. I’m learning to see how Mammon works in our world to order and shape our common sense, relationships, values, and desires. Again, this will be a lifelong learning experience for me. The reign of Mammon doesn’t need my consent to have dominion in my life or in our world. My affluence ‘disciples’ me into a way of being and seeing the world that is in tension with the Kingdom of God. (7/10) #10things Click To Tweet
- My Moral Attention: From being outraged and upset by what ‘others’ in the world are doing, to wrestling honestly with how ‘we’ in the church are acting, prophetically calling us to repentance.
The focus and onus here is on us, the church: Judgment starts within the household of God, so let’s get our own house in order first. Our moral authority in the world continues to decline in large part because Christians have become known for focusing on the world and its problems to the neglect of dealing with our own junk. I believe this is a primary means by which we become a people who are known by our love: that we focus our moral attention on ways that we as Christians need to change.
Our moral authority in the world continues to decline in large part because Christians have become known for focusing on the world and its problems to the neglect of dealing with our own junk. (8/10) #10things Click To Tweet
- My Relationship to Politics: From ignoring the public square and retreating into the sanctuary of the church, to reclaiming the material world in the public square as vital for Christian witness.
I confess that my uneasiness to think about myself politically comes from my dislike of what is commonly known as ‘culture war Christianity.’ I’ve spoken to many Christians who grew up in a Christian world dominated by the Religious Right and the Moral Majority who want to stay far away from this approach to political engagement, and have thus found solace and relief in opting out of the public square entirely. I’ve referred to this as “culture war PTSD,” and I think it has kept me from showing up and faithfully engaging in political spaces. I’m committed to doing the work of disentangling my politics from partisan ideologies so that I can stand in deference to and solidarity with people who don’t have the option of opting out of politics: the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. I’m committed to doing the work of disentangling my politics from partisan ideologies so that I can stand in solidarity with people who don’t have that option: the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. (9/10) #10things Click To Tweet
- My Relationship with Preaching: From investing a majority of my time and energy into crafting the perfect sermon, to trusting the good work God has done in me for 46 years as the grounding for gospel proclamation.
I’ve learned to approach my sermon prep differently, seeing my entire life as part of it. I still sit down at a desk, pray, read commentaries, and type out my thoughts. But I’ve learned that so much of my past preparation came from an anxious, controlling center. Increasingly, I lean less on the sermon moment to carry formational weight in our community. It’s still a significant part of our church’s life, but the sermon is finding its appropriate place within a larger rhythm and the ongoing spiritual practices of our community. Increasingly, I lean less on the sermon moment to carry formational weight in our community. It’s still significant, but the sermon is finding its appropriate place within the larger spiritual rhythm of our church. (10/10) #10things Click To Tweet
For Your Own Formational Reflection:
- What areas of your life as you still growing in as a local church pastor or Christian leader?
- How would you describe the transformational movement ‘From to ‘ in your own life?
Matt Tebbe trains leaders to build Jesus-shaped cultures in their churches, communities, and homes using simple, reproducible tools. He’s also a bi-vocational church planter in Fishers, Indiana at The Table. He lives in the greater Indianapolis area with his wife and two kids.
1 *Editorial Note: This is one of my favorite one-word description of the demands a local church pastor faces that I have ever come across. Spot-on in its accuracy! ~CK