Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Pope and the Pedestal


Jane and I attend a church in a small mountain community that probably runs 125 or so in worship attendance on Sunday mornings. A few weeks ago we were driving home following the morning service and we stopped at Wal Mart to pick up a few things. On the way in I suggested that we just grab lunch at the Subway shop inside before we did the shopping. 

As we sat there I started thinking about other Sunday afternoons. “Jane” I said, “remember when Sunday lunches were actually brunches at some Country Club or a fine restaurant up in Denver? We’ve come a long way baby.” And indeed, we have. Life is different off the pedestal.

I’ve been impressed by the early days in the ministry of the new Pope. Francis I.  I see him washing the feet of young detainees in a juvenile detention facility and rejecting the temptation to live in the palatial residence, opting rather for a simple, humble apartment. I see him leaving the ruby slippers for someone else and even wearing a much simpler form of attire. I admire what I see him doing.

And as I watch him I reflect on how easy it is in ministry to be caught up on the “pedestal” mentality....and I’m guilty.   Some might ask “what do you mean?” Simply this, it’s easy to begin to believe what your admirers say and to totally dismiss what your distractors are saying.  

Understanding that I may be the only one to suffer from the “pedestal syndrome” (but believing I’m not) I offer the following explanation.

MInistry is fraught with opportunity to begin to believe that you deserve more, that you have paid a bigger price, that other people just don’t understand what you have to deal with. On some level that’s true. But it’s true of every profession. Unless you’ve actually done it, you DON’T understand.

But in ministry it’s easy to allow, even encourage, people to put you on a pedestal. After all, you represent all that’s holy.  If you were to ask people if they put you on a pedestal they would deny it, they wouldn’t believe it. They would say that they don’t. In reality, they probably don’t know that they have. But every time they walk out the door of the church and tell you how wonderful you are or how great the sermon was it’s easy to begin to feel that you really are something special. And if you grew up with as little self confidence as I did, those remarks are better than any drug.

And the pedestal is a wonderful place to live...until others come along who see you as a pretty normal human being, perhaps even less. They begin to shake the base of the pedestal and you become unsettled. “What’s wrong with these knuckleheads?” you think. “Can’t they see how important I am? How necessary I am to the future of this organization? How loved I am?”

And the air on the pedestal becomes addictive. Once there, whether actually placed there or having just ASSUMED that others thought you should be there, you don’t want to come down.

I had perks. I spoke to large crowds. I was invited to speak in other settings, not because I was talented, but because I held such an envied position in a popular pulpit. I had an expense account, a car allowance, a library allowance, a generous salary, and terrific benefits. The car was brought around for me, reservations were made in the finest establishments for me.

 “The Pedestal.”

 People used their best language around me, rarely allowing me to hear the earthy or the vulgar. I was with them when they were married, I dedicated their babies, I buried their family members. And all those activities only amplified the feeling of the pedestal. Not to mention that I was there when they were at their lowest. Bankruptcy, divorce, death, children in trouble. “Call the pastor.”

Oh, and the size of the church didn’t matter. Every church and every pastor has a pedestal to deal with. The only difference is how tall it is. The larger the church, the higher the pedestal and the rarer the air.

Now in retirement I reflect back on 40 years and wish that I’d resisted the pedestal more than I did and instead had been more like the new Pope.  And I’ve realized that it’s not too late. My life now is pretty much void of fancy restaurants and such. But without the vestments of clergy I’ve discovered that it’s much easier. I walk “incognito” through life. I’m usually called “Tim” instead of “Pastor” and I fit in to situations where people used to hold me at arms length because of my title.

Yes, I miss some of those perks, but in reality it’s much easier to be authentic. You see, being authentic in the church was dangerous. Dangerous because some people WANT you to be on a pedestal. When they find out that you battle the same issues they do, that you’re normal, suddenly your damaged goods. Once you try to climb down from the pedestal, they’re ready to find someone else to occupy that space.

I like the Pope. I want my remaining years to be lived more like him and less like me. I think I’ll take my ruby slippers to Goodwill.