I was talking to a young pastor this week who had been trying to get his parishioners to confront the impact of declining giving to the church. He pointed out that unless giving increased, the church wouldn’t have enough money to operate within a few years and would have to close. I asked him about the reaction he received when he shared this news. He said the people didn’t deny that they needed to change. What they wanted to know was “why he didn’t like them.” What he said next was very insightful. “I’m sure people would like me if I never had to tell them things they didn’t want to hear.”

I’m coming up on seven years in ministry, and it seems like a kind of milestone to me, because at seminary I was taught that seven years is about the average length of time people stay in ministry. (I recently read that the number today is down to five.)

People go into the ministry to serve God and to make a difference. They know intellectually that people resist change, and that they’re going to have to work hard to overcome it. (My young friend’s church actually called him because they wanted him to lead them to change.) What he didn’t expect was to be attacked in a personal way for doing what he was called to do. What he discovered was that people don’t necessarily disagree with calls for change; they are offended by calls for change. But since their reaction seems so natural to them, it doesn’t even occur to them that their reaction might be hurtful to their pastor.

Only a small percentage of people who enter ministry make it to retirement. There are lots of studies and anecdotal evidence to suggest why, but the answer, in a word, is burnout.

Aging Well

I was going through the attic recently to try to get rid of stuff I no longer need. Some of the stuff I’ve been carrying around for decades are old electric trains. For years I’d been telling myself that one day, I’d get them out and build a layout. Well, I took some of them out and put them together and tried to run them. Nothing happened. After some fiddling, I got them to run, but barely. It seems that just a tiny layer of oxidation (rust) on electric motors and tracks is enough to keep trains from working right. The best way to care for trains is to use them.

On October 19th, the Wall Street Journal published a significant article by Anne Tergeson on aging. No matter how old you are, you should read it:

Tergeson says the first thing people need to do to age well is confront the negative stereotypes on aging. Studies show that people over 65 are happier, more confident, more secure, and more able to do the things they want than younger people. Older people have fewer problems than younger people. Older people even feel younger relative to their age than younger people. Tergeson urges us to substitute positive images of aging for negative ones. The key is to embrace the aging process, and both the good and bad things that come with it.

And of course, the best way to care for your mind and body as you get older is to use them.

I actually think the same is true for the church. We have this great old building, a beautiful 600 acre camp, no debt, and three and a half million dollars in investments. The thing is, a layer of oxidation has built up. We need to keep fiddling to get it running right again. The best way to care for this place is to use it too.