Some folks from a church that my husband and I preach at occasionally stopped by my house this week. After receiving their gift, my little dauschund and I stepped outside to visit with them for a minute. We thanked them for what they brought us and the dog proceeded to charm them as he does.
When the attention moved from him back to me one of them said,
“Oh, we’ve caught you barefooted.”
I must have laughed because this remark caught me by surprise.
For when I am at home I am ALWAYS barefooted. Jeans. T-shirt. Messy Bun. Bare feet. This is pretty much my natural state.
And to my mother’s chagrin, when folks come to visit, even church folks, I don’t change my natural state. I just go with the messy bun and bare feet.
But I don’t blame my church friend for being surprised. For when he usually sees me I am dressed professionally, sometimes even wearing a robe, with hair and make-up done. And I am always wearing shoes.
This moment flashed me back to my first year of ministry.
I was twenty-five years old and as green as could be. I think I overcompensated for my youth and inexperience by always dressing and acting the part. Nice clothes. Nice hair. Nice attitude. I was always in “preacher mode.”
Except for when I wasn’t.
When I was out to dinner with my husband or walking our dog or spending a day at the beach I looked exactly like every other 25-year-old young woman in Savannah.
And the contrast was so striking that no one ever recognized me. I would smile and wave when I saw a church member at a restaurant only to watch them struggle to recognize me. Finally, a light bulb would come on and they would say, “Oh, it is you!”
It got to the point that I joked I was like Clark Kent. Once I took off my robe and put on my glasses I was mysteriously unrecognizable to all. Even though I looked basically the same.
Now the Superman analogy, unfortunately, is not out of line.
Because for some reason church members sometimes think of their pastors as a little more than human.
And sometimes because either they think they need to or because sadly they want to, pastors play along.
But let me set the record straight on one thing.
Your pastor is entirely, fully, messily, beautifully HUMAN.
They get tired.
They get cranky.
They argue with their family.
They snap at their kids.
They get scared and sad.
Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they rage. Sometimes they feel like giving up.
And they surely at some point go around barefooted.
Now, this is not to say that they can get away with any behavior under the guise of being human. Some actions are just wrong.
I went through years of tests and interviews and psych evals to make sure I was not a danger to children or vulnerable people or likely to lie or steal or otherwise hurt the church. And rightly so!
Some behaviors are totally unacceptable for pastors.
Wait, those behaviors are totally unacceptable for anyone.
So, if your pastor is meeting the mark for acceptable human behavior, just go ahead and embrace their humanity.
When they are tired, give them space to rest.
Better yet, set up rest as a routine for your pastor because clergy are often bad at self-care. Structure weekly sabbaths, yearly family vacations, yearly continuing ed, planning days, and spiritual retreats into the rhythm of church life.
I truly believe if pastors and churches took time apart for self-care and spiritual nurture seriously, we would the rising rate of clergy burn out ease.
And I also truly believe healthier clergy are less likely to engage in self-destructive and unethical behavior. This is a big deal. If hurting people hurt other people, hurting pastors have the potential to hurt lots of other people.
When they are struggling, let it be okay for them to struggle.
Even Mother Teresa had a spiritual crisis. We all struggle with doubt sometimes.
Some of us struggle with emotional issues like anxiety or depression or alcoholism.
When clergy feel they have to fake being okay when they are struggling, things will eventually crumble.
But when clergy can be held and loved and supported through a crisis, they often find their way through to a better and stronger place. And this extension of grace and healing and love becomes a model for the rest of the community. Because really, we are all going to struggle sometimes. We are all going to need help and grace sometimes.
When they are courageous enough to be uniquely themselves, welcome it.
Most of the healthy clergy I know have a way of being uniquely themselves. A time when they shed the robes and collars and suits and yes even shoes and just be themselves. Here are a few examples from my collection of clergy friends.
Some geek out at trivia nights with friends that don’t go their church.
Some are sports fanatics that go to games with family and shout unpreacherly things in a loud voice from the stands.
Some work out at the gym like a beast or compete in races or join sports leagues.
Some play in a rock band with friends.
Some hike and camp and play with their dog barefoot.
We all have to have a thing. A thing we do that allows us to be our true, regular old self with folks who love us even when we cuss and tell iffy jokes.
When you see your pastor out being their self or hear them tell stories or see pics on facebook, don’t be shocked. Welcome it! Your pastor has embraced his/her humanity and this is really good news. They need you to be able to embrace it too.
If you are clergy, I would love to hear how you have been supported by your church as a person and not just a pastor.
If you are a church member, I would love to hear how you have worked to support your pastor’s health as a person and not just a church leader.
If you are personal friends with a pastor and know them more as a person than a pastor, then GOD BLESS YOU! You are a gem.