Listen To Article
“Regret,” says author Brené Brown, “is a tough but fair teacher.” The idea, she writes, is that regret gives us the opportunity to grow, to make amends, to be better than we have been.
I suppose there is some truth to that. We learn – or ought to learn – from our mistakes, the things we said and did that we now wish we hadn’t, that we would say or do differently if only we had the chance.
When I retired and sat down to write about my more than forty years of ministry, which is how I decided to process my working life, the regrets I thought about were mostly not the result of things I said or did. Overall, with only a few exceptions, I felt pretty good about the things I said and did.
What I regretted were the things I didn’t say, or failed to say, but should have.
As I thought back over my ministry, my years of pastoring churches, I realized that I kept a great deal to myself. I didn’t speak up about much. I certainly never raised my voice or lost my temper. People thought of me – if they thought of me at all – as a thoughtful, stable, caring sort. An image that, in hindsight, I carefully cultivated.
Inside, though, a lot was going on. I often hated being the adult in the room during tense meetings, the kind where others felt free to rant and rave about whatever. I always held it together, listening, nodding, and playing my cards close to the vest. I seldom said what I was thinking.
Years later, I find myself wishing that I had spoken up more than I did, a lot more. I think I could have been the adult in the room and still said clearly and forcefully what I was thinking. But I didn’t. At least not very often. And I regret that.
A couple of recent essays in the Reformed Journal have got me thinking about this – the first by Keith Mannes, and the other, soon after, by Duane Kelderman. Each in his own voice expressed what he was thinking and feeling. Each wrote with sincerity and vulnerability. When I watched the YouTube video which Duane mentions in his essay, I saw – or thought I saw – unguarded moments that you often don’t see with preachers of his (my) age and experience. I was touched.
The responses to the essays – and there have been a lot of them – were overwhelmingly supportive, even grateful. A few were not, but they were the exceptions. (I suppose the responses, more than anything, reflect the current Reformed Journal readership.)
Whenever I imagined myself in a similar situation over the years, I imagined that the responses to my honesty would be overwhelmingly negative and angry. I imagined myself losing my job and my reputation – the thoughtful, stable, caring reputation I had carefully cultivated. I have always been good at imagining worst case scenarios.
In hindsight, I might have angered a few people by expressing myself in ways similar to Keith and Duane (I certainly share their convictions), but if I had trusted the people I served, I’m guessing that many more of them would have responded with appreciation, even gratitude, like the readers of the Reformed Journal.
More than a few of the people I served were depending on me to speak up, and by keeping quiet I let them down. I regret that more than anything else in my ministry. There were members of my congregations – LGBTQ members – who needed someone to speak on their behalf, and most of the time I failed to do that.
Outside the dining hall at the seminary I attended are several plaques honoring graduates of the seminary who were martyred in the course of their work. I lived on campus, and so I passed those plaques every day, three times a day, for two years. I assume those plaques were hung in that location for a reason – so that my classmates and I would see them.
One of the plaques honors Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a Presbyterian pastor, journalist, newspaper editor, and abolitionist. I made special note of Lovejoy because, at that point in my life, I thought I would be taking a similar career path.
Lovejoy’s abolitionist writings got him into trouble more than once. When he lived in Alton, Illinois, Lovejoy was attacked one night, dragged to the street, and killed by a pro-slavery mob. They threw his printing press into the Mississippi River.
There was such fear surrounding Lovejoy’s death that no funeral service was held. The town newspaper did not report his death, and he was buried in an unmarked grave. Other newspapers around the country, however, did report the murder, and over the years Lovejoy has become a symbol of courage, someone who was willing to die for what he believed, someone who spoke up and said what he believed to be true.
I was no Elijah Parish Lovejoy. But, at long last, I think I may be finding my voice.
As I look over. My forty years, my weakness has been maybe the opposite. I could have done with a little more quiet discretion.
“Quiet discretion” might be a kind way of describing “cowardice.” I’m honored that you read my piece.
Doug, I’ve known you since 1974, or earlier, going back to closely observing Harvey Cox, and I’ve always known you as measured and circumspect, in a way that I admired. Remember that Willem de Zwijger is the Father of the Fatherland. D.
excellent, Doug. We do need to speak up but in a kind, thoughtful manner. The radicals are ruining our country! I have spoken up! Keep safe, keep writing. Anita
I’m guessing that how you really felt about things, DID come out in the discussions.
I too, wished I had been more willing to express how I really felt about issues. Especially when I was in Second Church, Zeeland 1976-1986. I wanted to please, living in fear of rejection. Later in ministry, I felt much more freedom to give and take and not take opposite convictions personally.
Being in service to the body has its own rewards. Sounds to me like you served well. Discretion / discernment is a much needed gift of the Spirit, especially these days when partisanship ruins advancement.
Your candor makes me think about my past thinking and acting. Thank you, Doug.
BTW, what’s the inside skinny from The Hague on the ICC’s warrant for the arrest of President Putin? They have a history of indicting heads of state. Fat chance on this one!
Doug, thanks for this. Your reflection brought to mind this passage from Frederick Buchner’s “A Room Called Remember:”
YET THEY MEET AS well as diverge, our stories and Christ’s, and even when they diverge, it is his they diverge from, so that by his absence as well as by his presence in our lives we know who he is and who we are and who we are not.
We have it in us to be Christs to each other and maybe in some unimaginable way to God too—that’s what we have to tell finally. We have it in us to work miracles of love and healing as well as to have them worked upon us. We have it in us to bless with him and forgive with him and heal with him and once in a while maybe even to grieve with some measure of his grief at another’s pain and to rejoice with some measure of his rejoicing at another’s joy almost as if it were our own. And who knows but that in the end, by God’s mercy, the two stories will converge for good and all, and though we would never have had the courage or the faith or the wit to die for him any more than we have ever managed to live for him very well either, his story will come true in us at last. And in the meantime, this side of Paradise, it is our business (not like so many peddlers of God’s word but as men and women of sincerity) to speak with our hearts (which is what sincerity means) and to bear witness to, and live out of, and live toward, and live by, the true word of his holy story as it seeks to stammer itself forth through the holy stories of us all.
-Originally published in A Room Called Remember
A Room Called Remember is on my book shelf. (It survived the serious culling that occurred with my library after retirement.) And of course Buechner is a personal favorite. That last sentence (the word count alone is astonishing) is a beauty. I need to spend more time with it.
looking forward to you new voice, as you choose to share it….
Thanks for these reflections. Being a head pastor must be a delicate balance. For those in the pews, you are the face of stability, caring, understanding and providing the call to action. Everyone in the church should feel a little discomfort each week, as a reminder that we are not doing enough, but also some affirmation that we might be on the right path. I could imagine that the life of a pastor could be quite lonely at times, as too much fraternization with the congregation could be seen as taking sides, and providing a little too much affirmation.
If you feel that you did not speak up enough, you still have a lot of time, and a unique platform now, to address some of those issues. You have a perspective which is from the inside, but now you are more on the outside, we all can benefit from this new position, and what wisdom you can provide from your experience. You can’t rewrite the past, but you can influence the future.