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The title of this blog is based on a quote from the well-known philosopher and theologian, Lego Batman. At one point in The Lego Movie, Lego Batman says to the protagonist, “You are so disappointing, on so many levels.” The quote has attained the level of notoriety necessary to achieve “gif” or “meme” status in our culture. I also think it sheds some light on the nature of pastoral ministry.
Pastors often disappoint people on many levels. Part of this is simply the nature of being in a leadership position. There is a reason why the manager of a baseball team gets fired, rather than the players. There is a reason why presidents get blamed for things beyond their control while their approval ratings plummet. Leaders need to make hard decisions and uphold institutional standards. In other words, they need to lead and leading inevitably leads to disappointment among the led.
Pastors are leaders, there is no way around that. They don’t, and should not, lead alone, but the reality is that they are the public face of the church. Pastors, like other leaders, need to make hard decisions and uphold institutional standards and, like other leaders, this inevitably leads to disappointment among the led. Pastors, however, disappoint in other ways that are particular to their calling.
Some pastors disappoint by engaging in abuse. The last few years have been marked by high profile examples of these situations, which leave entire communities feeling gravely wronged and disappointed, and can result in some of those affected deconstructing their faith.
But not all pastoral disappointments are newsworthy events. Pastors disappoint on so many other levels.
Pastors disappoint when they “mail it in.” People know when their pastor has given up. Given up believing in the calling, in the truth of what they are preaching, and in the people they are serving. It is disappointing when a spiritual leader displays a lack of spiritual zeal and concern.
Pastors may also disappoint by simply changing things. People hate change. But pastors can also disappoint by not changing things. Sometimes they disappoint by upholding their ordination vows and the decisions of their denomination. To be a pastor means to be part of something bigger than oneself. This appropriately limits the liberty of a pastor and often leads to disappointment among those who are not similarly restrained by the cords of ordination.
Pastors also disappoint people by what they say. Sermons disappoint people. Not because they are homiletically or rhetorically deficient (although that too is disappointing), but because they do not say what people want to hear. It is even more disappointing when a pastor directly contradicts a parishioner’s firmly held convictions. Pastors say what they believe is right, knowing they are consistently disappointing when they do this.
I have been a pastor long enough to disappoint a lot of people on many levels. Lately though, I have found it much easier to disappoint people by not saying what they want to hear or contradicting their firmly held convictions. I have disappointed both the traditionalists and progressives, both the right and the left. It seems easier to disappoint these days, and it seems that I disappoint more often. I have become quite adept at disappointing people.
I am weary of disappointing people. It’s exhausting, and sometimes leads me to give in to discouragement, despair, and self-pity. But recently, after disappointing yet another time, I began to wonder if I am thinking about disappointment in the wrong way.
What if the particular disappointment of not saying what people want to hear is a mark of faithfulness in ministry? What if disappointment is evidence of fulfilling my calling? What if my calling is to be disappointing to others?
I mean Jesus disappointed a lot of people. He wasn’t alone. The Apostle Paul constantly disappointed. I recently saw a chart which detailed numerous accusations and misunderstandings related to Paul’s ministry and teaching, recorded in the New Testament for all to read. Jesus was not the messiah people were looking for. And can you imagine how crushed his followers were by the crucifixion? Paul preached about that crucifixion, “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” It is fair to say Jesus and Paul were massive disappointments, on so many levels. Why should it be any different for a lowly under-shepherd like me?
Many pastors go through a similar experience after the worship service each week: They pronounce the benediction and head to the narthex to greet people, shake hands, and receive feedback on their preaching. Pastors long to hear comments like, “Great job, pastor!” or “That was amazing, pastor!”
What if the best thing that could happen in that very vulnerable moment, when pastors often feel like a disappointment to God and themselves, is to have someone come up, shake hands, look the pastor in the eyes, and say, with deep love and appreciation, “You are so disappointing, on so many levels”?