Blow Up the Damn Pedestal: An Open Letter to Pastors

I feel a bit like George Washington rapping in “Hamilton.” Can I be real a second? For just a millisecond? Let down my guard and tell the people how I feel a second? He goes on to say, Now I’m the model of a modern major general / The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all / Lining up, to put me on a pedestal / Writin’ letters to relatives / Embellishin’ my elegance and eloquence / But the elephant is in the room...


To my pastor friends in this work together, can I share a few thoughts? They’ve been squirming around in the tight spaces of my soul the last few months. Normally, they’d have more room to stretch and skip about but yeah. Not lately. They’re competing for breathing room with pain, anger, disappointment, fear, resentment, and obligation. It’s close quarters in there.


Which invites denial and distraction. Because it’s all so much lately. It’s cumulative. Piling on top of each other. We take a day or two off in hopes of giving our mental and emotional health a breather. We breathe in the grace of our God and feel a moment of peace. We remember ourselves. Then we descend back into the fray. Into the anxious systems. The complex decisions. The impossible scenarios.


We climb back up on the pedestal folks like us to occupy. We reluctantly but dutifully stand in the space where wonderful people believe we have no faults. Well, some people in our churches know we do and don’t let us forget it. But for the ones who think we can do no wrong, it brings problematic expectations.



The last few generations have valued professionalism over honesty. Politeness over authenticity. Strength over weakness. As the tides change and new generations lift up shifting values, many of us are caught in the middle. Our hearts long to be honest, authentic and explore our weakness. We know deeper strength lies in that intersection.


But the air we breathe tells a different story.


Suck it up.

Keep that to yourself.

Do your job.

Keep it together.

We don’t talk about that here.


So we claw our ways back onto our pedestal, as if we can ward off the dissonance between our heart and the expectations in the air. We continue the cruel game that requires a pastor to live on a pedestal for all to see. It slowly turns as a human somehow becomes an example of how to live, how to be peaceful, how to be good.


Are pastors allowed to scream? To rage with anger? To cry over injustice? To stand up to church bullies? To fall apart?


Does a pastor get to be human?


Congregants will read this and say, “Oh pastor, please step down off the pedestal. It’s okay to be human. Especially now.”


Great. But some of us will balk at the invitation to step down. As much as we suffer on the pedestal, it’s easier to hide behind supposed sainthood and pretend we have control over the chaos. Maybe it feels safer to move about that confined space then the unknown of mere mortals who aren’t somehow one step away from God. It’s an odd profession we’ve been called into, isn’t it? Our hearts are wired to sense the Divine and we love the Jesus story. But over time, we can fool ourselves into believing we somehow cracked the code and escaped being human.

If we just pray the right prayers,

Practice enough Sabbath,

Raise enough money,

Seek enough justice,

Climb the pulpit ladder,

Do the right things,

Somehow we’ll escape the terrible pain in our world.

Cue exhibit A: Our current reality.

Pastors, I offer something I know you know. We can’t escape being human. While we’re trying to guide and serve others, we’re on the front lines of our own pain. Our own shame. Our own uncertainty.

So would it finally be okay if we all agreed to blow up the damn pedestal?

It’s killing us. There’s no life in it. It’s keeping us from the work we’re here to do in ourselves and with our people.


A word to that voice in some of our heads that hisses, "But if I blow it up, then I'll go with it. I'm down so deep in this thing that I can't separate myself from the mess. Who am I if I don't have the pedestal?" Yes. That's a thing. How do we let go of a way of being if we don't know what might replace it?


In those spaces, I'm thankful for solidarity. You're not the only one wrestling with identity and worth while the world is upside down. Some days, may it be enough to know others are collapsing in a chair, putting their heads in their hands, taking a shaky breath and allowing tears to roll down their cheeks. When raging rivers of tears pour out, may we remind each other that to step into the pain of our world and our people is the way of Christ. That we walk this road, together, accepting our full humanity. We quietly name a powerful truth: The pedestal has never been a part of God's dreams for us. Never.


Others put us on it. We accepted our place on it. But may we never fool ourselves into believing God built it for us.


Pastors, you have a gift to offer in these difficult times. You know a story of hope. Of love. Of justice. A better vision of what humanity can be. We need that story right now. More than ever.


But we need that story to come through humans. Not saints on pedestals.

We need that story to come through a heart that’s telling their truth.

We need that story to come through a human who knows their pain so they can help us navigate some of ours.

We need that story to come through a person who allows themselves to fall apart with people they trust. To lay it all out so Love has a shot at getting to work.



But if shame continues to sing its song, convincing us that

Everyone else is fine

They’re figuring this out

They’re doing pretty good

What’s wrong with you?


Then Love doesn’t get an open door, a crack in the armor, or a fighting chance at loving a very human pastor.


Because when Love gets to love a pastor, we all win.

When a pastor steps off the pedestal and breathes deeply of their humanity, we all win.

When a child of God gently sets down heavy and impossible expectations, we all win.


Friends, the isolation of these days is real. We’re in this work together, but we’re not together. Which means loneliness has a playground in our minds. Shame gets a microphone. Uncertainty has a field day. Fear convinces us we’re the only one struggling.


I write this today because I don’t think I’m the only one.


Can we keep finding creative ways to remind ourselves we’re in this difficult season together?

Let’s use our EAP benefit and see our therapists.

Let’s find money to see our spiritual directors more often.

Let’s connect with a few colleagues and make space to share how we’re really doing.

Let’s normalize our humanness in the midst of spaces where people seek our guidance.

Let's get honest with our leaders about what we can realistically accomplish in this season. It's okay to hit pause on business as usual.

Let’s step off the pedestal and embrace presence with our people.


Your church does not need you to have all the answers.

They need you to be you, in all your complexity and contradiction.

Because if God can still speak and work and love through the complex and honest pandemic you,

Then they’ll be able to take a step closer to a God who can handle and love the complex and honest pandemic them.


Everyone wins when we blow up the damn pedestal.


 

 

© 2020 by Jenny Smith

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