The Wheel that Seldom Squeaks: what pastors won't tell you
by Clayton Blackstone
The Facebook posts of three Millennial pastors caught my eye — one frolicking on the beach with his two young boys, another shouldering his daughter as they watched a 4th of July parade and a third holding, high above his head, a grinning son.
I admire these young men for the priority afforded their families. I notice their social media posts and turn my ear at every opportunity to catch whispers of their ministries. And I affirm them as opportunity affords because, looking back, I wish I had done better at balance.
I knew the right answers concerning the primacy of family but with a congregation to grow, denominational machinery to maintain, and a relationship with God to nurture, balance eluded me. These four wheels — family, congregation, denomination, and God — bore the weight of my pastoral life with three squeaking incessantly.
The demands for our time haven’t changed.
Small children tug on Daddy’s pant leg as soon as he arrives home at night. Wise is the man who kisses his wife, notices the frazzled expression on her face and follows the little ones into the toy room while mom catches her breath.
Congregations face increasing pressure to attract young families, staff current ministries and meet budget in America’s post-Christian culture. Older congregants grumble about the absence of hymns and how things would improve with the return to “good ole preachin’” about the second coming and the condition of people in death.
Large crowds once gathered for campmeetings, State Conferences, Regional gatherings, and General Conferences. Now Sunday morning attendance at some megachurches outpace our national denominational totals. For those inflicted with my DNA, the temptation to don a messianic mantle and ride to the rescue with guns blazing proves an ever-present temptation.
With dozens of conversations to reflect upon, one observation stands out to me: pastors talk with ease about their family, their local church, and their denomination, those three noisy wheels on our red Flyer wagons, but not so much about that fourth one that seldom squeaks.
Share frustrations about ministry? — for sure.
How’s the Family? — either the iPhone opens in an instant to the iPhoto brag book or else tears bring to the surface the cry of a parent's broken heart.
Things denominational? — rumors, innuendo, and shop talk are in large enough supply to last through a second cup of coffee.
But “tell me about the spiritual ebb and flow of things” and the pace of the conversation slows to a crawl.
Perhaps it’s guilt — a nagging sense that things could be better.
Maybe it’s embarrassment — the feeling that our experience falls short of the dynamic reports others claim.
Maybe it’s that fear of being judged unspiritual, sloppy in our spiritual practices or a charlatan by trade. Fear that keeps us from daring to lament the anger, confusion, disappointment, or frustration we feel towards God at the moment, choosing instead to parrot words we imagine ought to be said or ones we suppose others expect to hear.
I know because at one time all have been true for me. Four decades of start and stop attempts at a “naked and unashamed” relationship with God and I’m still sowing fig leaves together. Still struggling with the temptation to hide from Him and from others.
Experience tells me I am — we are — far more likely to share the ups and downs of family, church and ministry add-ons than expose the ache in our souls for the One we talk about more in theological abstract than in experiential time and space.
C.S. Lewis wrote that “God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there.”
Something in us resonates with Lewis. We have moments — moments when our resolve strengthens. Moments when we read, pray, and journal before we check our iPhones. But these moments seldom last because that wheel doesn’t squeak like the child who wakes in the middle of the night from a bad dream, or a church facing a sharp drop in offerings and attendance, or another ministry vying for our time and energy.
I could be wrong. I could be the only one who sometimes reads the Bible and prays because it’s what pastors do. The only one who checks “Quiet time” off his daily to-do list with the satisfaction of another task completed. The only one to divert attention to the three shiny wheels on my wagon and away from the fourth that isn’t much to brag about.
I could be wrong. I hope not. But somehow I doubt it.
These days I’m anxious for us to be in relationship with someone with whom we can be honest about the wheel that seldom squeaks. Someone who feels safe and good. Someone who demonstrates interest in family, vocation, and outside responsibilities, but who cares the most about our relationship with God. Someone who listens deeply, prods motives, and asks uncomfortable questions. Someone who dares to suggest that we may be hiding behind a large fig leaf in hopes of covering an uneasy truth. Someone to listen with us for the whispers of grace so often drowned out by the roar of condemnation in our spirits.
In The Divine Hours, Phyllis Tickle cites this ancient prayer: “Increase and multiply upon your faithful people your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal….”