“I’ll be fine.”
“I want to do this”
“Don’t worry. Besides, I’ll see everyone on December 26th.”
The basement of Straughn Hall was a lonely place to live. A handful of unlucky students were placed down there every year to live out the rest of the academic year in social isolation while the rest of the students resided on the top floor. No one ever ventured to the basement. It was dark. It smelled weird. And since it was male only, the socially aware spent most of their time on the co-ed second floor with everyone else or moved up there after year one. I don’t think I walked upstairs until at least my second year at Wesley Theological Seminary.
But during Christmas break in 2008, the basement of Straughn was especially quiet. Everyone went home. I even climbed the socially horrifying steps to the top floor to see if anyone was around. Just me. My girlfriend offered to stay in Washington, DC, with me while I worked as an intern pastor during the Christmas season. “I’ll be fine,” I told her. The pastor of Culmore UMC told me to go home to spend time with my family during the holidays. I told him, “I want to do this.” Learning how to be a minister was why I was in seminary. Why would I go home for Christmas? I told myself, “Don’t worry. Besides I’ll see everyone on December 26th.”
After the service on Christmas Eve, I drove back to the empty parking lot outside my dorm room. My parents called me from Texas. They said everyone missed me and wished I was home. My brothers said Christmas was a lot better this year, but they couldn’t figure out exactly what was different. My girlfriend called, but she didn’t have much time to talk. There were a lot of voices in the background – too much going on. I turned on my Xbox. Video games have always been my escape. I tried to play. To lose myself as I had done countless times before. I couldn’t do it.
I did something next that I had never done before. I didn’t tell anyone about it for years. I got in my car, drove to a liquor store, bought a six pack of Boddington’s (which should immediately indicate to you that I didn’t drink much at the time – I had no idea what to buy), and drove back to Straughn Hall. Video games didn’t work, so I guess I needed something stronger. I drank until I fell asleep.
I learned a few valuable lessons:
Boddingtons is a pretty terrible beer. I haven’t purchased one since.
I only made it halfway through the six pack – I have a laughably low tolerance for alcohol.
To pastor is to be alone.
Being a pastor is a lonely life. It’s more than just working every holiday. Every time you meet someone new, the horribly repetitive get-to-know-you conversation always leads to “…so, what kind of work do you do?” And you tell them. And then they apologize for opening the conversation with “this cake tastes like shit, right?” “I’m sorry for saying ‘shit.’ I can’t believe I just said ‘shit’ to a pastor.” After the inevitable “I’m a pastor/I’m sorry” routine, the conversation really only goes in one of two directions. They’re either so awkward that you eat the shitty cake just so you don’t feel obligated to talk, or they tell you all of their thoughts about the church, and you become their pastor when you really just wanted to be a guy at a party eating cake. Most pastors are awkward, even the ones who start out normal. You want to know why? Because they haven’t had a normal conversation in decades. They have forgotten how.
I cannot tell you how many times I have been told, “You’re the coolest pastor I have ever met.” If you know me, you know why this statement is hilarious. “You’re the coolest pastor I have ever met” is the most damning social critique of the church that I know. They have either never met any pastors, which tells us exactly why the church is growing increasingly irrelevant, or the bar is actually that low. Our pastors are either incapable or unwilling to interact with the world around them. Note to pastors: Stop being flattered when someone says that to you. I went to school and have worked with many of you. You’re not cool. You never have been. But you might be the only pastor with whom they have actually had a real conversation. What they’re actually saying is, “You’re the only pastor I know.” Don’t blow it.
Pastors often confuse normal social interaction with what normally happens at church. This isn’t surprising considering that most pastors start out terribly socially awkward or become so because they’re trained to be after decades of the aforementioned dreaded conversation. This may come as a surprise to some pastors, but normal social interaction does not include people sitting in really wide chairs and listening to you talk for twenty minutes while you stand on an elevated platform. That’s honestly, really, really weird. Normal social interaction does not include every person in the room greeting you, shaking your hand, making small talk and commenting on a deity every time you walk into a room. That’s really, really weird. (“Hello Mr. server at Applebee’s. That was a fine meal. Your service really touched me this week, and I pray that God continues to bless you in everything you do.”) Pastors live most of their lives constantly surrounded by people who act really, really weird towards them, and because acting like a normal human being in response is actively discouraged and results in concerned phone calls from the bishop, they go on playing the part. That awkward initial get-to-know-you conversation that all of us have when you can’t really be all that genuine, but must play the role of nice, decent person who is interested in everything the other has to say, becomes almost every conversation pastors ever have.
Many pastors know this. And live it out because they think what they do is worth the cost. But, the result is the same: to pastor is to be alone. Pastors are surrounded by people, but they’re often alone. Ever wonder why Jesus kept trying to escape the crowds to pray alone? Because praying alone was less lonely than the being with the crowds. He was fully human after all, despite the church’s best effort to present him otherwise.
Maybe you’re going to a church service this Christmas Eve. If so, chances are you will find a pastor who is alone. Don’t get me wrong. They live for this. They love Christmas. They can’t wait to tell the good news, but they’re incredibly excited for it to be over. They want to see their families, and they might even be driving long hours tonight after the service just like I did for years. The members of their family remain one of the few people who treat them like normal humans, and they’re excited to be home. This is especially true for young ministers, and even more so for ministers who aren’t married, don’t have children or work far from their families.
You don’t have to thank them incessantly, invite them over for dinner or make some big deal (while those things are nice, remember what we talked about with normal social interaction?), but I do recommend you do something. Do this for Christmas and start doing it all year long. Talk to them like a normal person. Try to care for them like any other lonely person. Remember the solution to loneliness is a real relationship that cannot be created today and doesn’t exist just because you’re at the same church. And most of all, remember this one thing:
Don’t be weird.