So I have been kind of introspective lately, looking back at my journey in pastoral life. I am coming up on 10 years in service as a pastor, which is a little mind-boggling , but I thought off and on I would jot down a few thoughts and observations, sharing on a few things that I have noticed, and a few things that I have learned over the years. This is by no means an exhaustive list or a conclusive list, but I think it is helpful to observe and reflect on recurring themes and patterns, and in the same way, I think it's helpful to give a look behind-the-scenes, to pull back the veil as it were, and hopefully these thoughts will be helpful!
THE SEAT CREEPERS
I have the ability to see into the future. I know, I know, you are wondering what spiritual gift I am actively using to discern these times, and you are wondering what internship or school of ministry I attended in order to pick up these seemingly supernatural abilities. Try as I must, I cannot seem to overcome the urge within me to answer your query with a cliche. I did not learn this seemingly supernatural skill at a School of Supernatural Ministry... I learned this skill at the School of Hardknocks (See what I did there?)
I have noticed over the years that one's spiritual health and one's headspace is often directly related to where they choose to sit at church. At this point, you are thinking about where you sit at church, and you are wondering what where you sit at church actually says to me, and that sounds like an amazingly satirical post, which may happen sometime soon (you know something like: WHAT WHERE YOU SIT AT CHURCH SAYS ABOUT YOU or WHAT WHERE YOU SIT AT CHURCH SAYS TO EVERYONE ELSE), but for now, let me explain what I mean.
I grew up in a church where my parents were so faithful, so regular, so consistent, that even in a packed auditorium the ushers would literally save my parents seats to the latest moment possible because they were in and of themselves somewhat of an institution within the institution. The ushers assumed that there was no possible way they were actually, so they held their seats thinking that they must be working on something else in the building and would be arrive at any moment, but I digress.
Let's say you normally sit in the third row. That's your spot. You love the third row. You have your place. And when you don't get to sit there, things just don't feel right. That spot is your jam. What you might not realize is that others all around you will soon begin to recognize that as your spot as well... But wait... there's more. I notice it as well.
That's right, the preacher knows where you sit, why? Because he looks at you week after week sitting in that exact spot. So... when you move from that spot, and you change up your location, that simple action speaks, and to me, it speaks loudly. When people are struggling with something, either publicly or privately I have noticed that they begin to withdraw. For some reason it just seems safer to pull back and curl up in the fetal position holding on for dear life. Guess what... when you start withdrawing internally, there is an external manifestation of that internal turbulence: you start withdrawing from church by changing seats. It may be as simple as moving from the third row to the fourth, it may be a more substantial jump back. Regardless of where you move to, where you sit starts to speak to me.
Like clockwork, the further back that person sits the further they withdraw.
At this point, you are still thinking about where you sit and what that says about your personality and you are wondering whether or not I am judging you on it... I'm not, but I have to ask, if you feel that guilty about it, what are you saying to you right now that maybe you should be paying attention to.
The next thing that you are feeling is a blend of desperation and maybe even a little bit of anger.. You are actively reacting to the seeming nonchalance with which I mention this theory and you are wondering what I actually do about this problem. You are hoping that I jump into action and pour my heart and soul out to this people. You are hoping that I chase them down, and shake them back to life... you are thinking about your friend and wondering what I'm not doing more to help... or maybe you just leaned back in your church, put down your beverage, crossed your arms and said, "huh," running through a list of names and faces of those who did or do sit beside you at church.
So what do I do about this blaring obvious situation you might ask?
Are you ready for this?
I do the same thing I always do. I go over, say hi, ask about their family, talk about their life, if we haven't connected recently (Desiree and I currently try and connect with two families a week, for dinner or some kind of activity, on top of our 'normal' schedule) I try and plan a date to connect. It is during this conversation that my suspicions are either confirmed or outright denied. What I am hoping for is that my suspicions are confirmed. That means we are able to get involved. That means they are willing to talk about it, and they are welcoming whatever help we (and when I say we I mean we as we the church - in this case speaking of us and our team) can offer.
The real problem comes when my suspicions are denied. When we engage in casual small talk, try for weeks on end to find a time to connect (not always an indicator, some people are busy but some are hiding) and ultimately skirt whatever issue they are working through. I watch the withdraw unfold before my eyes, week after week as they fade and withdraw from community with their seating location screaming at me weekly as an indicator of the condition of their heart. The third row becomes the fourth, and then the sixth, and the pattern continues, with their frequency of attendance becoming increasingly sporatic, their arrival time getting later and later, until finally you stop seeing their faces when you scan the crowd.
Inevitably, you hear through friends or if we're being honest, you hear through Facebook of their struggles, and as a Pastor you stare at the screen heartbroken, re-evaluating every conversation and every interaction.
If you really want to know what's going on inside a Pastor's head, then keep reading, but if at this point you would like to superimpose your story onto this post and you are hanging and hurting at leaders or the church for not doing enough for somebody, then I would encourage you to take a moment to breathe. Step away from the screen, clear your head, and put down your phone. Once you've cleared your head, and open your heart and mind to another perspective and to another side of the story.
I have performed the relationship autopsy one a handful of these situations. More often that not, we are able to work through life situations, and see people bounce back, but there is still a fair percentage that end up fading out into the distance, and honestly, most of these people end up drifting. Drifting in their faith, drifting from church to church, or no church at all, and it is incredibly painful to watch if you are sitting on my side of the fence.
As you can see, my ability to gaze into the future is directly connected to a subconscious physical manifestation of someone's internal turmoil. Most people I have chatted with have never noticed the pattern, and have never connected it to their situation, but this last piece generally seems to confirm my suspicions. The families who we are able to work with through their situation often return to their original spot, or find a completely new spot within one month of resolution, and may I add, without any prompting or any comment from me in regards to their seating at any time during our exchange.
So... now that I've let you in on my little secret, I was thinking that we could pivot. Instinctively, I want to start a new post, and let this one hang there like that, without any form of resolution, but I figured, that wouldn't do this post any justice.
One of the hazards of the job is that times pastors can get labelled as evil incarnate. You get viewed as someone who didn't care enough, didn't do enough, or as someone who is only power hungry and just doesn't care at all. I realize that there is a potential for me to become the face of someone's frustration, because, at times, all most of us are looking for is someone to bear the brunt of our anger and become the embodiment of the struggle so that we can find some sense of resolution or restitution by taking out our anger on someone of something... this is also why people become mad at "the church" or they become hurt by "the church" because it's easier to be angry at a nameless, faceless entity with no emotions than it is to angry at a person, although, we have to realize that the institution didn't hurt you, a person did.
But I would like us to consider for a moment one thought...
Most of this post as revolved around my perspective, but I think there is something that each and every one of us can extrapolate from my observations. Here are some quick takeaways for you:
1) BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS - Who do you sit beside? Who sits near you or around you? Do you have "a spot" or do you roam? If you have a spot do you know the others who are regulars in your section?
2) CONNECT - If you sit in the same spot, but only can think of faces and not names in your section then it is time for you to connect. Say hi, re-introduce yourself, it may seem awkward, but there's a good chance they don't know your name either. It is better to burst the bubble than live in yearning silence.
3) OBSERVE - Is there someone who regularly sits in your section, and has for a while, but now no longer sits there? Are they sitting further back? Are they constantly sitting further back?
4) ASK - Ask Jesus (that's code for 'prayer') to increase your awareness and concern for those around you. Ask yourself to become more connected to those around you. Give yourself permission to go for lunch, go for coffee, and to have a meaningful conversation with the people in your section
5) ASK - I know, I know, I already said that. But here is my request, ASK FOR HELP. If you are going through something, if you are in the midst of a struggle, ASK FOR HELP, ASK FOR SUPPORT, ASK FOR PRAYER. Most people I deal with, wait to ask for help until the situation is in need of miraculous intervention. While I love miracle stories, I love it when we can support people in the small things, to help stop a bigger thing from ever happening
6) TAKE RESPONSIBILITY - The church isn't a nameless, faceless entity or corporation with a strategic leader at the helm who is employed by said entity to take care of all your needs. YOU ARE THE CHURCH. I AM THE CHURCH. WE ARE THE CHURCH. That means that you shouldn't just leave it somebody else. It means that the best thing that you can do is get involved in the lives of people around you. You will discover that those very same people who you connect with now, when things are going well for you, are the very same people who will carry you through your next storm... IF you let them.
7) STOP HIDING - Small talk is ok, Real Talk is essential. Although your actions will ultimately betray you (I believe your seating pattern, as discussed, is your subconscious asking for help). If you just come and get what you need and go home, you will be satisfied, for a while. Then you will ultimately find yourself, upset, hurt, or in a tough spot with seemingly no one to turn to. This will lead you to possibly to leave your church or community and start the process somewhere else which will signal the beginning of this cycle again. Community is a two-way street. If you are looking for connection, then you have to be willing to ENGAGE
8) PRIORITIZE - Here is a bonus secret for today: Pastors & Leaders do not schedule events for the sake of having events, there is a method to the madness. We schedule stuff to give you the opportunity to CONNECT. There are two ways that you can hide. You can hide in plain sight, by going to things but keeping to yourself and not talking to anyone or you can hide by not attending. If you are feeling disconnected you need to prioritize your connectivity. Attend as many things as possible, break out of your comfort zone by actually talking to someone else
9) OWN IT - Your connectivity is up to you. I can plan, schedule, meet, talk, pray, and preach with you, for you and at you, but if you don't prioritize your own connectivity then you will find yourself alone and disconnected in a sea of others who are also desperate to connect. Did you know that most others are looking for the same thing that you are looking for, but the greatest lies are the ones that you keep using as an excuse to not have to engage. You might think that everyone is alright or everyone is too busy, or that everyone is so abundantly popular that they have no time for you. But what you have to realize, is that most of us are looking for somebody to connect, and most of are going through the same mental anguish of working up the courage to actually connect. So there you go... there's your first talking point, talk about how hard it can be to talk to new people!
10) LEAN IN - In the most difficult seasons of life we tend to withdraw and hide. Can I ask you a question, how has that been working for you? Chances are, not great. And yet we continuously repeat the cycle, finding new scapegoats along the way to embody your disenfranchisement with the institution. The hard lessons begin we realize that I AM, YOU ARE & WE ARE that institution. It's not just some entity, it's us! In the midst of the most difficult seasons of life, LEAN IN to your community, REACH OUT for connectivity, LOOK UP for direction and BE INTENTIONAL about building meaningful relationships and not hiding in a sea of humanity.
BONUS THOUGHT: You might think that you can only get lost in a big church community, not true. Some of the easiest places to hide are in plain sight in a small to mid-size community. It's easy to be a familiar face that nobody really connects to
Hey! Thanks for reading! I'm gonna plug away at this series of blog posts, probably in a sporatic fashion, but hey, now you know! I recently wrote a book that I believe will help you immensely! So if you liked this post, then you are gonna love my book, Hope Not Hype! It's available on Amazon, Kindle, and many other online retailers, even Barnes & Noble, but the best deal always come through me, so click the link below!
And if you hate reading, but love audio books... I got you covered there to, enjoy!
Brett Esslinger is a Husband, Dad, Son, Brother, Pastor, Speaker, Leader, Writer whose life goal is to help people unlock their potential and fulfill their life's purpose.
Brett is the founder of Engage City Church & the Author of #HopeNotHype