I was listening to a National Public Radio story the other day about a nihilist poet, and the reporter read some of his poems. They were marked with existential angst of the most hopeless type. The more I heard, the worse I felt. As I was driving down the road, the poems were enough to make one ask, “Why keep going down this road? Or any road?” All values are baseless, and all activity without meaning. The story went on to mention that the headstone on the poet’s grave read simply, “Don’t Try.” It’s hard to get any more cynical than that!
My thoughts went back to some comments made by several of the “under-thirty-five” pastors when we gathered a couple months ago. I asked them what they needed from older and more experienced colleagues. They described many positive role models. They spoke of older pastors offering the ministry of encouragement in ways that were helpful and sustaining. Some of their older colleagues were like heroes to them, mentors and teachers. They had much to learn from their older peers, and they also felt they have much to teach them in return.
They also said that one of the hardest realities they face is some older pastors who are cynical and negative, full of resentment and mistrust. Some have simply given up, and are just going through the motions until retirement. The younger pastors spoke of some older pastors who are so eaten up with cynicism that their influence upon younger pastors is unspeakably discouraging. One young pastor said he no longer attends a regular gathering of his older clergy peers because of their negativity and sense of resignation about ministry. It’s as if these older pastors see the enthusiasm and eagerness of the younger pastors for ministry, and say, “Don’t Try.”
Cynicism is a kind of corrosive slow-working poison for ministers. Cynicism declares that there are no higher motives, altruistic impulses, or worthwhile endeavors, but that all the efforts of those who seek to serve are ultimately self-serving. I recall a writer who said, “Most people, given the choice between having a better world, or having a better place within the world as it is, would choose the latter.” On our more cynical days, pastors could reword this, “Most pastors, given the choice between having a better conference, or having a better place within the conference as it is, would choose the latter.” Hmmm. It’s hard to stay motivated to serve Christ and the church if we think everyone else around us is just serving himself/herself.
Just as isolation is a contradiction to the Sacrament of Holy Communion, so also cynicism is a contradiction to the Sacrament of Baptism. With the dipping of that water, pastors who are authorized by the church to administer the sacrament are daring to remember and reclaim new birth, new life, future, possibility, the presence and sustenance of God’s spirit, resurrection. Baptism is about God saying “Yes” to us, and our allowing God’s grace and affirmation to shape us. It’s about hope, meaning, and the efficacy of the life of service in Christ.
Ministry matters. The lives we touch, the sermons we preach, the work projects we organize, the people we welcome, the dying people with whom we pray, the youth we teach, the children we baptize, the communities we build up, the justice we proclaim, the comfort we offer – these change lives, and it is through the prayer and plans and work of pastors and laity in congregations that God transforms the world.
For those pastors with enough experience under their belt to be a little worn and weary, please know how important it is for our younger colleagues to hear from us a word of encouragement. We all have our down times and periods of disappointment. But at the end of our years, I hope our message to the next generation of church leaders is not, “Don’t try.” I hope our message is, “It was worth it! Try, and try your best for the purposes of Christ. The ministry of Christ is worth pouring your life into and giving your whole heart for, and if I could, I’d do it all again!”
Yours in Christ,