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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Confessions of a Pastor

I was a well-loved pastor at a local church of 200 or so members. I have a perfect family: a loving wife, Rachel, two strong daughters and two happy sons. I had a job that I had worked for 19 years and was convinced that it was God’s will for me. I had lots of love and support and had made some lifelong friendships, though fewer than I had thought.

The difficulty of the job was that I would often work long hours, missing evenings at home for one meeting or another. Many days, I would come home emotionally drained from counseling people through difficult times in their lives. When I didn’t have parishioners to counsel, often my coworkers would look to me for counseling. Because of the emotional drain, my relationship with Rachel suffered. I often lost my patience and my temper with the kids. I was running on empty and not sure how to recover.

I was miserable and a few years ago, I felt completely overwhelmed. I wondered how I had gotten so burnt out?

Everything I did, I tried to do my best.
Everything I did, I tried to be “good”.
How can being good be bad?

But, I knew that I could no longer live like this.
I had to stop and figure out...What was happening? Who was I anyway? Where was I headed?

So, I went to counseling. I told my counselor my story and heard it myself for the first time from my own lips.

I grew up with loving parents in a loving family in a lovely suburban home. I was surrounded by nature and had good friends. It was all pretty amazing. And, as a kid, I looked to my Mom. She was perfect to me. She worked hard to make sure we were provided for. She loved us; she hugged and kissed us; she cooked for us and cleaned up after us. She came to our games and cheered us on. She was perfect. Not Oedipus complex perfect, but Mary Poppins perfect (without the carpet bag).

Then every weekend, my Dad would be home with us. And, there he’d sit, in his recliner, watching TV, and not even noticing my Mom cooking and cleaning and serving him ice coffee.

Somehow, in my mind, my Dad became the captor and my Mom needed to be rescued. I was a kid, so I “rescued” by helping to set the table or cook or clean. Whatever I could do to help my Mom, I wanted to do. I was just a kid.

And, I noticed something, whenever I helped, I was praised and thanked. It brought a smile to my Mom's face. I brought a smile to my Mom's face.

"You are so cute
so helpful
such a good kid."

Those words felt so good to hear.
They fed the empty part of my soul.
I was "good" because she said so.

I couldn’t rescue my mom (especially since I found out much later that she didn’t want rescuing. She actually loved using her gifts and abilities to serve others), but I really liked getting those compliments.

That stuck with me. I learned to be helpful wherever I went, whenever I wanted some positive attention: in the classroom, on a team, with friends, at work and even at church. After I became a Christian at 15, I realized that church people really liked you if you were helpful. They said many of the same things my Mom had said.

In college, I started helping out with the youth program in a church. My senior year, I got hired as a part-time youth leader. I went on to get my master’s degree in divinity, so I could be a pastor full time. I became a youth pastor. Then, I became an assistant pastor. Every time, being a helper was rewarded. And, I kept hearing those compliments. And, I believed that I was “good” because they said I was good.

To me, those compliments were like helium in the balloon of my emotions. Over time, they would wear off, and I would feel like I was dragging on the floor, and I just needed a bit more of that helium. Sometimes I would go weeks with just enough small compliments to keep me feeling great about myself. Other times, when I’d screw up and hurt someone’s feelings or let someone down, when I was feeling lonely or unlovable, I would feel emotionally exhausted.

I learned that I needed a “hit” of affirmation to make me feel good about myself.

So, I would go to work and serve and be helpful. Most of the time, my strategy worked. I surrounded myself with positive, encouraging people and I tried hard to please them.

Sometimes, I just wanted someone to smile. Other times, I needed to know that I was the one they needed to help them, the one who finally listened to them or spent time with them.

I created this image of myself. I am a: Good Christian. Good person. Good friend. Good father. Good husband. Good pastor. I am Good.

My image was critical to my happiness. I clung to it. I believed it. I lived it. I made everyday choices based on it. I dreamt of being good and then I acted like it was true.

What I thought was positive, became negative. I wound up thriving on other people needing me. I wasn’t happy unless I was successful at helping someone else feel happy. I was driven to help, to rescue, to save.

I was simply acting out what I had learned all those years ago. If you want people to be happy with you, help them to feel happy about themselves.

This in turn led eventually to me losing my job. Not that many people knew the why behind the what, behind my actions.

A couple of years ago after some intense times with my counselor and even more intense time with God, I realized that the reality is: God did call me to be a pastor. But, on the human side, I chose to be a pastor because I wanted to feel good about myself by helping other people feel good about themselves. At this, I was very skilled. But, it couldn’t last. The foundation couldn’t last. So, God tore down that foundation and had me start over building a new life on a new self-image.

I am only good in Christ. I am weak and His power is made perfect through my weakness.

(Part 2 of this confession can be found here)

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