The Freedom of a Rural Minister
A few days ago, I attended Rev. Jeremy Troxler’s discussion, The Freedom of a Rural Minister, part of the Rural Ministry Colloquia series offered by the Thriving Rural Communities initiative. If you weren’t able to make the presentation, a recorded version is available for download on iTunes U.
Jeremy described the extreme guilt that many pastors feel at having fallen short of the high standards of Christian life and discipleship to which they are held. The guilt that comes as you realize that every place you are is somewhere you’re not. It’s this guilt, along with the fact that a pastor’s identity and vocation are so closely intertwined, that makes even constructive criticism feel like an attack.
I don’t think pastors are alone in this. Today’s culture ascribes so much weight to a person’s occupation that it’s easy to define ourselves by our work. Think about it: when’s the last time you weren’t asked by way of introduction, ‘And what do you do?’ As a result, any misstep calls into question our self-worth.
Jeremy posits that the reason criticism hurts so badly is that we’re feeling the pain of having idols stripped away. We’ve defined ourselves by our work, feeling that if we only try hard enough, we are capable of delivering perfection. Which of course we aren’t.
He goes on to reflect on the story of the Prodigal Son, focusing our attention on the elder brother. In the oft-told story, the first-born is incensed at the idea that his sibling, who frittered away his inheritance, has been welcomed back with open arms. Meanwhile, he’s done everything his father has asked him to do – he’s been perfect – but feels he has earned nothing in return.
The fact is that he had nothing to prove: everything his father had was already given to him. He – and by extension, we - merely have to accept this gift, this freedom, and lift the mantle of guilt.
Thriving Rural Communities