Even Ministers Get the Blues

Yep, it’s true. Even ministers have times when it’s a struggle to get up, to keep moving forward, when our hearts and backs ache and we just want to stay in bed. I’m having one of those times. I’ve noticed that February/March are hard months. I’m eager for spring but locked into winter. (Those warm days were just a tease to make me think that spring had sprung.) I feel like our church’s back garden—-the potential for beauty is there, but last year’s dead flowers and weeds are everywhere under a layer of snow. The colors are muted and unfriendly. There’s nothing comfortable about it.

Some of my blue mood is because my marriage is in a hard spot. I know that this can change but I seem to have lost my ability to imagine how. It’s a good thing that my sweetie and I take our commitment seriously, because feeling “stuck” is not something either of us take kindly to. When I stop and intentionally take the long view, I know we are good for each other and that our family is worth whatever hard work it takes to break through. But it’s hard to remember that in the friction of the daily grind.

Things at the church aren’t a bed of roses, either. Actually, a bed of roses is a good metaphor. There are elements of beauty that will knock you over, and then there are the thorns. Sometimes I feel like church people (is it just Unitarian Universalists?) have a habit of focusing their attention on anything negative they can find. We are a vital congregation, a loving congregation, and a growing congregation. When I handed the Board a chart comparing attendance and membership numbers over the years, one member kept insisting that they showed no growth and a stagnation of adult attendance. (The kids’ attendance is growing steadily, and adult attendance is consistent, but no longer going up.) His interpretation of this—-or at least what he kept saying over and over was, “This proves people are dissatisfied.”

The wise (ass) part of me wanted to lean over and ask, “Are YOU dissatisfied? Do you want to talk about instead of projecting it on everyone else?” But I know their actually IS a small group of dissatisfied people. (This Board member has been talking to them.) I can count them on one hand, but they are good at spreading their dissatisfaction around. In fact, the key player in this group has yet to be satisfied with a minister. So I don’t take it personally. But I do take it seriously. The church is getting healthier and healthier. I think that is hard for someone who has come in and rescued the “failing” church more than once. And I think the Board will have to grapple with the fact that we cannot and will not ever please everybody.

Some people don’t like my sermons or my style. That’s okay with me. We are a tradition based on freedom and diversity in belief. Not everyone needs to like me or be like me. It’s okay if they move on. It’s okay if they stay, as long as they continue to treat the congregation with respect. Because, when I look at the numbers, I see a swell of visitors, a large group of newcomers ready to join, and new life and enthusiasm growing. And what I see under it all is that the congregation is changing. And change is hard. It brings losses, even if it eventually means big gains. We are changing. And yes, some people will be dissatisfied with that change.

But does it help to focus on the worry that some people may be dissatisfied? Does it help for leaders in the congregation to spend their time and energy worrying about what we don’t yet do well enough? Shouldn’t we celebrate what we do well? Shouldn’t we use the programs that are thriving as models for others? Shouldn’t we appreciate that our staff is more stable, our finances more dependable, our mission clearer and our plan for the future more realistic than ever? Shouldn’t we be letting everyone know that, imperfect as we are, we are so much better than before?

I think I am feeling tired. As minister, I am the “vision keeper” of the congregation. I shouldn’t be the only one. I have hope that the Board and other leaders will remember and help carry on this work. Here is one little example: This year, our pledges came in lower than expected leaving us with a budget deficit. We made a special plea and a few generous families gave a “matching grant” to help us raise the funds we needed. At the Board meeting on Wednesday, we discussed that we not only met our goal, but have raised more than we needed. About $400 more right now, but there are several events from the “South Valley Challenge” that are still to come. I imagine we will end with at least a $1000. surplus. The Board knows this. But there was no celebration, no energy, no relief, nothing. We talked about how hard it’s been to get the men’s toilet unplugged. We talked about governance. We talked about how hard it is to recruit volunteers and find leaders. We talked about everything except the fact that we succeeded. We MORE than succeeded.

I’m tired because I’m out here dancing alone. It’s enough to give a minister the blues.

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7 thoughts on “Even Ministers Get the Blues

  1. I see and agree with your point, Sean.

    I think that sometimes, those of us who put ourselves in “leadership� positions have a natural tendency to focus on the negatives because those are areas where we feel like we can be useful. It’s a mindset that thinks that good things happening are 90% luck, 10% hard work; but bad things are 90% our own failures and 10% unfortunate circumstances. I’ve known a lot of people who gravitate to leadership roles because they truly believe that it’s their job to “fix problems,� but never realize the spiritual and emotional drain when you don’t also celebrate and ackowledge your own achievements. Often, there’s an almost superstitious fear that patting ourselves on the back will lead to complacency. Or it feels like boasting (something we’ve been socialized to avoid).

    I wish that I had the time to make more of a commitment to South Valley, but as I gear up for my move to San Francisco (which now has a firm date – June 16), it’s hard to take on any more than I already have. Still, I think SVUUS is a healthy and wonderful place to be and rarely have cause to find fault with either our leaders or the tone/topics/shape of our services.

  2. I’m sorry things are so discouraging right now, Sean. Hugs and prayers for light and warmth.

  3. While a $1000 surplus is better than a $1000 deficit, that still is not much of a cushion for anyone to be celebrating. That will only cover one major emergency repair.

    If your congregation is growing in children but not in adults then it seems you are attracting young families. But this demographic usually doesn’t have much surplus income to contribute. At the same time it seems that you may be losing the older members who are often better positioned for contributing. That may explain why the numbers are looking as they do. It might also explain why the board member is upset, because most boards have over-50 memberships. Maybe he misses his friends. Or I could just be talking about something I don’t know anything about.

  4. Been where you are, Sean. Especially in March. It’s a tough and ungly time for most of nature and when you add pledge drives and budget anxieties to it….it’s just too much. (another reason to return to the Fall Pledge campaigns of my youth!)

    I know you know how to take care of yourself in these times, but for the sake of other readers, I’ll list…Find a mentor/counselor who knows churches and can reinforce all the wisdom you can write about in your post but might not be in touch with at every board meeting, keep up an exercise program and tend your spiritual life, get involved in something you care a lot about outside your church, and keep telling yoursel, “this, too, will pass.�

    I’ll keep you in my prayers

  5. March always seems bleak to me. Someone said that Jan 22 was the “bluest day of the year,� but I wonder if it doesn’t come later — when it’s almost spring — when we can taste the change in the air, but we haven’t changed.

    No wisdome here. Just a hug or two.

    (o)

  6. I feel for you. You described the scenerio most pastors deal with on a daily basis. Hang in there– and I hope spring comes soon with joy!

  7. I’m new to SLC and exploring (for the first time ever) worship and celebration options for my family. I found your blog through your congregation’s website.

    Thank you for this post. It’s honest, it’s human, and it’s inspiring. You’re not on a pedestal (although you do hold the podium). You struggle, as we all do, with the ups and downs of a multitude responsibilities–from money to relationship concerns. It is wearying when defeats are dwelled upon and successes not celebrated.

    But look at your success. You’ve got a growing young population–the next generation of celebrants raised in the UU tradition. No, their wallets don’t even exist yet. But their spiritual development and their hope is in your hands. Place a value on that and your coffers are over full!

    My husband and I are older parents of two preschoolers. We need a home for ourselves and for our children. After reading this and other posts here, I plan on visiting and celebrating with your congregation.

    (In the meantime, take a peek outside: the crocus are coming and will continue despite the predictions of snow and cold. It’ll bring you a glimmer of hope in this mercurial season.)

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