The Pastor You Got, Not the Pastor You Wanted

A Life of Never Failing Up. (From the magazine.)

This essay appears in the Success & Failure issue of The Mockingbird magazine (which—after some unexpected delays related to the supply chain of cover stock—is finally, actually shipping today! Get your copy here!).

 

I failed                                         .

This was the free association prompt that greeted me at the psychological assessment I was required to take to become a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I had already taken the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2, the Shipley Institute of Living Scale, the Strong Interest Inventory, and the Myers-Briggs Types Indicator and was preparing to discuss the results of all of these with the interviewing psychologist.

But while I had sped through the others, this particular prompt stumped me. Eventually I filled in the blank with “an organic chemistry test.” Then I went through the interview, which involved a lot of talking about both my life and the results of the other inventories. At the end, the psychologist asked if I had any questions. I asked about those fill-in-the-blank prompts, specifically the one about failure. They had not come up in our conversation, and I was curious what purpose they served.

He kindly explained that they could serve as glimpses into deeper issues. For instance, if I had filled in the blank with “my marriage,” we would have had a lot to talk about. Turns out failing an organic chemistry test your sophomore year of college doesn’t set off a whole lot of alarm bells at the psychological interview of a prospective pastor.

This memory is a well-preserved snapshot of the 22-year-old me whose biggest failure at the time had been getting a 50 on a science test. But fast forward 18 years, through a Master’s in Divinity program, ordination into the church, a marriage of long enough duration that I’m starting to lose track (the year etched into my wedding band informs me it’s coming up on 13 years), a 6-year-old son, and nearly 14 years serving as a pastor — and there are many more things I could write in that blank.

In my career, I’ve worked at two churches, and besides their general Lutheranism, there isn’t a whole lot my former and current congregations have in common — except that in both there has been a certain very vocal group of older people who have hated my hair. Hated it. Hated it enough that they’ve accosted the male senior pastors and given these dumbfounded men everything from bobby pins to hair binders to pass along to me.

But the haircut “failure” is indicative of a bigger “failure” — I simply don’t fit the part. My husband (also a pastor) and I interviewed at a lot of churches before we landed in Lancaster, PA. In something that sounds a lot like modern dating, we shared our profiles with churches while churches also shared their profiles with us. Effectively, we had to determine whether we wanted to swipe left or swipe right and set up an interview. The first interview would be their first time seeing us unless they had bothered to google us. Everything about us was evaluated. Our dress, our height, our posture — our hair. We could fail before we even opened our mouths.

Add to this the fact that I’m not what anyone first pictures when they think of a Lutheran pastor: my double last name Genck Morton does not indicate my Korean-American adoptee status, and chances are I’ve surprised more than one person when arriving at an interview. While I’ve long embraced my mixed German-Scandinavian-Korean-and-a-bit-of-everything-else background, it has also meant I’m not quite Korean enough to be a full diversity hire, and I’m also not quite Scandinavian or German enough to offer the comfort of cultural familiarity to some of the old guard. Then I open my mouth. My commanding contralto voice, rising from my petite frame, coupled with my low-anthropology directness and wry intelligence, nestled within a Law/Gospel-laden pop culture reference, can be translated as, “Keep up, please.”

Maybe this explains why I’ve been rejected by more churches than I care to count. Not that this makes them racist or sexist or anything else-ist; my husband can also tell his own stories of similar rejection for different not-the-type-of-pastor-we’re-looking-for reasons. As with dating, when it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit.

Those are the tests I failed in ministry that I couldn’t control. But there are also plenty I could have controlled. There are the obvious failures — like during my internship at the church where I overestimated the youth group’s level of excitement, booked a coach bus, and cost the church thousands of dollars for a trip that only five youth attended. Then there was a mission trip where the group nearly imploded from all the drama that could have been avoided if I had only done some team-building activities at the front end. There was the church that closed down in part because I failed to convince the people there that the church is more than a building, and that sharing ownership of the building with a school would have been a beneficial partnership. There are the sermons that didn’t land and the educational offerings that I thought looked good on paper but for which no one showed up. There are times when I should have led with compassion but led with the hammer of the law instead. There are numerous “bigger” failures I can’t list due to reasons of confidentiality.

There are the failures that still gnaw at me today, like the times when I put off a visit to a sick congregation member, for either legitimate reasons or simply because I was procrastinating, only to learn that during that window they were hospitalized or even died.

Nowadays, when I do visit members of my congregation who, because of the pandemic or other illnesses, cannot make it to worship, I will often be asked to share the current state of our congregation. Some want to hear that the church is as busy and bustling as they remember it — big confirmation classes of high school-aged youth, Sunday School taking up every room in the parish house, worship numbers so big that we fill every seat, and all the social justice initiatives running at full speed. Of course, this is not our reality, nor is it the reality of most churches today. But explaining that we’re all “failing together” doesn’t soften the blow. Nor are either of us completely satisfied with my descriptions of “success”: that our church continues to have a small but dedicated core group of families and youth, and that while we don’t “fill the house,” our worship numbers are steady — and even up — thanks to livestreaming, and that we continue to be dedicated to social justice initiatives even if the number of things we are able to do has shrunk during my tenure. The self-justification rings loudly.

Then there are the ministry tests I foist upon myself. In the age of influencing and branding, I’m constantly telling myself I need to be doing more. Getting my name out there in more places, contributing more, hosting a podcast, and/or writing a book. What church doesn’t want someone marketable who will bring more people in by means of their “presence” and “influence”? Add to that the unique pressure that comes with being a Korean-American pastor: I can’t help but wonder if I’m failing my representation as a Korean-American Lutheran adoptee by not putting my “unique” perspective out into the world more often.

My point is, ministry is a constant exercise in failure. I’m not talking about strategized failure, like “failing up” or learning from our failure so we can retake the test later. Ministry is a constant exercise in straight-up failure.

Even when I do see “success” in ministry, the success itself always demands more. An overall decent track record with mission trips has led to requests for bigger and better trips each summer. Whenever I’ve successfully done something new, like developing a popular and moving educational opportunity from scratch (like interactive stations for the Seven Last Words of Christ), the first thing that comes to mind afterwards is, “How am I going to top this next year?” Every good sermon demands that next week’s be just as good or better. A popular Mockingbird article demands another, and another.

All of this makes it an odd relief when I’m asked to go and be with someone who is dying. Death is the ultimate failure in our society. We do all we can to avoid it, delay it, soften it, and justify it (“They’ve lived a long, full life.”). But it comes to all of us and, as a pastor, I’m often called to walk with people (and their loved ones) as they take this test they cannot pass. When I go, I am fully aware that I’m bringing with me my own failures — all the failures listed above, as well as my impending failure — to their bedside. In other words: I bring nothing. When I come face-to-face with death, I come only with things that are not my own: Jesus’ words. His promise of new life and resurrection.

“Sometimes ministry feels like dying, and sometimes it feels like being raised from the dead.” These words, passed along from my preaching professor Michael Rogness, are ones that I’ve come back to over and over again; I greatly underestimated them until I found myself surrounded on all sides by the failures that come with ministry and life.

“Sometimes ministry feels like dying.” That’s the easiest thing to see and feel: all the letdowns, the failures, the deaths. It’s also a necessary lead-in, however, to the second part: “and sometimes it feels like being raised from the dead.” After all, the only thing we contribute to the resurrection is our death.

Therefore, if ever ministry feels like being raised from the dead, it is always the work of something beyond myself. It always comes from the outside. It is a gift. It is the moment that the very vocal members of the church I helped close tell me they forgive me. It is the sound of those same over-dramatic youth suddenly preaching sermons full of grace, mercy, and life during worship. It is the moment my internship supervisor looks at my dreadful financial dealings and says, “It’s okay; we’ve got you covered,” and then never mentions it again. It is the Sunday morning when, at the very last minute, I have to stay home to care for a sick kid and without a second thought everyone is there to cover for me. It is knowing that when I walk into those situations where people are dying, I bring nothing but the Word of God — but that this same Word is enough to forgive sins and to raise the dead.

Of course, not all ministry failures are resolved neatly. I am aware of the damage that can be done by leaders, pastors and non-pastors alike, that can cause deep wounds that never really heal, because I have been on the receiving side of them before. My last two years in my high school youth group, I was part of a call committee to bring in a new youth minister, and at the very end of my senior year, we finally called someone. About a year later, this person would become embroiled in scandal and not only fired from my church but kicked off the pastoral roster. My friends and I were deeply shaken. Some left that church for others. Some left church altogether, and I’m not sure if they ever came back.

While my path to ordained ministry was not marked by scandal, I have no doubt I’ve derailed someone’s personal spiritual journey not because I meant to, but because I’m a sinner, and I have failed. All I can do is ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and for the mercy and forgiveness of those I have knowingly and unknowingly failed. “Sometimes ministry feels like dying, and sometimes it feels like being raised from the dead.”

I don’t know if those leaders of the church who have done harm to me spiritually have ever asked God for forgiveness; that is between God and them. What I do know is that there is an odd sense of comfort in knowing that God can forgive them — because if God, through Jesus’s death and resurrection, can forgive them, then God can and has forgiven me, too. This is the scandalous, infuriating nature of grace. It is the Word that proclaims that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, neither height nor depth, neither our failures nor our successes, nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord.

For every test we face, God has already passed it for us, through the cross and the resurrection. “Sometimes ministry feels like dying and sometimes it feels like being raised from the dead.”

I failed                                         .

Nowadays I’ve got a lot more that I could write in that blank. I also still have an endless list of ministry-related tasks including budgets that need to be balanced, people to be visited, sermons and lesson plans to write, and visions to cast. I still have the same haircut. I go about all of this knowing that I’m probably failing at least eight tests at any given moment. But I do so with the reassurance that my ministry never depended on me in the first place. Each day I die to both my failures and successes, and each day I am raised by a God who has given me grace, love, and new life.

I failed, but God will never fail me.

*****

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Illustrations by Ollie Silvester.

COMMENTS


6 responses to “The Pastor You Got, Not the Pastor You Wanted”

  1. DLE says:

    In the heyday of blogging, I wrote a post about the ways in which we Christians deal badly with failure and why we need a gospel that speaks to failure rather than one that explains it away. And I wrote a sequel. And they continued for years to be two of the most Googled and visited pages.

    Nothing has changed. We still have a “win at all cost” and “losing is for losers” mentality in America, and it permeates our churches and us. We don’t know what to do with people who fail. And for people in ministry who fail for any reason? Grace is sorely needed, because failing in ministry is—in the eyes of far too many people, whether in ministry themselves or not—the ultimate failure.

    Thanks, Tasha.

  2. Jason Thompson says:

    Insightful and comforting.

  3. William Robertson says:

    My remark is simply that this is very good. And bold. I started to say brave, but I suspect that would not be the word you prefer! Press on. The church desperately needs parish pastors, and not many good people are around these days who want to take on the craziness and trouble involved. I say that as one who fled; there’s a failure for you. Thanks for not fleeing.

  4. CJ Green says:

    Since this was such a successful Mockingbird article, I think it demands another!!

  5. Danny Ovalle says:

    Real. Raw. Helpful. Thank You for this article; it gives me much to consider, pray about and praise God for. We are true “simul’s! May the Lord bless and encourage you in Jesus, our Treasure!

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