Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Dangers of Doing It All: The Collateral Damage of Pastoral Perfectionism

“Some aspire to indispensability;
others have indispensability thrust upon them.”

Let me start by clarifying. I do not do it all. But it would serve me right if I had to.

Dozens to keep track of - not a big deal.
I have only recently become successful at delegation. (Okay, that’s an overstatement. I delegate, sort of. Then I intrude, kibitz, look over shoulders, send email reminders, etc. But I am trying.) Delegation is still causing me great stress, but only because I still want to micromanage every detail so that I have every answer for every question that every parishioner might ever ask.

I am under no illusions about my way being the best way, or being the only one skilled and caring enough for certain responsibilities. My problem with delegation in the past was simply a matter of my schedule regularly overwhelming any potential for advance planning. Delegation does free some of the schedule…eventually. Initially, though, it adds to the workload as those offering to take on a task need to be clear on what the task entails.

This is not a symptom of the “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” syndrome. Really. Not. At all. It’s just a matter of not having enough time to not do any of the tasks myself, because it’s faster that way.

But that has changed now. I have ministry coordinators in charge of the three major areas of our congregation’s ministries. This has freed a portion of my schedule to focus more directly on other essential responsibilities.

Yes, the counseling load is at a peak, but that’s not as essential to the operation of the congregational infrastructure as other jobs are. Yes, I’ve been glad for the opportunities to intervene more directly in a number of serious crises, and make the trips to Redding for court dates and hospital visitation without leaving other tasks undone (even though I missed one!). Yes, there are enhancements to the sound system on which my attention can now be focused, but there is little hope of actually increasing the volume sufficiently when shouting from three feet away doesn’t get the job done. And yes, the additional time has benefitted the congregation with sermons that are (marginally) more concise and, more importantly, shorter. But it’s hard to measure improvements when the evaluation scale usually ranges only from “That was interesting” to “Nice sermon.”

No, there is one most important task to which my additional attention has been drawn, with expressions of both relief and gratitude from those most concerned. As with many rural, solo-staff pastors, even with ministry coordinators on hand for significant responsibilities, the greatest consternation I face, and conquer, centers on inventory.

Thousands...and I manage just fine with these.
Specifically, there are particular stockpiles that are especially concerning, and for which I alone wield the power. Literally—power. The 9-volts go in the cordless microphone and each of the smoke detectors. AA’s for the PowerPoint remotes and all clocks in each of the buildings on campus. AAA’s are for the digital recorder on the pulpit. The need for these powerful supplies, of course, pales in comparison to the frantic search for communion cups every four or five months.

But the greatest collateral damage in my inventory-control failures came from none of these. The pain was not caused by a lack of copier paper and toner, extra-long staples for bylaws and church directories, nor custom thank-you cards for memorial gifts following funerals and memorial services.

I hurt a child.

How? I failed to appropriately monitor the length of the wicks in the candlelighters we use each Sunday morning. One had been drawn back into the lighter’s ferule, and left there. This allows the wax to bond to the interior of the tube, binding the wick so that when it is next to be extended…the slide crushes the paraffin within, rather than extending the wick outward. So, I repaired it, and replaced the old, bent, frayed, and utterly unusable wick with a brand new one.

Unfortunately, I failed to replace the other wick at the same time. They were no longer synchronized in their usable life and replacement schedule. Some weeks later, the neglected candlelighter ran out of wick, leaving only one to be used that Sunday morning.

I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe in cause-and-effect. You do, too. And so, you’ll understand why I take full responsibility for having hurt a child. In fact, I hurt a nine year-old whose friendship I value, but who I have also, sadly, given reason to wonder about my value as her friend. There are lots of complicating factors, but suffice to say, she is not my favorite child in the blended, extended, fractured, and mended family that currently spans three different households. In my defense, my favorite is the one I’ve known longest, having become acquainted years ago through my wife’s teaching career and my own counseling and kibitzing among the families she helps. I try not to insincerely fawn over any or all of the other five children. But this one…well, I do like her. And she got hurt. And it was my fault.

Literally tens of thousands...and we don't run out.
On “The Sunday of Just One Candlelighter” (as historical infamy will ever name it), my favorite was asked by our ushers (“foyer assistants,” actually, but in most other churches they’d be called greeters or ushers) to use the one working lighter to ignite the candles at the altar. She did so, gladly. If anyone noticed that her sister had been left out, they didn’t mention it to me at the time. Perhaps we could have had her snuff the candles at the end of the service. Perhaps we could have ensured that she got a turn, solo, the next time, even if I were maintaining better control over the wick situation. But we didn’t.

Thankfully, she is a very forgiving child. She accepted my apology with maturity and graciousness. I think she might even attend church with that portion of her family again someday. But I still worry.

I worry, primarily, that I have not so fully learned my lesson as I ought to have. You see, my failure at properly maintaining the wicks in the candlelighters, just like my occasional failures at inventory control for several other items (though we have never run out of communion cups!), is just the tip of the iceberg. My primary failure is two-fold. First, my personality, my attitude, my over-scheduling, and several other factors limit my attention to being where I am. My body was in the sanctuary that morning. My mind was there, too, but also in at least a half-dozen other places, thinking about any number of other factors. (Who’s scheduled for what responsibilities this morning? Have I seen all of them yet? Am I prepared to step in to each of those areas should they fail to appear? Can I afford the time to do the two hour lunch following services? What will people think if I don’t, again, ever?) If I had been fully there, would I have seen the disappointment on my friend’s face? Maybe not. But if I were to set a better example of being where I am, might that have increased the odds that someone would have noticed? That someone would have looked open enough to the possibility of her father mentioning her disappointment? Maybe not.

Maybe the only reason this happened has nothing to do with turning back the clock to fix what happened on “The Sunday of Just One Candlelighter.” Maybe there’s no way to overcome our tendency to overlook willing servants who are excited about the possibility of contributing to the worship service, even if they are “only” nine years-old. Maybe one of the things I’m supposed to learn is how dependent I am on grace and mercy, and the forgiveness of a friend who was hurt because of my inattention to details. Maybe.

But I have to admit that one of the distracting factors behind my anxieties and overwrought concerns for every element of every ministry in every life of my entire congregation (and community, truth be told), is my bitterness and resentment. I don’t like being in charge of the batteries, or the communion cups, or the cassette tapes, or the copier paper, etc. I distinctly dislike the frantic requests for any item in the inventory that cannot be immediately found. (My mother used to scold, “Look with your eyes, not with your mouth.”) I really get bent when those frantic requests come after the two-minute warning, just before the start of a worship service. And it compounds my frustrations at my incessant self-scolding for constantly preparing to fill-in for other servants who, most of the time, actually do show up for their responsibilities. (A couple of them even notify me most of the time when they cannot be there to fulfill their scheduled role!)

Two. Just TWO to keep track of - and I messed up.
As you can imagine, my bitterness and resentment has little or nothing to do with the expectations others have for my perfection at inventory control, etc. My breathless anxieties are not caused by the inconsistencies of others on the wonderful crew with which I am blessed and, frankly, proud to serve. So, then, what’s my problem?

It is this: despite sound theology to the contrary, my behavior is governed less by faith than by fear. I can’t imagine being fired for failing to maintain a sufficient supply of copier toner. It’s a pricey item to stockpile, and when the digital printer needs replaced, there you are with extra toner you can’t use in the replacement, wasting the Lord’s precious and scarce financial…and there I am, doing it again.

I really do think that if I could focus, as I admonish others to do, on being who I am called to be, and doing whatever that prompts me to do…in the moment…at the place…as the person God created, then I might notice what I missed that morning: that the opportunity to serve Christ, to participate in blessing a congregation, to simply light candles, or to smile forgivingly at a pastor…these are special moments to be cherished, and I have wasted too many of them worrying about what comes next, or what didn’t get done, or what I’m supposed to do at any given moment when I’m focused on pleasing just about anyone else but God.

I’ve already apologized. But if you’re reading this, my only-slightly-less-than-favorite-friend-in-your-family, I also want to say, “Thank you.” You came to church and let God use you to help me learn some things, and when you got hurt in the process, you were gracious and forgiving.

Pray for me that I can keep learning to be the same way.


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