Last Sunday after the worship service, which was the Christmas Pageant, I did what clergy usually do: I had coffee, struggled to refrain from the cookies and other diet wrecking monsters at fellowship hour, taught a class, and returned to my office to pack up my things. God willing, I’d make it to the pub in time for the second half of the Patriots game with the Patriots Fans of Houston. I was delayed.
There was an envelope on my desk. On the front was written in an elegant cursives script “Rev. Tony” and underneath “Please open before Christmas.” Clergy receiving Christmas cards at church from parishioners is not uncommon, so before leaving my office I opened it. I could feel my son, who was visiting, and anxious to get to the football game on TV, outside in the hallway tapping his foot and glancing at the time on his phone.
“Thank you,” read the card “For all you’ve done for our Fellowship.” It’d been a hard fall. A very hard fall for me personally. My partner dealing with heavy, traumatic issues. Finances hanging a on a shoestring, living paycheck to paycheck and then having my car pass away and need to be replaced. My parents 1800 miles away and dealing with illness and other aging hardships. My brother and his wife having their first child who was born with medical issues. My son in his senior year of high school, the reality of apply to college hitting him and the reality of him paying for it hitting me. On top of that, the man child turned 18 and although not yet quite 50 I started to feel old for the first time, and tired. Weary. It’d been a tough fall. Indeed a tough year.
Being the best professional I could be, I was able to leave it all at home, and I gave the congregation my best. It’s a consulting ministry. Lots of interim type work. Looking hard at the congregational system and helping lay leaders introduce and lead change. Anyone who’s done it knows how this can be difficult even when it’s going well as intentionally entering into the difficult is part of the process. And I’m proud of them. They are working hard, doing well, being brave, taking some risks. And I love them dearly, in a way, truly, you can only know if you too care for a group of people, not just professionally but because of who you are and what you do.
And all of that is why, when I noticed the slip of paper that fallen out of the card and landed on the floor, that I cried the way you cry when all of it just needs a place and a trigger to come pouring out of you. The slip of paper was a check. For a couple of hundred dollars. A Christmas bonus, but not from the church. It was from an individual. A gift of thanks. For being of help to her church. Instead of eating a burger at the pub watching the football game, I took my son out for a huge meal at one of his favorite Houston restaurants. Something that certainly wasn’t in the budget a couple of hours ago.
My favorite characters in the Christmas story are the shepherds. I’m convinced after all these years that the story is actually about the shepherds not the baby Jesus. Shepherd was about as lowly a job, trade, or occupation one could have in first century Palestine. Shepherding was not a 9-5, punch a time clock job. They had virtually no social standing. They were in fact expected to protect the sheep from predators at the cost of their own life. Don’t miss that point – the shepherds’ lives weren’t as valuable as those of the sheep. And it was to these – the last, the least, and the lost that the angels came, that God comes, that the promise of peace and hope is given. The story means to tells us that we are all valuable, all important, all loveable, and each of us no better or worse than anyone else. Notice too, that no one, absolutely no one of important rank or privilege is in this story. By the time the rich and powerful show up, they are days late and jump on the story of the underclass after it has already happened. The Christmas story tells us that revolution and change begin on the absolute margins of society and if we ourselves don’t occupy that place, we are called to put ourselves there and pledge our allegiance there, and not with the rich and powerful.
Like many religious liberals I’ve always been a bit umcomfortable with the terms pastor and flock, because a pastor is another word for “shepherd” and just about the last thing a liberal minister wants to convey is that members of the congregation are sheep who need tending. We tend to use the term “flock” and “sheep” in a derogatory manner to connote mindlessness and blind obedience. Yet, in some very real ways we ministers and religious educators are still pastors, still shepherds.
Most of us do what we do because we believe in the shepherds, we believe in helping people realize they are not sheep, that they are okay, whatever their pain and struggle and that they are not alone. We still lay down our lives for those in our care. Even with the contemporary awareness about self-care, clergy still have incredibly high rates of depression and burnout. Many of us struggle financially. Many more of us than our congregations know, I’m sure. As I write this I mentally tick off on my fingers and toes colleagues who live paycheck to paycheck like I do. Make no mistake “pastor” is steadily slipping back into the lower ranks of society. What was once a widely respected, honored, and well compensated profession up there with doctor and lawyer in terms of respectability and privilege no longer holds such a place in common cultural consensus. In fact, I have some concern that there are still people out there who might think less of me for writing such a piece as this; for admitting to the difficulties of the job as well as the joys. But I know there are so many of us in the ministry who share my story and struggles, that it has to be okay to talk about. The days of people making a living as full time clergy are on the way out. I may well be part of the last generation who can count on congregations being generally able to afford full time, professionally trained ministry.
And so I cried my eyes out in happiness, gratitude and thanksgiving for an extra check at Christmas. I don’t do what I do for the money, but world I live in doesn’t give me a break on bills, medical issues, college tuition and other expenses because I lay my life down for my people. So when those wonderful people say thank you and say it in such a way, it means more than I can say. Even though I just tried.