Are you ready for this? Just 36 hours before my scary vertigo incident two weeks ago this is what I wrote to my congregation in Grants Pass as I was sharing with them the “new normal” with regard to ministry. Here were my exact words:
“It’s enough to make your head spin! Believe me, I know! I feel sometimes like the synapses are firing non-stop and the pistons of my thinker are threatening to go on strike. This is a dizzying time.”
Wow! It was as if I was predicting my own vertigo attack without knowing it. I am still open to the possibility that it was, as the doctors diagnosed, a completely random event since they were not able to trace it to any particular physical condition such as sinus congestion, a head injury or repetitive motion. And many of you have, including blood relatives, offered great advice on what it might have been and what to do about it.
But whether the diagnosis is correct or not I think this is a good opportunity to dive deeper into the “professional vertigo or spiritual vertigo” of which I spoke. It was interesting that in the responses from my readers to my last blog post I noticed a small pattern (not enough to make it verifiable!). I know some of my readers either personally or by association. And the little pattern that showed up was a recognition by those in the profession of ministry who said, “I know well the professional vertigo to which you speak.” And then I also recognized another pattern by some who are involved in churches, but not as pastors, who said, “Don’t give up, Brian. The church needs pastors like you.”
It is this dynamic to which I want to speak. The timing of this was especially interesting as just a couple of days after I published my blog piece Brian McLaren also published his blog piece on “Why Pastors and Priests are Leaving the Church–Part 2” In his piece he acknowledged that many pastors and priests feel as if their soul is dying. They entered ministry with a passion to carry out Christ’s mission and ended up feeling like they have been asked to become building managers and protectors of the status quo (my slightly exaggerated paraphrase!).
He went on to encourage pastors and priests to not retire early or choose another profession (as many are doing), but to commit to one of three other options that will help usher in the future of Christian community. Briefly he outlined the three as 1) start a new worshiping community, 2) becoming the catalyst for a crisis or intervention that would initiate #1, or 3) invest in the risky and hard work of transformation for those churches that still have the resources to do so.
McLaren’s blog post on “why pastors are leaving the church” and my vertigo attack could not be better timed. I want to say that I really appreciate McLaren’s writing and his ministry. I believe that he is right on. But I also want to send a message to the folks sitting in the pews who quietly cheer people like me on in the hope that one day the church will look and feel a lot more like what they see in their heads and feel in their hearts.
If my story is any indication of how costly this work is it isn’t going to be enough for pastors and priests to step out on their own to facilitate the emergence of a new kind of church. Those pastors who commented on my last blog post knew well of the professional vertigo of which I speak. Many pastors today feel they have an either/or choice–livelihood or sacred calling. I think they will appreciate hearing this from me:
We pastors need to know that if we take the initial risks as McLaren and others encourage that there will be enough people in the pews to go with us so that we are not dangling out over a cliff for too long.
If there is a message in my sudden vertigo attack it is this: My body and soul may be crying for me to do more personal care-taking and less risk-taking. I have been at this for two full decades. The first time I initiated an emerging model in a church (option #1 in McLaren’s scheme) I eventually was forced to resign when that emerging group grew too fast and too large and became a threat to the church. Later, in an artsy, philosophical coastal town I wrote a letter to the editor where I teasingly threw out that I thought of myself as an “agnostic Christian mystic biker-guy” in order to get the church and community talking about faith and spirituality. It worked. The community loved it. Church leaders contemplated firing me! More recently, I ended up on food stamps as I didn’t time well the gap between two interim positions. This time I have purchased a camper just in case there is no work after my present call.
All of this is to say, “I agree with Brian McLaren and some of my readers that the church needs pastors like me who are willing to take the risks to usher in this new church that is somewhere over the distant horizon yet close to our hearts.” But you need to know that the costs are high. I have paid a price financially, emotionally, and professionally. Maybe the vertigo was completely coincidental. Or maybe it was my body and my soul’s way of saying,
“You can’t keep this up, Brian. You’re almost 60, for Christ’s sake!”
It is at least coincidental, if not ironic, that I wrote in my last newsletter article, “(Ministry today) is enough to make your head spin! It is dizzying!” 36 hours later I was laying on a bathroom floor unable to move in room that was spinning faster than a carnival ride.
Even the three-month blog absence this spring was another sign of feeling caught between a livelihood and my calling to tease out a new future. In January I had started my job search as this present interim gradually moves toward its end. Memories of food stamps two years prior were still fresh in my mind as well as the unnerving ten months of unemployment. I wanted to blog, but I couldn’t find my voice. I was afraid that too much vulnerability and honesty would keep me from getting interviews. And so I went into hiding.
But somewhere between the unexpected loss of not getting the position in Colorado earlier this month and the vertigo attack just following were just the wake-up call I needed. My voice is starting to come back. These losses broke through my caution.
But here is the deal. I am taking this vertigo message seriously. It is dizzying to both try to honor the needs of the present church and take the risks to tease out the future church. Every day is filled with wondering if I am playing it too safe in a church that continues to decline or taking too many risks in a church that is afraid of change. (“Play it safe and watch the church die or take risks and potentially lose my job. What a choice!”) Every day I play a game where I make sure that I support the ministry status quo just enough to protect my livelihood, but not so much that I risk the rupture of my own soul and integrity.
My readers are right. And Brian McLaren is right. The church and our communities desperately need pastors and priests like me who are willing to take the risks to invite the future church onto our doorstep. But I can’t do it alone. I think my body and soul is telling me that now.
I need and the church needs more than just quiet admiration from the sidelines. We need people who are willing to put their spiritual lives on the line for the future of the church. Until that happens pastors and priests will continue feel caught in the painful either/or of having a livelihood or following a more sacred calling.
My mistake is that I have tried to have it both ways. Am I asking for too much?