As I was driving away from a nursing home this afternoon I realized that as I get older, transitions between the different demands of ministry (which are, in fact, the thing that keep this work so constantly rich and fascinating)are more and more difficult and depleting to achieve. There was a time when I could go from the bedside of a sick or dying person right to a committee meeting, home for a quick meal and then jump into the study to start some worship planning or writing.
I find to my dismay that try as I may, I simply can’t do that anymore.
Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe it means that I’m more present where I am and that the wide chasm between the the energy in, say, the hospital and a church social event is too broad to jump with my old alacrity. I find that when I expect an instant transformation from pastor to Minister, I get disoriented and just want to hide out because I know I’ll do or say something insensitive or out-of-it. Honest to God, I don’t know how anyone does this work without theater training: I can’t think of how many times I’ve walked into a room absolutely pretending that I’m fine, ready, and truly present when I’m grieving some sadness shared with someone in the parish. Oftentimes the energy of the group inspires and rejuvenates me and I go home feeling up and connected, but that half-hour to hour of transitioning can be really tricky to navigate. For one thing, I look around the room and think “who else just came from some emotionally draining situation to be here tonight?” That can be very distracting, because as we get to know our congregations better and better, we learn that the answer can often be, “Everybody!” And yet the Church calls us out to do the work of the covenanted community, and we respond. Thanks be to God, and dammit it to hell, if you know what I mean.
How do you transition from one emotional setting to the next?
I find that it helps to schedule pastoral calls in the afternoon and then some mindless errands immediately after them, or to head home to prepare dinner. Instead of seeing three people, I now only try to visit one or two and then move quietly around the kitchen (careful with those knives!) preparing nourishing food before heading out for evening meetings or the study (or just winding down for the day when the schedule allows). Through my thirties I was able to make several visits back-to-back, rush out for take-out food, run home and check mail/e-mail and rush out the door for the evening. No way, Jose. Not any more.
Similarly, I’ve noticed that I’ve become less and less coherent and able to get much work done on Sunday afternoons. Thank God I am not asked to teach or attend meetings after church except on very rare occasions. After presiding over a worship service I am more blotto than I used to be — good only for one-on-one chats with people (I love to stand at the periphery of coffee hour and watch the crowd hum but I can’t for the life of me concentrate on conversations unless they’re at least a few feet away from the food tables). When I hear of ministers who are expected to lead worship service (or services!) and then attend board meetings in the afternoon I have utmost sympathy. I honestly don’t know how they do it.
Living in New England with such distinct natural seasons helps me to lean into this aspect of my aging with more acceptance and not to fight it too much. We have to know our strengths and weaknesses, and it’s also only fair to notice how we change through the passing of time. I was talking with a Methodist colleague this afternoon about maybe (just MAYBE) trying to adjust our expectations for winter time, encouraging our communities and ourselves to slow down as the days get considerably shorter and the dark and the cold urge us indoors for more reflective pursuits. I adore the busy buzz of autumn, spring and summer and tend to get mopey and lonesome in the winter, but maybe it’s time to lean into that reality, too.
I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s marvelous book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, where she reminds us that it’s neither ecologically sound nor spiritually mature to insist on bananas in January in the northern hemisphere. This makes me think that if it’s not good stewardship of the earth to demand kiwi fruit in Massachusetts in December, it’s also not wise stewardship to demand springtime brightness from myself as October rolls in. Nor is it wise to expect a 42-year old to have the same resilience as a 29-year old, or to get hung up about it. That almost-42-year old knows a lot more than that kid in her late 20’s knew, has buried a lot more beloveds and somberly marked their names as “deceased” on the church rolls, and has hung around a lot more hours with Lady Death and Mister Trouble. I used to be able to get up from the table after a lunch date with them, leave a few bucks for the check and get right on to the next thing. Nowadays I linger over coffee, haggling over the bill, and arguing, always trying to get them to schedule our next lunch for a much later date than they have in mind.