I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about what it means to be a pastor. Simultaneously, I am reading—once again!— Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. In it, the main character, the Reverened John Ames writes,
[It’s] the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.
(Gilead, p. 6.)
I can’t help but be struck by those words. What is it about a pastor that this is such a common lived reality? Every pastor I know has shared similar experiences: the curse word self-edited halfway off the lips, the beverages hidden behind the back, the certain parties or social gatherings for which an invite never seems to come, the unwholesome joke that is shared between friends but with stifled laughter as soon as the pastor walks up.
And yet, the same men and women come to the pastor for help. This time, not with an offhand joke but with their hidden sins. Not with a tucked away drink, but a burden of addiction. Not with edited speech, but with the whole truth about their shame, broken marriage, broken homes, or broken selves.
People, Ames writes, “want you to be a little bit apart.” Isn’t it a wonder, then, that they turn to the pastor in their greatest need? I think it’s because people know that as much as godliness is marked by holiness, it’s also marked by forgiveness. I can’t help but think of Jesus’s words in John 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Of course we know that when Jesus was lifted up, it was a horrifying thing. It wasn’t attractive in any way: it was horrifying—it was utterly apart from approachability. And yet, that’s where he draws men to himself. That’s where they find forgiveness.
Pastoral ministry is lonely, to be sure. By it, a man is set apart. By it, society sets you apart. But that’s still where they come for peace, forgiveness, and absolution. Maybe it’s only by being apart that we get to see what Ames says: what’s under the surface, what’s unexpected, and what’s in need.