I want to reflect for a bit on the insight I gained in a conversation with other pastors. I don't recall the exact context, only that the idea that I have been a Hospice Pastor for most of my pastoral career came to me in a flash.
I have known hospice chaplains and hospice nurses. They are remarkable people! They pour themselves out to people who are dying so that the dying person can pass with dignity and a sense of having been cherished. But one cannot pour oneself out to another without becoming attached to that other, so hospice workers are in a constant state of grief. The people they have poured themselves out for, the people they have cared for, sometimes for months, ultimately die. There is a loss. There is grief. But that is the nature of the calling (and it is a calling, I believe). Hospice workers will occupy a very special place in heaven, I am convinced. I have never witnessed a "bad death" in the context of hospice, although I'm sure there have been a few. But for the vast majority, death comes not as an enemy, but as a friend who relieves the suffering and sets the person free.
So if there are hospice workers who work with individuals who are dying, are there also hospice pastors, whose calling it is to care for dying churches? And if so, am I so called?
This idea goes against just about everything I was taught and believe about the profession of "pastor." Far from helping a church to die well, pastors are called to bring life (resurrection) to a dying church. Much like a physician is called to heal rather than to help die, so a pastor is called. At least, that's what I assumed. Oh, I knew of pastors who actually were called to "close" a dying church, but in almost every story it turns out to be a resurrection ("the pastor was sent to close the church, but now there are 5 million in attendance!"). All of which adds to the sense of failure to those of us who pastor churches that don't experience a resurrection. A pastor's sense of self-worth is often inextricably bound to the relative "success" of his or her church, and so as a church slips away (often anesthetized so that it doesn't fear death) the pastor grows more and more depressed with feelings of failure. And yet, churches die. Some are, in fact, in a terminal state of decline. Wouldn't it make sense that God would care enough for the people of those dying churches to send someone to care for them, like a hospice worker, as they die?
Am I a hospice pastor?
Every church I have served since graduating from seminary has been dying. And while there might have been blips of life, they continued dying no matter what I did, although none has completely died as of yet. One could make the point that in the California-Pacific Annual Conference of the UMC, the vast majority of churches are dying and the likelihood is that I would always be appointed to dying churches, but that is another topic. The hard truth is that most dying churches will die, or at least be so transformed that they no longer have the identity of the original church. So is it wise to beat myself up for "failing" to revive the churches to which I am appointed? Resurrection, after all, is not the job of the pastor but, rather, that of God. And the last time I looked, I'm not God! So should I feel badly? A hospice worker will drive themselves into an early grave if they believe that if they just "do the right things" their patients will live. And yet, I am constantly harangued by such thoughts in relation to my churches.
And yet, resurrection is the central theme of the Christian faith. Healing is possible, if we are to learn anything from the ministry of Jesus. I'm wondering if a congregation is ever objectively terminal, or if, like some of the people Jesus healed, the question must be asked, "Do you WANT to be healed?" Because in order for a congregation to be resurrected, there must be the faith (desire, belief) that resurrection is possible. And what that resurrected life looks like MUST be left up to God and not defined narrowly as a reconstruction of the "glory years" when "Saint Perfect Pastor" was in charge and there were three services every Sunday and a gazillion kids in Sunday School, etc. etc. etc. After all, the Scripture says that "He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control." (Philippians 3:21 NLT) So what the resurrected church looks like is not dependent on our expectations or dreams, but upon His power. There were some who were not healed because they couldn't get beyond their own limited vision of what healing looked like (Matt. 19:22).
So how does one "do" hospice pastoring while hanging on to one's faith in resurrection? Isn't that a prescription for frustration? Is that why so many pastors "burn out"? Isn't that why I am on sabbatical in the first place?