I've enjoyed reading the #realclergybios Twitter posts. The hashtag was started at the end of last week by two women clergy, Mihee Kim-Kort and Elizabeth Grasham. Clergy started offering brief glimpses into their world, in 140 characters or less.
Twitter's public, of course, so they've been constrained by the knowledge that their congregations might read what they write, but even so it's been quite revealing.
A trawl of some of the posts reveals some pastors who feel under siege, some who are confused and some simply drowning. There's a mismatch between what their congregations think they do and what they actually do. It seems that the high hopes and high ideals inculcated during seminary training aren't matched by the reality.
I feel like I'm failing. #realclergybios— libbyshannon (@libbyshannon) February 1, 2016
So Libby Shannon posts, "I feel like I'm failing." Lou Nyiri posts: "Anonymous notes on desk just after preaching with Biblical texts telling me why the message I just preached was wrong." Jeremy Fletcher muses on "When the church is cold and you sing loudly enough for your glasses to steam up", while Leah Vasey-Saunders comes clean about "Saturday night dread."
Anonymous notes on desk just after preaching with Biblical texts telling me why the message I just preached was wrong #realclergybios— LouNyiri (@LouNyiri) February 2, 2016
Many of the posts are from women, who face particular issues in the pastorate. Megan Castellan writes of "Immediate feedback on my hair, my clothes, my shoes, my nails, my makeup, everything. It's being famous minus the wealth." T. Denise Anderson posts: "Doing a funeral and having the funeral home director call me 'sweetheart.' Not 'Pastor' or 'Reverend.'" Or how about Sadie, who says: "funeral director tells me I look like a child, & says maybe I should only do services for children"?
There's criticism from (presumably) non-clergy, too. One Andrew Morrison notes that he "Wandered through a hash tag about clergy. There's a lot of unqualified/lost people holding the pulpit. Sad."
But the hashtag wasn't used just as an opportunity to moan. There are good things too: Dave Meldrum writes that a "church member takes me out for coffee and says 'so, what's best way for me to support u? strikes me that you need friends.'" Nice. While Nathan Hart writes: "I love my job/calling. Funerals, weddings, Sundays, one-on-ones, Elder mtgs, all of it. I can't believe I get paid for this." And Collette BroadyGrund posts: "Every Sunday morning I wake up not wanting to go to church. By noon, I've come face-to-face with the holy and I'm humbled."
I love my job/calling. Funerals, weddings, Sundays, one-on-ones, Elder mtgs, all of it. I can't believe I get paid for this. #realclergybios— Nathan Hart (@revnathanhart) February 2, 2016
As an ex-pastor with warm memories of my own churches, I can relate to most of this. In my own experience, ministry involves a sort of negotiation between rock-solid certainties about particular dogma and doctrines and one's own sense of calling and identity, and a wide area of imprecision about everything else. Nasty comments about sermons? Yep, been there. Terror at the thought of Sundays? Very familiar, thank you. Constantly operating on the edge of competence? Quite standard. And yes, the sense that you've done those things you ought not to have done and left undone the things you ought to have done.
The hashtag reveals a mixed picture of clergy life and opinions, and that's fair enough – most members of congregations, who are the ones who really ought to be reading the thread, will be very forgiving of pastors who are doing their best. And, of course, pastors are like everyone else; we like to whinge, and we sometimes think no one else has it half as hard as we do. For the record, it's not true.
But where there's real distress among pastors who've lost their way or who are under attack – and some of these posts reflect that – it's a bit different. That's when denominational structures need to kick in, or at least systems of mentoring and accountability. That's when voices of support from within the congregation ought to be drowning out the critics.
Are there some pastors who ought to be doing something else with their lives? Maybe, but not many – and certainly not just because they aren't gifted in particular areas of ministry, or because some people don't like what they're preaching.
In tough times during my own ministry, I was sustained again and again by the knowledge that I was called to this. I would complain with the best of them, but I always fundamentally knew what I was there for: to teach the faith and mediate the grace of God as best I could. Lose that vision, and you're in trouble. Hold on to it and it's surprising what you can put up with.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods