If you suffer from low self-esteem, you might not want to go into local church ministry.
Of course, if others suffer from your overly inflated self-esteem, you probably shouldn’t go into local church ministry either.
Who, then, can survive, you may ask.
The key is to hold two ideas in tension at all times: Neither believe every word of praise people say about you nor every word of criticism leveled at you. Realize the truth probably falls somewhere in the middle.
Being a public figure, and being involved in projects that make other people public figures even for a moment or two, opens the door to all manner of unexpected extremes.
We have young ministers in our congregation called pastoral residents. They work with us for two years between divinity school and their first pastorates to gain practical experience. They preach about once a month in our Sunday services. I’ve noticed through the years that the quality of the sermons they preach has little bearing on the amount of praise heaped on them by our congregation, eager to encourage.
In fact, on a few occasions when a resident has preached a dog of a sermon (which is rare, by the way), I have observed in astonishment as people crowded around after the service to explain how that was the best sermon they ever heard.
We often tell these young ministers to take such praise with a grain of salt—be gracious in receiving it but listen carefully to the evaluation that happens later that week in the homiletics seminar.
In the ministerial life, the same must be true of hearing criticism—although this is much harder to do. When one person walks in the office suggesting that you have single-handedly set back the cause of the church with your boneheaded sermon, lesson, song, meeting leadership, fill in the blank, we are tempted to hear that lone voice as representing the wisdom of the whole—especially if they throw in the ever-popular “I’ve talked to other people who agree with me” or some variation thereof.
Most, but not all, of us are able to tone down the praise while helplessly turning up the volume on the criticism. That’s what humility requires, isn’t it?
A healthier response is to remind ourselves that ministers must stand in the middle in oh, so many ways. We must be able to keep the big picture in view and remember that we are called to advocate for the common good, not serve the special interests of a few loud people.
“To thine own self be true” is good advice for clergy of all kinds. God, grant us the serenity to change when we should and to stand firm when we must, and the wisdom to know the difference.