by Dale Wolery
Recently I approached the Cinnabon counter in an airport. I was unable to resist the smell. My mouth watered with the anticipation of the taste of one of those delightful cinnamon rolls. As I placed my order, I asked the woman behind the counter if she ever grew tired of them.
What she said surprised me. She told me that she no longer had a taste for them at all. She never ate them and had no desire to do so. Over time, the familiarity and the availability had deadened her senses to those mouth-watering delights. What I anticipated with eager expectation, she found unremarkable and unappealing.
Spirituality can be like that, especially for pastors and other ministry professionals. It can be difficult to maintain a consistent, vibrant, growing relationship with God that impacts our relationships with others, because God stuff can become so familiar and so available that we no longer anticipate it with eagerness. We can lose our taste for it just like the Cinnabon seller lost her taste for cinnamon rolls. It is not the kind of thing that usually happens quickly. It might take decades. But after more than 35 years of reading the Bible, praying, trying to be a “good Christian,” attending church (pastors do this more than most), and even leading churches, I must admit to the frustrating reality that enjoying a genuine, mature spirituality is no longer as easy as I had hoped. Over time the familiarity and the availability have had a deadening effect on my spiritual senses.
I think that this tendency to avoid the familiar is a common problem. It’s probably worse for some than for others. I suspect that those of us who struggle with ADD are at particular risk for this kind of thing. We long for the stimulation of new things, not the same old stuff. But while the problem may be common, I have come to believe that it is a particularly difficult struggle for pastors.
Now, some of you may already be thinking that I just have run out of all the other reasons, or excuses, for pastors who struggle, and that I’m reaching for the “It’s harder for pastors” excuse. But if you’ll think with me for a moment about the difficulties of our journeys, you may find encouragement, whether you’re a pastor or not, to keep pursuing your journey with diligence.
Doing and Being
For me the problems posed by the familiarity and availability of spiritual realities seem closely related to the difficulty we have in balancing activities and relationships. Being a human doer can get in the way of relationships. What I do and what I don’t do get in the way of my relationship with the Lord.
Pastors, as a group, are religious doers. We must pray, read the Bible, sing the songs, tend to the liturgy, care for others as God’s representatives, and talk a lot about God. To complicate matters further, we must not only do these activities, but we must get better and better at them and lead others in doing them. Surely there is nothing inherently wrong with doing these things and leading others in them, but the danger for me has been the ease with which I have deceived myself into believing that because I do all of these God-related activities, I must have a quality relationship with God. Other people seem to think this is true. The idea that pastors are closer to God because they do God-related activities is pretty common. These activities, when done well, seem to say to everyone, including me, “He must be spiritual. Look how good he is at [fill in the blank].” But this is self-deception. It is a crippling blight to healthy spirituality. When I deceive myself, even in doing all the right religious activities, a distance from God replaces a relationship with God. Doing religious things further hinders me because it often escalates to more and more doing. This becomes an expanding cycle of harried activity that minimizes my capacity for a relationship with everyone around me and with the Lord too. I have become so busy doing the God kind of work that I exclude the power of God’s Spirit to mold and nurture my soul.
What I don’t do also hinders my spiritual growth. The clear expectation in Christian circles is that pastors must not do some of the things that others do. Whether it be cursing, excessive drinking, flirting, gambling, sexual activity outside of marriage, gluttony or whatever–pastors are just not supposed to do the “bad” things that others do. At least, if they do some of these bad things, they should not do them as much. Or they should do them in private. Or they should at least feel more shame about these things than the average person does.
This expectation traps pastors in two ways. First, we learn to hide the “bad” things we do. We get good at a secret life. We do all the religious stuff with skill but maintain another world–a world of secrecy that damages our spiritual growth. Second, we become proud of what we don’t do, and like the Pharisees, we assume that not doing certain things makes us righteous before God.
Both of these traps are deadly to spiritual maturity. Whether we are regular people or pastors (who are also regular people), real spirituality is an ongoing battle. Doing or not doing familiar religious activities just might deaden our taste to genuine spiritual life.
Are you becoming too familiar with God activities to enjoy the freshness of God’s work in you? If so, stop, look, listen. He keenly desires you, not tasteless religious activities.
Dale Wolery is the executive director of the Clergy Recovery Network and is a former executive director of the NACR.