About a Pastor: Five Things I Need to Be Able to Say or I’m Going to Burn Out

I’ve had a regular job since I was twelve. I grew up in a family business; to be clear, said business did not provide our livelihood. But it was not a hobby. My father spearheaded the efforts to save one of the few, independent art movie houses in the country, the Little Art Theatre, and we all worked there. Mom baked lemon bars and other treats for the concession stand; my brother was a projectionist; Dad was a hands-on owner; and I began delivering the paper program guides from business to business with my red flyer wagon.  Over the years I worked my way from concessionaire to ticket seller to projectionist. One weekend when both Dad and our amazing, incredible longtime manager Jenny were out of town, I was the manager on call. I was so proud of that moment.

It is so goddamn small, midwestern America it just makes you wanna spit, don’t it? Where the hell is John Mellencamp?

But don’t get it twisted. Most of my friends who worked at the Little Art were much better employees than were I, at least after I left for college and came back for the summer to make enough money to fund a period of heavy psychedelic drug use (but still rocking a 3.6 GPA). I used LSD for spiritual development, although I probably couldn’t have put it in those terms at the time. I imagine though that the compadres who co-sojourned would attest to the veracity of the statement. I have always been a seeker.

I had a job in a factory where I got chemical poisoning, so they moved me into the shipping department. I had the job all to myself for about two months, and I loved it. Then, a sexual predator was hired by one of the owners. The boss claims he did not know. To this day I call that bullshit. This person would come to work high on crack, and the owner would not do anything about it because he “liked having a guy my own age around here for a change, instead of all these women and kids.” The grooming behavior started slowly. There was a very attractive woman working in the factory, and she and I were friends. I certainly thought she was wonderful and beautiful, but I knew she had a boyfriend. I tried to not stare. Sadly, my sexism was so deep that I needed to know that another man had “claimed” her before deciding to not leer. But in the mailroom, with just two guys, I engaged in sexist banter of which I am not proud. I won’t pretend that I didn’t, though. Being woke means that you fight sleep. You fight ignorance. I was 19; my journey had just begun. Anyway, the predator established a relationship in which we spoke freely about bodies. It was not long until talk turned to mine. “She has a nice ass, but so do you, man. Seriously. Ladies like a good ass.” Seemingly accidental or socially casual touch started. For those who don’t know, I don’t like to be touched unless I have given you clear and present permission. My bipolar presents as incredible sensitivity to touch. (Again, important to know if I am ever in crisis: Don’t. Touch. Me. I am a big, strong dude and I don’t want to do what I am capable of doing.) After the predator cornered me and told me he was trying to arrange with the owner a road trip in which he would keep me supplied with drugs as long as I stayed in the same motel room, I complained. Loudly. I was not believed. I had a problem with authority. I was melodramatic. I was a whole lot of things except someone who was probably going to get raped. I quit. A year later the predator was arrested for multiple counts of rape. I cried tears of vindication and rage.

I have never written about that and have told the story less than half a dozen times. To be clear, I am not presenting myself as a sexual assault victim (well, not for this story, and sexual assault is a complicated thing). I’ve told you about these jobs–add food service, retail, office settings, temporary clerical positions, being a freelancer for a large educational publishing conglomerate–to say that the words that follow are not without the benefit of great experience.

Here are five things I wish people could know about being a pastor, but when we say them the blow back can be fierce. Perhaps here, in a space in which you are present only because you want to be, the statements can exist one step removed from the immediacy of the emotions that often arise in pastoral situations. Posts like this can be dangerous. If you are in the congregation I serve you may want to think about whether you can handle reading this; if you think your response is going to be defensive, please stop reading now. I submit to those conversations in the proper space and with the proper procedures when they need to be about my professional conduct. This is my safe space. My area to be honest and seek support. My personal expressions of my own experiences. This is not yours to police. I make no reference or allusion to any specific person, but not all experiences I have in my life are bound by pastoral confidentiality.  

thing1_2.jpg      I’m really fucking religious. And I’m all in on this Jesus thingReligion is not a competition. God does not call everyone to the same expressions of service and devotion, and not everyone lives out the fullness of their call. This is not a value judgment, it is a statement of fact. One would think. But at a couple critical times in which I have felt that I was being grossly misunderstood in ecclesiastical situations , I’ve pointed out that I am religious in ways that the others involved are not and I’ve been called off-putting. Egotistical. I do not mean that statement as a value judgment but simply as a fact. Why is this even up for debate?

I have made decisions that have major consequences. I follow Jesus Christ, yet had to go into massive debt to do so within the structure and discipline of my denominations. I make very little money, but that’s fine because I am dedicated to ministry. I believe that God puts me in situations and brings people into my life so that we may together serve our community; may show the ways in which love and dedication to the gospel can bring about a joy and peace no drug I ever did gave me. Don’t get me wrong, I have very few regrets when it comes to my drug exploration. Because it was an exploration. All in search of God. I’m ever a seeker. And once I finally realized that God was with me all along, I stopped using. Now, I dream about God. I say good morning to Jesus every single time I get out of bed. I don’t care if this seems odd. My relationship with God is all-encompassing. You cannot and will not find a single area of my life in which my faith has not been placed at the center; again, not a competition. But the casual religiosity of others cannot be discussed in the same way as the intense devotion I display in my thoughts, words, and deeds. I can’t believe that this has proved to be so controversial; one would think that people would want a pastor who takes this whole discipleship thing seriously. What appears to some as frenetic, confrontational energy is actually being on fire for God. It is submitting so fully, so completely, that I often play different roles. Pastoral. Priestly. Prophetic. Profane. It is being really fucking religious.

dr_seuss_thing_one_and_thing_two_baby_shower_invitation_digital_diy_03671044.jpg Sometimes I am the expert in the room, and when I have to keep pointing it out I feel deflated and disrespected. I greatly appreciate the polity of both the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Presbyterian Church (USA). It vests most of the power to the congregation and the respective Council/Session of each. These wonderful, dedicated, passionate, giving people are the Church. Without question, they are the life of this thing we do called church. Effective Sessions and Councils–and I have worked with both, and continue to work with a fantastic Session, thanks be to God!–facilitate fruits of the spirit being directed to areas of need. Each individual person brings with them (it is still hard for me to do the single “them,” y’all, but I do so because my genderqueer friends have lovingly shown me why it is so vital; “him or her” is alienating, if not grammatically superior; I know, I’m a snot, but ugh I’m trying) gifts that serve the church. Some members have a long memory and great knowledge of past ministries. These are invaluable, not only to the community at large but to the pastor as well. I feel so blessed to be able to sit and listen to hours of stories about this place God has made.

But I went to seminary for a reason. I went through the arduous tasks set before persons who go through the process of ordination. The exams. The profiles. The ordination papers. The crafting of a complete systematic theology that is both scriptural and internally consistent. A theology I can talk about, without notes, with scripture citations, through each relevant area. I’m not unusual. Most of us can do that. Why? Hours and hours and hours of study. Prayer. Reflection. Pushing other things away; deciding that some areas of our lives must be fully subsumed by the gospel and that means leaving certain things behind.

One of the things I fear that has happened in certain Mainline Protestant denominations is that the radical leveling, so positive and useful in many regards, puts pastors in situations in which we literally have to say, “I know much more about this than anyone else in the room, but I am being shut out of the conversation.” Or, “I think this is best handled by the pastor and I can report to you as things unfold.” Had I wanted to be a dictatorial or adulation-driven pastor, I would not be a UCCer or a Presbyterian. If I were after that, I could have a megachurch and make millions. This is not boasting. Really. If you’ve met me, you know that I can captivate a room. That shit is dangerous. That is why I constantly try to deconstruct my ego. I do not want to serve me. I serve God. And really following God does not pay well most of the time, but man the benefits are unrivaled.

Pastors have to be so many things–solo pastors with “part time” charges perhaps even more so–within very small windows of time. Our training prepares us to shift gears quickly, and to utilize our knowledge and skills to address myriad situations. Yes, congregational input is vital. It is what makes the church go. But pastors exist for a reason and sometimes I think in any other job context I would be able to say, “Y’all, this is my department and I’m going to make the call on this one.” I am sometimes astounded at the things that are said to me by people who, with the best intentions, need to stay in their own lane. Just because a discussion can be had about a topic doesn’t always mean that it needs to happen. Showing a little faith in the pastor without having to litigate everything to death can go a long way.

3things.jpg     You do not own me or my life. I cannot tell you about some of the conversations about me that unfold, both in front of me and when I am not around. I am offering no details because this is not a blog post aimed at my Session. Please hear that loud and clear. I don’t do passive aggressive. Not anymore. I am up front and honest, often to a fault. So if anyone thinks that there is a coded message in here, please know such is not the case. I could not ask for a more wonderful church to serve, and the people are so dedicated it is an absolute inspiration to me. And when I do have issues, I go through the proper procedures as required by the Book of Order.

With that said, churches do not own their pastors. If you hire a pastor for less than full-time, you do not get to decide what they are able to do to make ends meet. We could banter back and forth about extreme examples that belie the statement–of course if I were a sex worker, we might need to have a talk; but I would argue that the talk should be about how a community allows a religious leader to feel so financially helpless–but I had thought this is not controversial claim either, but apparently it is.

You don’t get to police our Facebook pages. You don’t get to give us an approved list of second or third jobs while we hold a seminary loans bill that should essentially read, “You’re never going anywhere every again, motherfucker!” You don’t get to determine if our hairstyles are okay, or if we should cover up our tattoos, if we are putting on too much weight, or if we are able to be involved in social justice actions because it might reflect “poorly” on the church. These conversations just really shouldn’t happen unless there is a clear violation or conflict of interest.

thingIf I’m doing my job correctly, you’re going to be uncomfortable at times; that’s the nature of following the gospel. I spend a good deal of my time thinking about worship. There is so much work of the people (liturgia) to be done each week. A hymn that helps the caregiver release some of the pain and frustration. A prayer of confession that helps unburden hearts with words they could not fashion on their own; a sermon that illuminates the Word (logos) but also slams it right down in the middle of our collective community and shows us that God’s work is not in the past. Not in the past alone, anyway. It is ever present. It is always leading us from the future by acting on our experience of now.

Following the gospel is hard. And this is not meant to be tough-talk about how Christianity is a way of sacrifices. I mean, it is in some ways but it is also gentle. Loving. Compassionate. Patient. And that can be really hard. The gospel does not make suggestions. Not to me, anyway. Not the way I live it. I am never going to stop talking about race and God. Gender and God. Orientation and God. What is means to be embodied; what it means to connect with our spirits. Sometimes my sermons are going to be preached from the streets or even inside of jail cells. Make no mistake, I will not back down. I will not compromise my commitment to the gospel. If you don’t understand that, such is the point I am trying to make. I’m all in. And if you hang out with Jesus, you’re going to have some really tough moments. But you step into them because God is with you. Always.

thing5.jpg I know I’m a lot to take; I know this; but never, ever, ever throw my mental illness in my face or spread gossip about me. Jesus tells us to not be afraid; I appreciate that and all but I often wonder, is my dedication to the gospel going to get me fired? Am I too much, too intense, too loud and insistent and driven? Is my passion and commitment alienating people? I honestly believe that some people simply cannot handle me because they don’t know how to frame up someone who is so painfully honest and transparent; seemingly humble yet egomaniacal; confident but dreadfully insecure; highly intelligent but sometimes staggeringly stupid; open-minded although at times ultra-sensitive and defensive. While I appreciate all the wonderful things people say about me–and, really, y’all will make a boy blush like Marilyn with a beach ball–but I know that I’m not easy. I have to know this; it has to be at the center of my mind almost all of the time, because believe it or not, very few people actually see me going full bore. I tone shit down a lot.

I know, right? Believe me, I want to break up with myself every six months or so.

Here’s the deal. I’m so bloody transparent because I’m trying to communicate something clearly: my bipolar disorder is mine. Mine alone. Unless you are my psychologist or I see your signature on my Lithium prescription, you don’t get to speculate about how my mental illness is impacting my ministry. Don’t get me wrong, I have empowered people around me to speak honestly about how my behavior impacts them. That is crucial. I often don’t know that I’m doing some things, and I try to make it as easy to talk to me as possible. For some, that’s not possible. I get it. There are also several avenues in the denomination that allow for these things to be discussed. There are multiple ways to make it clear in a timely manner that something I am doing is making you uncomfortable, and 99% of the time I want and need to hear about it.

But there are lines.

I am currently the subject of gossip. I know, we all are. But I am the subject of gossip in ways that are deeply hurtful, incorrect, and counter to the gospel. And I see the waters becoming more choppy, so I am going to put out there that a distinct line is being drawn. I am medicated. I am in therapy. I have accountability partners. I have peer advocates on speed dial. I have three dear friends who also live with bipolar and we share some deep, scary, real shit with one another. Sometimes at 3 in the morning because one or all of us are in mania. Or depression. Or, whatever. You don’t need to know. Because I’m on this. So blase speculation about my very real condition based on an abnormal psych class taken in college, which then spins into a rumor that I am confrontational and wild and mentally unhinged is not okay. It just isn’t.

I’m always a pastor. And I have had some massive failures over the past three years. I imagine that I will have them again. Not one of them has gone unnoticed, unexamined, unrealized. These five things are me pastoring to myself. It is me reaching out and saying, please don’t let this conversation be about anything other than these things I need you to know. If you disagree, hold the tongue this time. Maybe examine why you disagree. Is it an emotional response? Are you feeling that maybe you’ve done this stuff? Or are you feeling that this is out of line? Why?

There are incredible things happening in ministry right now. God has showered so much goodness on this little corner of the world and I am so excited to see what is going to unfold. But I had to say this, just once. It is now out there, and I can do no more. I am not interested in any fights, but I am interested in people knowing that pastors have frustrations, too, and sometimes people around them need to know that. Sadly, we often are told not to speak up because it will be embarrassing to the church. To which I respond, “And that’s why people don’t want to join us; we pretend to be something other than what we are.”

Well, that, and also you know how I feel about that whole keeping my mouth shut thing…

Ordination Destination

I’ve been a die hard U2 fan since 1983. Like, an insufferable U2 fan because I legit loved them before they became huge and it pissed me off that people only started pay attention after The Joshua Tree. If you didn’t know all the words to The Unforgettable Fire, you were just a poser in my book.

 So that made me real fun to hang out with circa 1990-1996.

I remember seeing Rattle and Hum in the theater with my best friend Shane Delbianco; we were in a “band” called Ace, which was comprised of me strumming on an out of tune guitar (without knowing a single chord) and him refusing to use his drumsticks on books because our band teacher had said it ruined them. The sticks, not the books. So that also shows what an immature ass I was at the time. I did album art for two offerings, “Learning to Drive” and “Diamonds Are Forever.” While I listened to a lot of U2, I also loved Tiffany and Europe. And not Final Countdown Europe, but rather Wings of Tomorrow Europe, their “other album” with songs like “Ninja.” I have always been a romantic lad.

Ace broke up by the time we hit 7th grade and there are no rumors of a reunion tour.

That period between Rattle and Hum and Achtung Baby was interminable for me. I kept reading that U2 was breaking up. Friends who saw a leaked photo of the song lineup ridiculed me because “One” was clearly the name of a Metallica song on the greatest metal album of all time, …And Justice for All. No way could there be two great songs with the same name. It was a dark time for the loyal Feedback fans (look it up) until the video for “The Fly” was released and Stephen, my brother, and I went apey. Totally apey. I got the cassette on the day it came out from the Upper Valley Mall in Springfield, and that Walkman did not leave my head for months. 

Months, I tells ya. 

It’s a long way from the Joshua Tree to Zoo Station if you want to rock and roll.

Six years ago, my mantra was Destination Ordination. It was my Joshua Tree. It took three years to achieve. Now, on the three year anniversary of ordination, I am at the precipice of something new. Something radical. Something scary. A nonprofit that right now has $90 in the tank thanks to a nascent Go Fund Me campaign; no offices, of course; projects that need to come together in the next few months while I start teaching again and continue to work on the doctorate (and, I dunno, pastor a church). It’s scary, friends. Scary.

name plate.jpg

This picture was taken moments after I left the sanctuary freshly ordained and went to the office for my first called position. Well, my only called position. I’m a contract worker now. A supply pastor. That title pisses me off to no end, but that’s the subject of another entry. 

I had waited so long to see that title, “Reverend,” in front of my name. The sense of accomplishment lasted about a week. And then I became obsessed with becoming Rev. Dr. Aaron Maurice Saari.

I’m working through that with my therapist.

I’m not really chasing a title anymore. It is not Destination Doctor-ation. (Sorry; that’s lame, but the whole rhyming thing seemed necessary, begging your pardon.) Now it is Ordination Destination. Where is this path going to take me? What communities am I going to be able to serve while providing a living for myself and my family? We’ve cut back as far as we can. There is no more to give up. We’re to the bone, and that’s okay. We’ve done this together. We support one another and believe in what we do.

But this is a leap. A huge, frightening, uncertain leap. I’m not looking for another job. I’m trying to create something with others trusting me and my skills, my leadership, my abilities.

I’m fucking terrified.

Which makes me pretty confident that I’m actually following Jesus.

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