Sorry But Not Guilty

 on January 12, 2024

Sometimes I fail as a pastor. I am someone who can turn myself inside out about all of the ways in which I don’t measure up to my own sky high standards. But here, in this statement, I am not berating myself. I am stating the undeniable truth. Sometimes I fail as a pastor. Acknowledging this isn’t just potentially a good thing. It is also hopeful. There are different categories of my failing. There are mistakes that I make and from which I need to learn.

There are wrong things I say and situations that I miss or misread, and I pray for the grace to make them right. These realities fall into the category of being a human being in need of forgiveness and more chances. A big part of adulthood for me is learning to be okay with not being perfect. A big part of why I am a Christian is because I ran up hard against the lie that I would be all right, I would be happy and whole and secure and fine, if I could just be put together and accomplished enough. I became a follower of Jesus because I can’t go it alone or save myself.

There is another category of my failing, and this one has been a growing edge for me. Sometimes I fail not because I did something wrong but because there just isn’t enough of me to go around. This is a reality of limits with which anyone working in any sort of helping profession needs to reckon. People get sick, and unless someone tells us, we don’t know. Needs come up, but sometimes a crisis becomes the priority over those needs. Whether we work with clergy teams or whether we are in smaller churches where we are the only staff, we have to learn to see the whole Body of Christ as part of the ministry of care along with us. And sometimes in the mind of someone who is struggling, not connecting with the ordained leader or rector of the church is just not good enough. Needs outside of church life rightfully become the priority at times. We have vocations to be parents, spouses, friends, children and siblings too. We even have a vocation to look after ourselves when we’re sick or tired; it is wise stewardship of our limited resources to have self-care practices in place so that we aren’t constantly trying to run the tank on empty.

This kind of failing can be difficult to accept. My temptation is to get defensive and then feel defeated. I want to detail all of the things that I have done that suddenly don’t seem to matter. I want to litigate the reasons why it is unreasonable to expect me to be superhuman or why what I have done and offered should be considered enough. I want to give in and give up: the job is too much, the demands are too high, nobody can possibly live up to the expectations set for us. A nine to five desk job with minimal interpersonal interactions suddenly becomes a very appealing prospect.

If I can find the wherewithal to pause and take a breath in those moments, there are two things that allow me to stay and even to feel hope. The first is to recognize that, dimes to doughnuts, the criticism coming my way is lodged by someone who is hurting and who is hurting deeply. Do I know what it is to lash out at the wrong person when I’m in pain or distress mode? Yes, I certainly do. Recognizing that dynamic in myself can give me enough space to see that the criticism coming my way might not be entirely, or at all, about me. I can feel sorry that a fellow sibling in Christ is hurting; I can feel sorry that they feel let down by me in that hurt. I can give myself the grace of recognizing that I did and gave what I could. The fact that it isn’t enough isn’t an indictment of me. And the pain of my neighbour deserves to be acknowledged with compassion.

All of those things can be true. That’s because of the second thing that I try to remember. I’m not Jesus. I’m not God. I’m no Messiah. We don’t put priests on pedestals quite the way that we used to, but all of us, still, can be prone to looking to other human beings to fulfill god-like roles of being our personal heroes and even saviours. We will always be disappointed by the limitations of even the best people in our lives. And we will always run up against our own limits when we’re trying to be the best for others. In leading churches, we become projections of people’s unlimited well of spiritual need, and we will fall short because we have limits. These limits, these failings, are opportunities to recalibrate our expectations, prayers and hope around One who can actually respond to our limitless need. I can feel sorry for the pain another person is feeling and sorry that I have only so many resources in being able to address that pain. But I don’t need to feel guilty.

There’s a place to locate my guilt and then to release it, and that’s in the hands of God. That’s also the place we need to keep turning to with our own wells of hurt, longing, pain, heartbreak and need. We can hold each other’s pain with compassion and care, but we can’t necessarily heal it. We can acknowledge with kindness, to ourselves and others, the way in which my flawed and limited being will at times disappoint and fail another person. But we don’t have to succumb to the weight of carrying that failing around like an indictment of our being. We don’t have to give up and do nothing because we can’t do everything

  • Martha Tatarnic

    The Reverend Canon Martha Tatarnic is the rector of St. George’s, St. Catharines. Her second book, Why Gather? The Hope & Promise of the Church, will be published in June 2022 by Church Publishing, and will be available at The Living Diet is also available through Amazon, Church Publishing and the author.

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