After my fourth surgery, I began to experience dreams that I had resigned my university tenure and gone back to pastor a church, nightmares that left me panicked and afraid. Dear God, what have I done? Why would I ever leave what I love? So, I would wrestle myself awake, tell myself that I’ve not done anything so stupid, and remind myself that I teach sixty sophomores at eight o’clock, in just a few hours and f I don’t stay at the top of my game they will tie me up and leave me behind.
It’s a typically busy week at school. Along with class preparations, I have a book review for The Restoration Quarterly due on Friday, a proposal for the Christian Scholar’s Conference due next Wednesday, and sometime today or tomorrow I must finish grading a stack of exams on my desk. I spend Monday afternoon helping one student with a paper, while another sits, nervously picking at his hands, unable to make eye contact until he finds his words. “I’m gay… I haven’t told anyone… only my roommate knows.” We’ve not discussed this topic in class, but I find the issue (especially the biblical texts) far too complex for simple answers—much less grounds for moral superiority. Chris knows he’s safe with me. Finally, before I leave for home, I take a few minutes to make copies of the quiz for Hebrew class tomorrow morning.
With all the expectations of faculty, it’s little wonder why some are so absent-minded. But God help me, I do love this job. I love the energy and life that students bring to the classroom. You never know what they’ll do next, and certainly not what they’ll say or write on a quiz or paper (whether or not they have not prepared for class). Through quizzes I’ve been startled to learn that “Larry, Moe, and Curly” were the three sons of Noah (rather than Shem, Ham, and Japeth), the ark of Noah landed on Mount Everest (not Mount Ararat), and from a paper that Sarah was still beautiful at the age of 90 because “women who don’t have children retain their figures better than those who do” (I believe this young man is still single). On Monday, a student might suggest that Noah’s ark landed on Mount Sinai (the locale of the Ten Commandments), then on Wednesday the same student might ask a question that demonstrates a depth of understanding and nuance of thought equal to the best of Ph.D. students. You just never know what they’ll say—or do. One day I watched a young man duck as he rode his bike through the door into class. Another day, after an assigned reading that included a commandment about standing “in the presence of the aged”, when I walked into class all the students stood up. Nothing terrifies me more than thought that I would throw this work away and go back to a place where I was miserable.
And yet, I’d dreamed of becoming a preacher for as long as I can remember. When I played “church” with my cousins, I always got to be the preacher. My heroes were the pastors at home. I couldn’t imagine a better, more purposeful life. So when I left for college I trained to be a pastor, taking an undergraduate degree in Bible and preaching for two and a half years on Sundays at Putnam, a small community outside Abilene. Then, after a couple of years to catch my breath, I spent eight years in full-time pastoral ministry: two years in Sterling City, Texas, three years in Buena Vista, Colorado, and three years in Midland, Texas. I began my first full time work in 1987 at the ripe age of twenty-five, married with a baby son. I was twenty-seven years old, married with a toddling son and a baby daughter when we moved to Colorado, and at the end of my twenties when I lost my mind and left the Rocky Mountains for West Texas. In Colorado, the window in my study looked out over Mount Princeton (elev. 14,197 feet); in Midland my window looked out over a parking lot (elev. 2,779 feet).
I served three churches before I turned thirty, four if I include Putnam: testimony to a restless soul. Despite my dream, something was missing. I enjoyed preaching and my congregants encouraged me, telling me how much my sermons helped them even when I knew we had to fumigate the sanctuary on Monday from all the B.S. I left in there on Sunday. At the same time, I found great joy teaching adult Bible classes. The extended study of a text or topic gave me something I could dig my teeth into during the week, and the give and take of class discussion gave me a buzz.
And still, within eight years, my dream of preaching burned to the ground—a fire I could only understand years later with a little archaeological work, digging around in the ruins and looking for what caused the fire. Only with this data in hand can I see what started the fire: I was bored. I was bored in Texas, bored in Colorado, and bored in Texas again. I did all the work I knew to do: prepared my sermons, prepared my Bible classes, visited the hospital, wrote and published the weekly bulletin (until Midland), read good books, stayed available at the office, went to lunch with friends, involved myself in good ministries, went to leadership meetings, drove from Buena Vista to Fairplay, Colorado, on Thursday evenings for Bible study—even in the winter—and for a short time even taught the Tuesday morning Ladies Bible class in Midland. And still, I was bored. Work I thought would sizzle with excitement became long and tedious. And despite every effort to keep myself occupied, I had extra time at the end of the day that I didn’t know what to do with. So, true to my conservative roots, I felt guilty for having extra time and for feeling bored.
I can see other contributing factors for the fire. Despite my bluster of a wise young man, I was terribly insecure; a feeling amplified by the presence of an older, retired pastor at my first appointment. At first I was excited to see a potential mentor, someone to show me the ropes. But within a few weeks, I avoided Pastor Sparks. He was nice enough on Sundays, but the only rope he had available for me was a hangman’s noose. One morning (on my day off) while I was still sleeping, Pastor Sparks came to the parsonage, fuming at my laziness. The church sprinkler system had malfunctioned and been running for hours. Water was pouring in every direction, wasted water, while I paid no attention. God forbid, the devil himself must have been in the water—and I let him loose.
His anger stirred up other coals that burned the edges of my ministry, though until recently, I couldn’t see this fire. With few exceptions, my father disliked preachers and despised their tendency “to be lazy.” Dad was a hard-working carpenter at work every day by 7:00 or 7:30, “not like those preachers who don’t even go to the office until 9:00 or later.” It didn’t matter if they’d been out past midnight with the teenagers or at the hospital. And God help us if one of the pastors didn’t show up for a workday at church. Few preachers could live up to my father’s harsh standards. And as a result, I grew up listening to dad belittle the men I admired. So either it was a miracle I wanted to be a pastor, or maybe it was my own insidious form of rebellion.
What I didn’t anticipate was how deeply dad’s voice planted itself in my psyche and how it would affect me. When I began work at Sterling City I walked across the street to the pastor’s study between 7:00 and 8:00 every morning—at the latest 8:30, a pattern that continued throughout my ministry. It didn’t matter where I had been or what I had done the night before; I couldn’t allow myself to be lazy. Often, I’d drive my car fifty yards from the parsonage to the church so that anyone passing by would know that I was on the job. But at a small church with few daily interruptions, I finished all I knew to do by early afternoon and developed cabin fever. Sometimes my friend Coy would come by after school released and we’d head for a drink at the Dairy Queen. Otherwise, no matter how many hours I’d worked or what I accomplished, if I left early I felt guilty. I couldn’t live up to the voice deep within me.
Once my fire was burning, my wife’s dislike for the traditional role of a pastor’s wife added fuel to the flames. Those who grow up in good conservative southern churches instinctively know the expectations of a pastor’s wife. She teaches children’s Bible classes and never misses a church service, sitting on the second row of the sanctuary. She bakes cookies for preschool programs and makes tasty casseroles for potluck meals—for which she also provides decorations and works in the kitchen. She is friendly to all visitors, is well dressed, and keeps her children quiet during worship. She is first to volunteer for special ministries, stronger than powerful gossip, and leaps tall steeples in a single bound. I might be exaggerating a little, but pastors’ wives often feel as if they have also been hired by the church. After all, if they’re not working outside the home (and God forbid if they do), what else are they going to do with their time?
These rules are not written in the Bible and never verbalized by the church, except in occasional remarks from self-appointed wardens of the pastorate. Like me, my wife heard and internalized expectations for the pastor’s wife from the time she was a little girl. And as a result, the unhappier I became, the more she despised her role. I don’t blame her. What I can see from this distance is that neither of us could meet our own internal expectations.
The fire burning me out had nothing to do with the churches we served, ever-present church politics, or that same handful of challenging people we found in every church. I was the one throwing wood on the fire with my unrealistic and unrealized self-expectations. In some ways, we were both a poor fit for ministry. In other ways, we just didn’t have the self-awareness or maturity we needed to survive.
With my childhood dream in full flame, all I needed was an exit strategy. I can’t read God’s mind, so I don’t know if I just got lucky, if I was blessed, or if God’s invisible hand was at work. I tend to think that God has better things to do than worry about the details of my life (unless, of course, I need a parking space). All I know is that another passion reignited and ultimately took me away from the pastorate.
—to be continued—
Excerpt from a working manuscript, A Fire in My Bones: A Memoir of Life with CRPS (copyright Glenn Pemberton).
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.