Martyrdom is for real martyrs

There is nearly always someone who has it worse than we do.

By Bill Wilson

I overheard a conversation on a plane recently that re-taught me an important truth about congregational ministry. It was on a Monday morning at the end of a flight out of Atlanta to another city. Regular travelers know that Monday morning flights out of Atlanta are often dominated by executives and those who are headed to work away from home.

A bright young woman was sitting beside an older gentleman. As they were preparing to get off the plane, he asked her: “So, are you working here this week?”

She replied: “Yes, I am. I do this each week.”

“Oh”, he responded, “how long have you done that?”

Her response was tinged with a hint of self-importance and martyrdom “For the last 15 months,” she sighed.

He smiled knowingly.

She asked him: “How about you, are you working here this week?”

“Yes I am.”

“And how long have you been doing this?” she asked him.

“Fifteen years” was his reply.

She was stunned. “Fifteen years?!”

“That’s right. I’ve done this every week for 15 years. It’s my life.” He patted her arm knowingly, and off he went.

She stared at him, not really knowing what to say.

That exchange reminded me how tempting it is to see our own issues as supremely important. Anyone who has ever visited a patient in the ICU knows the humility that one brings out of that experience. You dare not complain about your aches and ailments when you are in the presence of someone who is critically ill.

During the peak of the Great Recession, our ministerial staff had an exchange about our upcoming 5 percent pay reduction. Our community was at the epicenter of the economic devastation, and we were feeling the impact of reduced contributions from our congregants. We were going to take a furlough day each month as a way of reducing our staff compensation line item.

One member of the staff was a bit miffed and kicked into a martyr’s spirit about the hardship this pay reduction would inflict upon his family. Others joined in the moaning and complaining. Finally, I asked for quiet. I then told them about one of our key members who the day earlier had told me his compensation for the year had been reduced 45 percent. Earlier in the week, I had visited with a senior adult couple whose entire retirement income had been derived from dividend checks from their stock portfolio. The vast majority of that portfolio had been invested in one stock, which had dropped 95 percent in value in the last 10 days.

My simple counsel was, “Before you complain too loudly, please understand that there are many people around you who would a) give anything to have a job and b) think a 5 percent pay reduction sounded like very good news.”

We all learned an important lesson: we need to avoid the temptation to rush to self-pity and martyrdom at all costs. Like the young lady on the airplane, there is nearly always someone who has it worse than we do.

In my conversations with clergy and laity about healthy ministry, several consistent themes keep emerging. One is quite simple: effective ministry teams know about and care deeply about the hidden lives of their members. The biblical injunctive to “bear one another’s burdens” takes root in some congregational cultures and permeates every relationship. When that happens, something very special, life-changing and life-giving takes place. People’s loads are lightened and their pain is eased because someone cares enough to notice.

I believe clergy must relentlessly model this selfless and outwardly focused attitude. When we give our attention fully to the visible and invisible drama that surrounds our congregants, we begin to see what is hidden from the self-absorbed martyr. We set the tone for a congregation that prays for more than the hospital list on Wednesday nights. Our lives become deeply intertwined with one another as we navigate the rocky road of life.

Many a minister knows, however, the exhausted loneliness of being a perpetual caregiver. All giving and no receiving is a shortcut to bitterness and cynicism. Healthy congregations extend to their staff the same level of care and compassion they expect from them. Sadly, we do this rarely. We can do better.

Paul portrays the ideal Christian community in multiple ways in his writings. One of my favorites hides in the midst of a litany of descriptions of how God’s people are to live together. In Romans 12:10 he says simply, “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”

What if we invested our lives, not in trying to outdo one another for attention, but in seeking to outdo one another in giving attention to others? That is a church I want to be part of.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.