The Common Good

Failing to See God's Love

You are a pastor. You work six days a week, sometimes seven. You are on call 24/7. Every detail of your life is out there for public consumption. People project their unresolved issues onto you, especially parental issues from their childhoods.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich/RNS

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By church rules, you are entitled to a sabbatical, perhaps three months every seven years. But when you propose it, you hear what one pastor heard the other day: “Sabbaticals are for academics who are making a significant contribution to their field, not for clergy who want an extended vacation and can’t take working for a living.”

What do you say?

In that one dismissive sentence, someone you trust tells you your work is insignificant, you want a benefit that you don’t deserve, and you’re lazy. What do you do?

I read this comment and was stunned. It reminded me of comments I heard during my parish ministry. It echoed comments other clergy report. I was stunned again at how casually cruel some people can be toward their pastors.

And saddened. Saddened for this pastor, who now must suck it up, look beyond the rudeness and be there for this thoughtless person when she needs care and doesn’t hesitate to demand it.

And saddened for the rude woman, because she is receiving so much and doesn’t realize it. How much else of God’s love for her is she failing to see?

Churches die for many reasons, from bad leadership decisions to bad luck to poor execution of programs and ideas. One reason they die is ingratitude. Like the ingratitude of the woman who thought herself so clever and analytical when she dismissed her pastor’s request for a sabbatical.

Families die for the same reason. When spouses take each other for granted, or when one partner does all the giving, or when children take ceaselessly and feel entitled to more, even the sturdiest family crumbles.

Enterprises die when bosses demand but don’t thank, when executives feel entitled to extravagant salaries, denounce underlings seeking better minimum wages, and lobby hard to deprive workers of the very benefits they take for granted.

Societies die from ingratitude, too. The social contract shreds when those who have much feel entitled to more. Suffering and resentment breed when the wealthy give no thought to leaving the edges of the field unharvested for others to glean, and when they consider themselves superior human beings for the good luck of being born into privilege.

Too many haves think their comfortable paychecks signify wisdom. They live in the common delusion that they earned it all, no matter how many contributed to their success, not to mention the role of luck.

This is the profile of ingratitude: people who take satisfaction in having more, give themselves all the credit, see little of the web of interactions underlying any success, lord it over the have-nots as inadequate persons, and feel entitled to be as rude and selfish as they like.

What should the pastor say? The safe response is nothing. The power imbalance is too great.

The gospel response is something riskier: “When you have need, I am there for you. Now I have need, and I expect you to be there for me.”

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

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