Okay, so you may suggest I see a therapist rather than share this with you, but there’s something universal in the bad dream I had last night.
Pastors have all kinds of bad dreams: expected to preach when not prepared, missing your sermon as you walk to the pulpit, finding yourself naked in the pulpit, looking out at the congregation at 11 a.m. Sunday morning and seeing no one there, etc.
One of my preaching professors, Bill Muehl, once realized as he was about to preach in chapel at a girls’ school that the sermon he brought was the one he gave the same group the year before. Only it wasn’t a dream, it actually happened to him, and he had to use another sermon from memory, which he used as a “teaching moment” to advise his students to always have a back-up in memory. (I don’t re-use a sermon myself—I get bored with it!)
My most terrifying and recurring dream came to me when I served as an interim pastor: driving a dangerously slick winding road downhill in a thunderstorm at night with no headlights, no brakes, and/or no steering wheel!
Pastors also have good dreams: having just the right insights to offer in a sermon or talk, enjoying a committee’s embrace of your wisdom, seeing the sanctuary filled for Sunday morning service.
My dream last night was more of a nightmare.
I dreamed that there were a mere dozen in worship that morning, and one regular had brought someone new whom others did not like. There was fussing, even as I privately fussed with getting things ready for service.
It ended in a big squabble and as everyone was exiting before worship began, unhappy and disgusted with one another and with me, I suggested that the new person should be made to feel welcome. A friend in the congregation retaliated, saying that I myself had once said something derogatory about a visitor, which I denied, even if it may have been possible.
I awoke from the dream in the middle of the night feeling like a failure as a pastor. I became depressed, and had difficulties returning to sleep. Maybe I’d been a failure my whole life!
Pastors do make mistakes and pastors do fail. Sometimes it’s just not a good match. Sometimes either the parishioners or the pastor or church staff think they know better how to run the church.
Pastor or not, any of us can either unintentionally internalize a congregation’s dysfunction and/or become part of its dysfunctional family system. A congregation I know broke from another because of a dispute, but, when considering reunification decades later, the resentments of the congregation that had split had been passed on to new members not part of the original disagreement.
I witnessed that on a denominational scale when the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (the “northern stream”) and the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (the “southern stream”) considered reunion a century after Presbyterians had been divided by the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
My dream did have a sort of happy ending, however, even though the first part kept me awake wondering about past failures.
After everyone left, as I was putting everything back in place in the sanctuary, an old, grey-haired, heavy-set black man came in with his young son or grandson, hoping I would talk with him. He was thankfully oblivious to what had just happened with the congregation, but I was haunted by my old fear, “what-would-he-think-if-he-knew-I’m-gay?” Nonetheless, I was ready to help, and they were ready to talk.
This ending came to reassure me, and I hope I’m not just rationalizing. For everyone I may have failed, there were always more opportunities for ministry.
I daresay many a minister—ordained or lay—may take comfort in that realization.
A reading for Advent: Put Yourself in the Nativity Story
Please support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description. Thank you! Donations of $100 or more will receive a gift signed copy of a first edition of my book, Henri’s Mantle: 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy.