Learning How to Be Good

Recently I listened to an interview on NPR with country music superstar, Tim McGraw. As another new album comes out, the interviewer prodded McGraw to reflect on his career. When asked what it was like to be at the top of his game, McGraw reflected, “I feel like I’m just learning how to be good.”

His response had the ring of authenticity in my ears. There was an honest recognition of his talent and success, and the truth that he’s looking into an unknown future and still trying to figure it out.

In the past couple of months, I’ve had occasion to step back and reflect on where I am in my own vocation as pastor. Part of it was preparing for the sabbatical that I just began. Where I am? What do I need right now? If I’m going to continue doing this until I retire, what will give me energy and motivation and that fire in my belly to keep going for another 15 or so years?

On the one hand, I have some sense that this vocation has been a good use of my gifts. In general, I think I do this work pretty well. I think I started out with some natural ability. But as in most vocations, natural ability can only get you so far. My natural curiosity and love of learning has helped me get better; I’ve learned both from experience and from books, workshops, seminars, and the like. Some things I do very well; some things I’m just not that good at. Part of my effectiveness, I think, has been to acknowledge that, find ways to do more of the things I’m good at, and find others who are good at the things I’m not.

It also has to do with watching my son, Chris, at the very beginning of his pastoral vocation. He just graduated from the seminary and is awaiting his first call. We’ve had many conversations about his own preparation and how it was different from mine, and about his own sense of call and the kind of work he feels called to do and the things he thinks he’s good at. I don’t know how objective I am, but I think his training was much more sharply focused on the blend of callings in the pastoral ministry:  local theologian, equipper for mission, and seelsorger (one who cares for souls). I think his training was much more realistic about the church that he will be serving and its place in the world.

I’ve often quipped with Chris that I wish I knew when I was starting out what I know now. I would have been pretty good.  But that’s the way it is. You don’t start out knowing everything. You learn as you go. What you’re good at, what you’re not. It was even a pretty significant learning for me to be able to admit publicly that there were some things I’m not very good at. You learn as you go how to integrate the learning from books and conversation and observation and messing up and continuing education into the actual practice of pastoral ministry with the people in the place you are called to serve.

If I can echo the words of Tim McGraw and say that I’m good at this work, I feel that,  like him, I’m only beginning to learn how to be good at it. And I’m afraid that moment when I feel like I’m the best that I could be it will be the time to call it quits and walk away.

But I’m not there yet. I’ve got too much yet to learn.

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