Throughout seminary, I focused much of my energy on student ministry. As I began to notice a gentle nudge toward the pastorate, I knew I had so much more to learn. A pastoral residency seemed like the perfect fit for me. A residency would allow me to spend two more years honing my skills as I bridged the gap between theological education and ministry experience. I knew that to be a better equipped pastor I needed more time preaching in the pulpit, providing pastoral care, and learning about church administration. I am happy to report, a little less than half way into my residency at First Baptist Church, Columbia, Missouri, I have had gained all that.
My church is a “teaching congregation.” Teaching has been part of the church’s ethos from its beginning, so initiating a pastoral residency program fit the congregation’s character. When the members decided to hire their first pastoral resident, they agreed to encourage, equip, and educate that resident. I can attest that they have done precisely that. First Baptist agreed to help me shape my pastoral identity and to embrace my pastoral authority, and they have taken their agreement to heart. Each Sunday I receive affirmations for my assigned duties.
To my surprise, receiving affirmation has proven to be quite the challenge for me. I am much more likely to believe the criticism than the compliments. I think this is because I have already prepared myself for the worst. When I walk into my pastoral mentoring sessions, I have with me a list of everything that I did wrong in my previous sermon. No joke! I expect the worst, yet the words I hear repeatedly are “Brittany, you are being too hard on yourself.”
When I preach, I put so much time, energy, and heart into the sermon, but I often become incapacitated with feelings of inadequacy. I am getting better with time, but my self-criticism still can be overwhelming. After one particularly mediocre sermon, I stepped out of the pulpit with a deep sense of shame. “You fought so hard to get to this point,” I thought, “And you went and botched it!”
As members of the congregation spoke to me following the service, I could not help but qualify their affirmations. “They have to say kind things.” “They are being too generous.” “They must not have listened to the sermon that I just preached.” I left that Sunday full of self-pity and shame.
But this is also why being a part of a teaching congregation has been essential for my formation. As I processed through that preaching experience with one of my mentors, I realized that although I thought I was discrediting myself, I was actually devaluing the very people I have come to love.
Accepting feedback, whether positive or constructive, is difficult for me. I hold myself to such ridiculously ambitious standards that I struggle to see improvement. Yet the very nature of this position challenges me to listen with gratitude. My church is so generous and giving. Part of developing my pastoral identity is inexplicably bound to their life-giving words.
My shame and self-doubt have been roadblocks to vulnerability, as is often true. When I allow shame to shut me in, I miss out on the mutual ministry of encouragement and kingdom building taking place at First Baptist. I am constantly humbled by the privilege of serving in this role. Being a pastoral resident gives me the opportunity to confront my character flaws in a safe and nurturing environment, one where people will continue to embrace me and my pastoral identity even when I do not.
Allowing people to speak truth into my life is difficult, for it requires a particular type of vulnerability, one that takes an exorbitant amount of practice. It requires showing up in people’s lives, but more importantly, it requires letting them show up in mine. It means taking their words to heart, trusting in something greater than myself, and leaning heavily into grace.
Brittany McDonald-Null is the pastoral resident at First Baptist Church, Columbia, Missouri. She will be sharing reflections on her journey this year–as will her pastor, Carol McEntyre.