In my early 20s, I decided to pursue a career working in the church as a pastor. I enrolled in a Master of Theological Studies program, unaware of the ways that pastoring would shape me into the person I am today. Today, in my work as a guidance co-ordinator for an online high school, the lessons I learned as a pastor about working with people continue to resonate.
Pastoring is not an easy task. I pursued work in the Mennonite church, which isn’t the horse-and-buggy church you’re likely thinking about. These Mennonites do exist, but there is also a Mennonite church that fully embraces cars, hydro and technology. We blend in a bit more than horse-and-buggy Mennonites, because we’re probably streaming television on our phones just like everyone else. I grew up in the Mennonite church, and am also ethnically Mennonite. The Mennonite movement was born from a small group of believers in Europe, and for centuries didn’t marry outside of the group, creating a group that were Mennonite by both faith and ethnicity.
Today, lots of people who aren’t ethnically Mennonite are choosing to be part of the church, and lots of people who are ethnically Mennonite are attending other churches or not attending at all. This has created a beautiful and diverse church, representing many ages and backgrounds.
I firmly believe that living life with a diverse group of people makes us all stronger. Unity doesn’t always mean that we all agree on everything, but commit to journeying through life together. The truth is that disagreement and hard times are inevitable, no matter how much people may agree with each other. Learning to live in these spaces, the grey spaces I call them, was a formative teaching for me personally.
Living in the grey
In pastoring, you come across so many different struggles that anyone could face in life: cancer, sexual assault and rape, miscarriage, divorce, disagreements so strong that people leave, depression and anxiety, looking to the future, navigating conflict. You name any struggle a person could face in life, and a pastor has likely seen it. Oftentimes, we as humans want black and white answers. Unfortunately, the world rarely works in black and white.
When you work with people, you have to live in the grey. When a person comes to you and is terrified because they have cancer, you have no firm answers for them. You can’t answer the question of why, and you can’t tell them what’s going to happen in the future. All you can tell them is that you’ll be with them, and God will be with them, on this path. There is no black and white. Sometimes we call this the ministry of presence – you don’t have to have answers or even speak. You just have to be there, living in the grey with them, with the uncertainty of why this has happened and what will happen in the future.
Humans don’t like that. We are very averse to living in this space. We understandably want answers. Life often doesn’t give us those answers, though. Living in the grey helps us develop patience for uneasiness and resilience for the future.
“When you work with people, you have to live in the grey.”
I now work at an online high school, and have worn a few different hats, now working as a guidance co-ordinator. This living-in-the-grey mindset hasn’t left me, though. Many of our students are those who can’t physically sit in a classroom for any number of reasons. Students also experience a range of life challenges: depression and anxiety, learning disabilities, bullying, illness for themselves or a family member, brain trauma, PTSD, death, custody battles, even students around the world facing war in their home country. Here, too, I’ve heard so many different stories and had students and parents sobbing on the phone with me. This is when my living-in-the-grey approach is helpful. I sit and I listen, hearing fear of the future in many stories, hearing frustration and struggle at every turn for some. I still don’t have answers for parents and students, but I am unafraid to discuss these difficult things with them, to be with them when they cry, to have empathy and understanding when hard things happen to people. It isn’t easy to hear when a student is struggling to complete a course because they’ve spent so many hours in the hospital with an ill parent, but their story is worth hearing.
I hope in this work, in listening and living in the grey, that perhaps there is a glimmer of hope to be seen. I will take these lessons learned in pastoring into my guidance work, and into the many other hats I’ve ended up wearing: I also have my real estate license and have recently been trained as a foster parent. This was a difficult lesson to learn, with many tears shed for good and kind people facing hard things. Sometimes though, the best thing we can do isn’t to placate our loved ones, students and clients with meaningless clichés, but instead sit and be with them. We don’t always have to speak. I’m still learning more and more about living in this grey space, and will bring it with me wherever I go.
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