On Being A Landmark In Someone Else’s Life Journey

People change, but people often have a hard time dealing with other people’s change. Is it possible to sustain vibrant relationships through the process?

The protagonists in most books are dynamic characters. Who they are at the beginning of the book is typically not who they are at the end. They begin with a certain set of beliefs and assumptions about the world. Throughout the book, those assumptions are challenged, and by the end, they’ve either renounced those beliefs, adjusted them to better fit the realities they’ve experienced, or gained a deeper appreciation for them.

This is a compelling pattern because our lives are filled with similar changes. Every day, our thoughts about the world are being challenged, and every day we’re faced with some new experience that causes us to reexamine our presuppositions. We’re constantly asking ourselves: Is this thing I assumed to be true still relevant given this new data? Or has my experience misled me, causing me to think something that objectively just isn’t true?

This isn’t a particularly unique occurrence. We do this all the time, in matters small and big. Is that product review reliable? What movie should I see? Which phone carrier should I use? Should I go on a second date with her? What principles should I teach my children? Who should I vote for?

Whether or not you realize it, you are a dynamic character in your own life. Can you imagine how little patience the you twenty years from now would have with the you today? We often take “hindsight is 20/20” to mean that good decisions are obvious when looking at the past, but it also follows that good decisions are not so obvious when looking into the future. You’ve got plenty of failure ahead of you, maybe even some of your worst years. You also may have some incredible victories ahead of you. The point is, if you’re still around in twenty years, you won’t be the same person you are today, not by any stretch.

This is true of everyone, to one degree or another. Some people change quickly. They make life-changing decisions overnight. Other people take a slow, methodical approach to change. Young people tend to change more quickly than older people do. Some change carry significant cost; other change might be the most natural, organic thing that could happen. But everyone, everywhere, changes.

People Expect Stability

Now we come to the main point: people change, but people often have a hard time dealing with other people’s change.

I’ve found this to be especially true of pastors. People want pastors to be landmarks, not rolling stones. People want leaders who “have struggled”, not leaders who “are struggling”. They often view pastors as fixtures in their lives, known quantities against which their own personal growth can be measured.

In some ways it’s an understandable and even fair expectation. If you’re an active part of a church—giving, attending, serving—you’re probably looking for consistency in leadership. As you press on toward maturity, you want someone sharpening you, actively helping you become a better person. You want someone to defend the faith, hold the line, champion this ultimate cause.

You probably wouldn’t visit a doctor who is indecisive about your treatment or a financial advisor who has mixed feelings about the stock market. You want someone who knows what they’re doing and knows they know what they’re doing. You’re looking for a certain well-founded confidence so you can trust them with your time, your money, and ultimately, your life. It’s true that a doctor and a financial advisor are dealing largely in the realm of science, with theories that can be tested and evidence than can be weighed. Pastors, on the other hand, deal more with the mystical than with the empirical. But people’s desire for “fixtures” still persists.

To put a finer point on this, if your marriage is falling apart, you probably wouldn’t approach a pastor who is publicly venting his angst about the validity of marriage as an institution. You may appreciate that he’s a thoughtful person, even appreciate that he’s asking meaningful questions; but his intellectual cogitations on marriage mean a whole lot less when you’re trying to save your marriage. When you’re struggling, you want surety, permanence, invariability.

Most people feel like they don’t have the luxury to pontificate about life while they’re busy trying to slog their way through it. (Ain’t nobody got time for that.)

How Do You Choose Your Companions?

Ultimately, this leads us to the question: who are my companions? And that question isn’t just about time, it’s about life. What do I want to do with my life? What do I want to be doing in five years? How do I want to spend my time, my energy, my money? We answer those questions, set our goals, and surround ourselves with people who share those goals and can help us along that journey. Because it’s hard to take someone on as a companion if you’re not heading in the same direction. It’s hard to journey meaningfully with a pastor who is angsty about the institution of marriage when you’re trying to save your own.

Yet the path we take is often altered by our traveling companions.

This seems to be the heart of the matter: if I’m continually changing, and my companions are continually changing, our shared view of the world will likely change—and quite possibly diverge. Does that mean we need to be always seeking out new companions, jettisoning those who no longer share the same perspectives on life? Perhaps.

Or perhaps we need to be just as interested in the journey as we are the answers. Answers matter, no doubt, or else the journey would be meaningless; but is it possible to wrestle honestly through difficult questions, to evolve and change over time, even to land on different answers yet still be companions?

It’s an especially relevant question for a pluralistic society. How can I face difficult questions with the very real possibility that we may not agree on the answer? More importantly, is it possible to sustain vibrant relationships through that process? I can only hope so. Because if we’re all in a constant state of changing, growing, learning, and maturing, we’re going to need to figure out some way to make it work or else face the lonely prospect of becoming relational nomads.

The only answer I can summon? Love.

More Than A Platitude

It may sound like a platitude, but I don’t think it is.

It’s the fundamental premise of any marriage, no? I pledge myself to my wife, to be her lifelong companion, no matter the challenge, no matter the change. Indeed, the pledge of love has endured such catastrophic change as Alzheimers or other mental illness, illness that can alter the mind and the personality so profoundly, almost nothing remains of the person that once was. How can a marriage survive such change? The only times I’ve seen marriages survive something like that, it’s been through sustaining love.

One could argue that a pastoral relationship is a far cry from a spousal relationship. They’re different, no doubt about it, but the reality shared between both is companionship.

So I suppose it comes back to the point I raised earlier: Who will you companion with? What do you seek in a lifelong companion?

Is it even possible for a pastor to be a lifelong companion? Or do the traits necessary in a pastoral role—stability, resoluteness, and immutability—make such companionships doomed from the start? Perhaps the answer lies in our ability to set aside the role and make companions out of people, not positions. Maybe we need a greater sense of personal relationships and a lesser connection to the duty associated with these roles.