I keep finding this advertisement inserted into my Facebook feed. The slogan reads, “Pastor, only because full time ninja is not an actual ministry title.” I am not really sure what this slogan is supposed to mean. Except that I do. It is intended to signify that somehow pastors run covert operations; or are stealthy; or possess some kind of superhuman qualities and/or powers. I suppose we pastors have done this to ourselves. Pastors get to wear the special clothes. Pastors get to do the special tasks. But are pastors like ninjas? Who thought of this metaphor? Ninjas are faceless assassins who operate in the shadows. We live with all kinds of dangers that lurk in the shadows. I am not sure claiming that identity as church leaders is such a good idea. Yet many people appear to embrace it.
I clicked on the advertisement to investigate, and comment after comment read, “I need one of these!” I didn’t confirm if any of the people making these comments were involved in ministry in any way, but my guess is that they are. Hmm…
Maybe everyone wants to be a ninja.
I asked some friends what they thought of this advertisement. One idea shared was that being a ninja must be better than whatever it was you were doing. “I assumed the job title was interchangeable. So you could replace pastor with stay at home mom or secretary or florist, whatever.” That makes sense to me. Ninjas are pretty awesome. I have a daughter who dresses up as a ninja a lot and does stealth missions around the house. I remember being a kid and dressing up as a ninja too. Some friends and I made throwing stars out of cardboard and tried to throw them at each other. (In a controlled, safe, well-supervised environment, of course!) Since there are so many dangers that lurk in the darkness in our world, maybe by pretending to be a ninja there is some renewed confidence to face them. (But we are talking about pretend ninjas. I don’t think anyone is actually advocating training to be ninjas, right?)
Another friend commented that maybe claiming to be a ninja somehow elevated the role of pastor. “Interesting,” I thought. “Why would a pastor want to be a ninja?”
Here are a few thoughts on ninja pastors:
Sometimes clergy get caught up in the cult of their own personalities.
There is a constant nudge in our society to think more of oneself than one should. This is true of everyone, but even in a culture where the role of the church is diminished, it is a real temptation for clergy. Pastors often find themselves at the center of conversations: leading groups, teaching classes, facilitating discussions, helping people in need, meeting regularly with individuals, and are often the primary talking heads in front of a large community gathered during worship. If left unchecked, this attention could all start to go to one’s head. Some pastors act like they’d rather be rock stars (or think they are one already). Who wouldn’t want to be a rock star at their job? Or better yet a ninja? Ninjas are even cooler than rock stars. You can keep your air guitar – ninjas have throwing stars!
Sometimes clergy long for anonymity unavailable to them.
The contrast to the rock star pastor is the one who would rather be left alone. Pastors interact with a lot of people. Ninjas are left alone. They wear dark clothes, masks, and hide easily. Most people never see them. Pastors are often in the limelight, and at times it can be exhausting. I wonder if the idea of being like a ninja allows a pastor a moment of escapism to think they can get away. Or perhaps the idea of being a ninja has the appeal of not having to deal with conflict or critique: “Don’t like what I’m doing or how I handled that? See how you like this throwing star...” OK, that was fun. Now, let’s get back to reality.
Sometimes clergy wonder if their ministry is worth it.
Pastors struggle on a regular basis with their calling, role, and sense of accomplishment. Most pastors I know try their best to be honest, genuine and faithful to both God and their communities. Many pastors are trained to be reflective and self-reliant. Sometimes the apparent lack of progress and diminishing returns on hard work can be discouraging. Ninjas have a job to do, get it done quickly, and get out. Even if you take away the throwing stars; there is a certain appeal to the ninja’s way of doing business.
Leave the throwing stars at home.
The best pastors I know are the opposite of superheroes, and are certainly not ninjas. They own their human frailty and limitations. They are humble and accessible. They don’t convey having all the answers but are articulate in their questions and seeking God’s direction – not only in their work but also in their personal lives. They seek other human beings and join them in their struggles while pointing beyond themselves to the mysteries of faith, forgiveness and grace. While pastors often seek the otherworldly, it is the discovery of the divine in the arcane (ancient texts), the ordinary (water, bread and wine), the unlikely (a child born to peasants and placed into a feed box for animals), the forgotten (the poor, the sick, the unforgivable and other such overlooked individuals), the condemned (a cross) and the unlikely (an empty tomb) that makes their experiences and reflections worth sharing with everyday folks like the rest of us. At the center of their calling is a trust in God leading them, even if they aren’t entirely sure where it is they are being led. I can only aspire to such a mundane reality full of rich stories of compassion and hope in an otherwise unforgiving, self-absorbed world.
What we can all learn as people of faith is to step out of the darkness and shine a little light around us, especially when we see danger lurking in the shadows.
What ninja could offer that?
For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Corinthians 4:6-7)
Thanks to David Holtz, Tim Krick, Brian Scott, Matt Toso for your reflections that contributed to this piece.