My son’s first job came when he turned 16. He was a lifeguard at the local YMCA up until he left for college.

I distinctly remember asking him how his day was after his first day of work (post training). His response: ‘we had a fecal containment incident.’ I could not withhold my laughter. I wasn’t so much laughing at him as I was at the situation and the choice of words.

Years later, I still think about that day and phrase. Recently, when having lunch with the CEO of that very YMCA, I shared the story and we shared a laugh.

Both at the time I heard the story and in every recollection of it, I have found myself wondering if the phrase ‘fecal containment incident’ might be an appropriate metaphor for ministry leadership. It is not the first phrase I would think of to describe life in the church, but it is perhaps an accurate phrase to describe church ministry.

I spend a large portion of my life cleaning up messes. Messes in people, messes in organizations, messes in pastors, messes in the church.

Life is messy and containing that mess is hard and exhausting work. In some ways, I find life in the church to be messier than life outside the church. This is both understandable and concerning. 

I think there are far too many fecal containment incidents in the church and these fecal containment incidents are not something anyone signs up for, including a 16 year old lifeguard. 

Some mess can be controlled while other mess cannot. Far too often in the church we allow mess that could be prevented to become an uncontained fecal incident. Few pastors burnout over the big stuff; it is the little stuff that burns pastors out. Death by 100,000 paper cuts, or, as my son experienced, too many fecal containment incidents. 

The church should be a safe place for our mess, but nobody wants to swim in it.

Perhaps if we are all a little more careful, we can all have healthier waters to swim in. 

Rev. Dr. Marcus J. Carlson, Executive Director, Preparing for Amazement Ministries


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