the limits of subtle subversion redux...

Yesterday I wrestled with naming the shadow side of a reality that infects the life of every
pastor I know:  balancing our call to subtly subvert our collective addiction to the dominant culture with love vs. being reduced to a "quivering mass of availability."  As I walked through the quiet woods yesterday afternoon in what is likely the last warm day of autumn in the Berkshires, I thought of three, broad manifestations of this challenge.

First, the sense that everything that happens in a faith community necessitates the pastor's presence.  This is rampant in small and mid-size congregations where participation in every coffee hour, every social event and every mission project are judged somehow incomplete unless the minister engages the activity with gusto. Showing up is not enough to satisfy the "attendance police." It doesn't matter that most clergy are introverts who are drained by social events - including giving their all during Sunday worship. The hardships of the past week - or the day to come - are rarely factored into theses demand for participation either. Nor is the fact that liturgy literally means the work of the people - not just the clergy - a factor many remember in the life of most churches. Once upon a time, well before people became so pathologically overcommitted, you could say, "We are NOT a church where the minister ministers and the congregation congregates" and many would offer a hearty "Amen!" Not so much in the 21st century.  

Consequently, contemporary clergy people must carefully strategize how best to be available for these events - and for how long - lest both soul and energy be depleted.  I wrestle with this every week. There is rarely a Lord's Day when I don't encounter someone after worship who doesn't have a question or personal issue necessitating my private attention. Almost never! That means I am not available for schmoozing and eating donut holes. No matter that I often learn things from being present at coffee hours or potlucks, the demands of time and intensity usually take me away from making general connections with people so that I can be fully present with specific individuals in need. Sadly, no matter how clearly and often this is explained, some simply refuse to understand. Some even hold it against their minister. This is annoying at first, but becomes exhausting over the decades. 

Second, is the expectation that a pastor must "eat" whatever outrageous critique or complaint like a lamb being led to slaughter and suffer in silence.  Call it the consequence of a "Jesus meek and mild" mindset in adolescent Christianity, or simply the cruelty of your congregation's soul vampires, every church has a cadre of mean-spirited folk
who believe theyt can rant at their minister - sometimes in vicious and truly ugly ways - without getting it back. And, God forbid, should a clergy person finally say, "You know, you are so full of shit that I can't endure this conversation any more" and leave...! Well, then the pastor is being disrespectful and maybe even unfit to serve. There is a place, of course, for patience in disagreements. There is a place for anger and even deep conflict, too. Yet the learned expectations rarely encourages or supports a pastor's reply to unfair and unjust criticism - and this, too can become demoralizing and debilitating.

Once, early in one of my calls, I was challenged unexpectedly in a public meeting by a few with complaints that were trumpeted in a cruel and degrading manner.  It was obvious that this was considered acceptable behavior by the brazen nature of the complaint. My first reaction was a searing shot of anxiety stabbing my solar plexus as well  as an immobilizing sense of shame. Then, my fight or flight reflexes kicked in and I wanted to pummel and belittle my accusers. But by practicing centering prayer in that moment - and for years before - I was able to say, "Why do you choose to say such things to me in public in such an angry and hurtful way?  There may be a way I can be helpful, but not when you accuse and insult me. So why did you say this to hurt my feelings? That is just cruel."  The complainers were shocked into silence before fumbling with a generic apology.  To which I replied, "I don't need and apology. I need you to ask my forgiveness when you realize how hurtful you have been.  We must find another way to ask for help - or even call into question various actions - because Christians are called to rise above cruelty."

Be forewarned: there are a variety of consequences to practicing giving back in love as good as you've gotten in fear or anger. First, some will be shocked and offended. Second, you will feel like a whole and honest person for a moment in your ministerial role. Third, you will be challenged by some of your leadership team who are not used to accountability and candor. Fourth, you will have to discern which battles are worth the fall-out. And fifth, you will model for the congregation spiritual and personal integrity - rather than broken passivity -  in the midst of conflict that will be misunderstood but eventually affirmed and even practiced.

Third, and perhaps the most frustrating shadow of our subversive ministries, is the
practice of people unloading and dumping their anxiety, fear and problems on you without any commitment to repentance.The late Father Martin, a Roman Catholic priest who used to do "Chalk Talks" in support of AA, once put it like this:  I no longer take visits from people who aren't serious about getting well. I will meet with anyone one time to hear their story and share love with them over their wounds. But then I tell them:  if you want to keep talking, you have to do your work. If you don't take my advice, then our time together is done. I will continue to pray for you and love you, but I won't let you waste our time. So either make a commitment right now to change your direction and try what I suggest, or, take yourself to the door, ok?

He is right:  life is too short. My life. Your life. All our lives. And while I know it is the human condition to procrastinate and practice denial more than confession, it is also drains your soul when people who could make a change refuse to do so. Some clearly don't want to change - they want pity. Others are afraid of change and are either too confused or too addicted to their wounds to change direction.  While still others haven't hit bottom yet and haven't owned their brokenness. I have learned that this is personally deadly after many years of being asked to sit idly by while hurting people rehearse out loud their sorrows while steadfastly refusing to repent and get well. These days I no longer accept these appointments. There is push back, of course, from individuals and leaders who choose to misunderstand my commitment to healing:  God wants us to become whole - and more often than not this demands a change of direction. Repentance. Doing the hard inner and outer work of salvation, that is, full health.  Ministry is not about enabling, it is about embracing the mystery of the Cross and trusting that as we go through the pain we will be set free, too.

Once I was asked by a seminary professor what advice I would give to students about to be ordained. I had a laundry list of practical insights ranging from finding friends outside the congregation, securing a trusted spiritual director, etc. Ten years after making this first list, I would add wrestling with these three specific shadow aspects of ministry, too. 

(NOTE: I have used some of the brilliant contemporary icons by Robert Lentz here to evoke the mystery of ministry. Clergy and congregation are in a relationship - not a job description - that is much more about mutual love and sharing than performing a series of tasks. This, too, is often poorly understood. These icons suggest how ministers are changed just as profoundly by repentance and love as congregants.)


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