The “X” factor: Danger and Opportunity

January 18, 2010

Let’s think about the dynamics of transference or projection in pastoral ministry.

To be human is to experience transference; the projection of authority on to others, and being the recipient of projected expectations. Who doesn’t hyperventilate slightly at the sound of a police siren signaling us to pull to the side of the road, or the pressure the surgeon feels when introduced as the very best in the country? And how about the knot in our stomach when we are called in for a conference with our child’s teacher, or the relief we feel when, in the midst of a tragedy, the leader—whether physician, parent, or president—comes before us with words of assurance?

For pastoral leaders of congregations, the force of transference is particularly tenacious and pervasive. I don’t understand why, in contrast to psychotherapists, working with transference and counter-transference  is not more apart of our training, because becoming a ‘‘reverend’’ impacts virtually all relationships, for good or ill. We are human beings with a difference. Once you and I assume the role of pastora/leader, this “difference,” this “X” factor, kicks in.

This difference is appropriately accentuated in the ways we fulfill the role. We don the robes. We bear sacred symbols. We risk interpreting Mystery. We preside over rites of passage, from birth to death. Even with our more unknowing than knowing, we still dare to represent God, God’s people and God’s purposes in the world. With “fear and trembling,” we allow maximum transference.

Lucy, a rabbi friend, gave me a book that describes this “X’ factor for me. Jack Bloom, in The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar, says that, as ordained leaders of congregations, we are both human beings and living symbols of more than we are. Both are true and remain in tension. Yes, in every sense we are “human beings” with our particular personalities and peculiarities. Also, we are walking, talking, embodied representatives of more. We are living signs pointing beyond ourselves to the larger Reality we name God. And this symbolic identity deepens with each passing pastoral visit, funeral, wedding, and worship service.

And more than symbol, Bloom insists that we are symbolic exemplars. As the ordination of Episcopal clergy words it, we vow to be “wholesome examples” of the gospel. Leaders in other fields are also symbols of more than they are, but few leaders carry such moral freight. Pastors, and in some sense their families, are expected to show, as well as tell, what loving God and neighbor looks like.

There’s opportunity with the “X” factor. You know the privilege of standing by a member’s bedside in solitary. Intensive Care, putting a face to a caring God and praying congregation; or, sitting before a person consumed with self-hatred, confronting the lie with all the authority of your position, saying, “No, the truth is you are God’s beloved”; or, claiming the very force of God’s character by proclaiming in concrete settings that domination of some over others is wrong, evil, violent and counter to the God movement of shalom; or, placing bread into the open hands of a celebrant, saying, “The body of Christ for you.”

Privilege, yes, but also audacity, in accepting the pastoral authority to name, bless, and heal, to express at times a power we don’t feel, to convey an outward boldness with our “knees knocking” out of sight.

Seduction is the danger. With the courage it takes to be a living symbol of more than we are, we assume the perilous risk of believing we are more than we are. Projections are ingested. You tell me that I am wonderful, then I must be wonderful. You tell me that I am not enough, then I must be not enough.

I found this the most severe temptation: moving from having a ministry to becoming my ministry. Our work, intended to be penultimate, can become ultimate. ‘‘Difference’’ can become “special.” “Set apart” can become set apart as “better,” “superior.” Ordination vows can trump the baptismal vows we share with all disciples of Jesus. Our sense of well-being can, ever so gradually, stick to our role, then harden, so much so that the role ceases to be a ‘‘robe’’ we wear for symbolic purposes, then remove. It defines our core identity . . . idolatry, that is.

I am wondering what helps you have a ministry, without being your ministry? What supports your offer of ministry from your center of “being enough,” Graced, grounded in Being, loved unconditionally? If Bloom’s description resonates, what helps you embrace the tension from being both a human being in every way and a living, symbolic exemplar of more than you are?

Leading in the In-between Time

January 4, 2010

“I feel both like a hospice chaplain and mid-wife.”

The pastor was responding to my question: “Your current ministry feels like, looks like a . . . . . what?” His answer resonated with our small group of clergy, so much so, we began to unpack his metaphors. Let’s continue the conversation.

Being a hospice chaplain meant to this pastor more than the standard, expected grief ministry — responding to personal losses (e.g. death of a loved one, marriage, house, job, reputation, etc.) That’s huge by itself. Grief work is at the core of what we offer, demanding attention, indeed, skillful and caring attention.

But this pastor was referring to other losses more characteristic of our time in history. You and I see and feel this truth: We serve a church losing social status. The mainline church, firmly established as a major institution for fifteen hundred years in Western civilization, is being disestablished and sidelined. A survivalist mentality, like a dark cloud, hovers over denominations, including many local churches. (Personally I welcome this disestablishment that brings us closer to the pre-Constantine Christian movement of the first centuries. A topic for another reflection.)

Some members lament, “With all these changes — in status . . . in membership . . . in worship . . . in structures . . . in programs . . . in communication — well, I feel less at home. Sometimes it seems like I’m losing my church.” Others decry changes, not only in form, but also in ideas. The familiar ways of speaking of faith are being reshaped or even displaced, as implied in one parishioner’s comment: “Pastor, it is not so much what you say in your sermons that bothers me. It is what you don’t say.”

Thus, on one hand this pastor defined himself as a hospice chaplain who honors and works with dying and death on multiple levels.

Yet, on the other hand, he sees himself as a shepherd of innovation, a midwife assisting in new birth here and there. There are new programs, new members (often with little religious background), new forms of mission, and new ways of understanding God’s movement in our time. He offers a steadying, supportive hand to these births, each carrying the promise of a new life.

Does this resonate with you as a leader in our time? Do you see yourself standing in this breach, offering leadership in a “transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born?” (Vaclav Havel) In what ways do these metaphors fit? In what ways do they not?

And, I am thinking, you are pastor or priest of one congregation. Where then is the source of oneness amid diverse pulls on time and energy? You must be asking where is the glue that holds us together? What convictions do we gather around regularly that we wager with our lives?

You seem to be in a position not unlike the one Jesus faced. He was revering and fulfilling the Torah, yet with interpretations that were like “new wine in old wineskins.” His respect for heritage that he expressed in new ways was confusing. No wonder the stewards of his tradition (in positions like ours) pressed him for clarity about essentials. Some sample responses we know like the back of our hand: “Love God and the other as yourself;” “Love as I have loved you;” “I have come that you might have life, life abundantly;” “I am the way, the truth, the life.”

Maybe there is this blessing in our time of chaotic transition. We are forced to keep clarifying the faith around which we circle. We are compelled to name our integrating core, knowing full well that the gracious Mystery we worship also defies precise definition. We are challenged to covenant and re-covenant around a Way of living, all the while resisting its codification into hardened beliefs.

I am suggesting that times of rapid change push us back to basics. They challenge us to live the essential questions: What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does faithfulness look like in our lives and life together?

How would you add to the conversation begun with the pastor’s self-understanding as hospice chaplain and midwife?