The “X” factor: Danger and Opportunity

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?

One Response to The “X” factor: Danger and Opportunity

  1. Stan Dotson says:

    Mahan, I think I’ve always resisted the X factor, generally being pleased when people would show surprise upon learning I am a minister. It’s the Amos factor–I’m not a prophet or a son of a prophet. I resist the distinction, preferring the ideal that every member of the body is a minister, wishing I could be a regular guy in the congregation. I recognize the futility of such resistance, but I also recognize my discomfort at the whole idea of ordination, or setting apart. I also see another aspect of the X factor these days, and that is the suspicion and cynicism clergy presence brings up for many people.


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