On Giving Our Role a Vacation

Who are we apart from our role?

Three stimuli account for the question.

One, from Barbara Brown Taylor in Leaving Church, “My role and my soul were eating each other alive. . . . Because I did not know how to give my soul what it wanted, I continued to play my role, becoming more brittle with every passing day.”

Two, a recently retired parish priest commented, “I thought I left my job when I took vacations through the years. But now I realize that much of my thinking on “time off” was about “time on” parish concerns.”

Three, this question looms large in my retirement: “Who am I apart from my pastoral role.” I’m learning how much of my identity was and is tied up in this familiar, cherished role.

Before we proceed with this conversation, let me note two things: one, roles are needed and necessary. They make working together possible. To occupy a role, for instance, as a father or mother or teacher or citizen or pastor, is to have a position in a particular system from which to offer yourself. Roles offer boundaries that mark what is yours to do and what is not yours to do.

And second, regarding a vacation or time off, it’s not a matter of “yes” I carry my role along, or “no” I don’t. Rather think of a continuum, from “a lot of time thinking about or doing work” to “little time thinking about or doing work.” Most of us fall somewhere in between the two extremes.

While we are in vacation season, the important question here is not about vacation. It’s about our level of self-differentiation from our role of being pastor. I deem this to be a huge occupational challenge: how to distinguish your soul, your life journey from your role as pastoral leader of a congregation. It’s a huge challenge because you surround yourself with others who identify you with your role. It’s a huge challenge because your role is a conduit through which you express much of your passion, your calling. And it’s a huge challenge because it is up to you to claim your life apart from your work, and some will punish you for trying.

The concept of self-differentiation is from family systems theory. Ed Friedman writes of differentiation as the capacity to define one’s life journey, goals, values apart from the defining efforts of others. While remaining in relationship with congregants, the pastor is able to see himself or herself apart from the pastoral role.

I take this to mean that baptism trumps ordination as our source of identity. Our first and never ending call, our life project is becoming who we are, our form of God’s image, “growing up into Christ-likeness,” as Paul put it in his Romans letter. Our pastoral role ends; our summons to transformation does not. We are so much more than our role.

I found this helpful to remind myself, “I have a pastoral ministry, but I am not my pastoral ministry. I am graced, intending grace.” Or, “Yes, ministry is about me; yet, more profoundly, it is not about me.”

How do you make sense of this role-soul thing?

I have this immediate response after reading this over. Drawing from Jung’s thinking, maybe establishing ourselves in our roles is primarily a first-half of life task; and transcending our over-identification with roles more of a second-half challenge.

3 Responses to On Giving Our Role a Vacation

  1. Greg Cochran says:

    Your last statement feels right for me, Mahan, as I put it on. Your thoughts bring up interesting questions for me as I transition to part-time at the church where I have been for 22 years and take on a part-time position at a “faith-based” nonprofit. What is my pastoral role as I pull back from many responsibilities in my congregation? Do I bring a pastoral role to my new position within this new nonprofit position? All the while trying to give my soul what it is asking for…things that make you go hummmmmm…


  2. elizabeth canham says:

    Thank you once again, Mahan, for giving voice to another important issue of clergy identity.


  3. Bryan Hatcher says:

    While in seminary, a pastoral supervisor often introduced me as the occassionally reverend. I have found this a helpful reference through the yars of my pastoral ministry. In the moments of liturgy, pastoral care, congregational leadership, I can certainly step into the role. When at the beach watching my daughter search for shark’s teeth in a mound of seashells, the role is father and lover of all life.

    not that it is always that clearcut and that I always get it just right, but the reference of “occassional” has been helpful.


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