Relationships, Not Issues

October 25, 2010

Listen to the language around you. Notice how often problems are defined as “issues” e.g., the racial issue, Islamic terrorist issue, the abortion issue. Or closer to home, “Pastor, we’ve got an issue ____ that needs solving.” (You fill in the blank—“our giving is way behind the budget this year”; or “Jan doesn’t respond to e-mails fast enough.” Or, even closer, more personal, “Pastor, some of our older members don’t think you visit enough,” or, “I get lost in your sermons, not sure what your point is.”

My assumption around most “issues” is this: the problem is someone else’s fault and someone else (often you) should solve it. In family systems’ language, an “issue” (C) is often triangled in as a way to avoid the responsibility of the persons involved (A and B). Issues invite projection; the problem is out there. Issues, on the other hand, can challenge those in relationships to take responsibility for resolution.

Consider this rule of thumb: redefine issues as challenges to deepen relationships.

Let’s try this with the above examples. From “racial issue” to “How are we in relationships that cross racial lines?” From “Islamic terrorists” to “How can we foster understanding and deepen relationships with Islamic persons?” From the “abortion issue” to “How are all relationships, including with the fetus, impacted by the option of abortion?” From “Pastor, our giving is behind . . .” to “Thanks for raising this. Who do you think, along with the two of us, needs to join us in deciding how to respond?” From “Jan doesn’t . . .” to “Have you talked with her or him about your concern?” From “ . . . don’t visit enough” to “You are exactly right. Help me. Since you know these members so well, would you be willing to visit with me, perhaps even set up the appointments? A bonus would be getting to know you better.” From “getting lost in your sermons . . .” to “Thank you for letting me know. I want you to understand my messages, and I want to listen to your questions and confusions. How about us getting together over coffee and talk about last Sunday’s sermon?”

My biggest pastoral challenge in this regard was when a gay couple in the congregation asked for a public service of blessing on their commitment to each other. Most people, including the media, wanted to define this as a “gay issue.” I kept saying, with limited success, “No, this is not an issue. This is about people, two members who are part of our community. Let’s ask, ‘How will we be in relationship with Jim and Bill, with each other, with our sense of God’s purpose?” And I kept saying during our many months of discernment, “How we decide is as important as what we decide.” That is, how we listened, how we expressed ourselves, how we studied, prayed and worshipped together would either deepen our relationships or fracture them.

In retirement, I have been gifted with close Quaker friends. By valuing the leading of the Spirit within and between persons, they make every effort to listen and not coerce. In fact, for them the process of decision-making is an extension of worship. Making decisions, for them, is another way to deepen their relationships with each other, with the Spirit and with the world. That is their intention.

I suppose there are “issues” that are just that, issues. But, most of the time, I submit, they distract us from the hard work of deepening relationships.

 


The Mountain, Not the Weather

October 11, 2010

“What’s it like, Carl, when you moved from professor to pastor?” I asked. At the time, I was making a similar transition. His response, “Well, your highs will be higher and your lows will be lower.”

Carl was right. The nature of our work makes it so. Even within the same day, you can move from the thrill of celebrating the Wilson’s first born to the shock of Lou’s diagnosed, inoperable cancer . . . from the high of someone “getting it,” hearing grace to the low of another hearing “judgment, I’m not enough” . . . from the charged promises embedded in pre-marital counseling to the despairing news of Al moving out of his house . . . from the synergy of committee collaboration to the fractiousness of committee differences . . . from the hope in Alice’s baptism to the lament of Jim’s exit from the church in anger. What a roller-coaster ride ministry can be, up and down, emotionally high, emotionally low.

In some sense this is life, everybody’s life. In a given day, we are stretched between the poles of suffering and wonder. Our hearts are asked to contain huge amounts of both pain and joy.

For us, the occupational hazard is in the projections. As pastors, we stand up, stick out, and like a Rorschach test, we invite judgments all the way from “You are the best preacher I have heard”

. . .”you listen well, not like our previous pastor” . . .”you are just what we need” . . .”I love the way you put things” to “your sermons are good but I wished you visited more” . . .”you visit, I appreciate that, but I wished you studied more for your sermons” . . .”you talk about money and mission too much” . . .”You don’t speak enough about money. Just lay it on the line!” We are employed by those with the right of evaluation. Multiple employers; multiple evaluations—salted with projections.

Of course, we internalize these projections, even if for a moment, feeling special, feeling inadequate. As if riding on an emotional roller-coaster, “up” we go toward ego-inflation; “down” we go toward ego-deflation. Or as one pastor admitted, “I go from ‘I am so privileged to be doing this,’” to ‘I want to get out of here.’”

Ah, “ego” is the word. Our ego loves the excitement of roller-coaster rides. That’s not bad, but it is so limiting . . . and exhausting. There is another larger part of us, sometimes called the Self or inner observer or inner Witness or Christ within. It’s that part of us that can sit back, stroke our chin with curiosity, and ask, “What’s going on here? Where is the kernel of truth is what’s being said? What’s being ‘hooked” in me that needs the light of day?”

In my case, often lurking in the shadows was my need to be needed, to be loved, to be applauded. So these projections, if I allowed them, could invite me, once again, to thicken the truth of being loved as gift, not achievement.

Working with projections, ours and others, can be this kind of inner soul work. The “highs” and “lows,” like the weather come and go, while the mountain rests secure in its grace. At our deepest identity, we are the mountain, not the weather.