A Paradox to Embrace

May 16, 2011

I don’t much like paradoxes. Ambiguity is unsettling. “Either/or” comes more naturally than “both/and.”

But here is a paradox to live. It resides right at the core of our pastoral role. Rabbi Jack Bloom proposes that rabbis  of congregations are both human beings and living symbols of more than they are. (The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar). There it is — the paradoxical “both/and.” Substitute “pastor” for “rabbi” and we have an astute naming of our challenge as well. See it as a continuum: a living symbolic exemplar at one end and a human being at the other end.

Symbols point beyond themselves to another reality from which it draws its power. And living symbols we are. The Bible we elevate, the robe we don, our public stance behind the pulpit and Communion Table, our language, perhaps the collar we wear — are all signs pointing to a larger Reality we name God, Spirit, Christ. We are walking, talking, embodied representatives of a Message that comes through us but not primarily from us. This too. We are to be symbolic exemplars. We are expected to be “wholesome examples” of the gospel. In ways not true of other public symbolic leaders, we are expected to show, as well as tell, what loving God and neighbor looks like.

Within this symbolic role and with no little audacity, we claim the power to bless and call forth and pronounce in the name of God. At the bedside, grave side, altar and numerous “alongsides” with parishioners, we experience the joyful privilege of representing an authority not our own, declaring a hope not of our own making, announcing a grace as gift, not achievement.

With the privilege comes the danger. The symbolic role is seductive, enticing us toward ego inflation. It’s lure of specialness can paint over our separate identity as an ordinary person whose head is no higher than anyone else.  Before we know it, we start thinking we are the “treasure,” not the “earthy, fragile clay jar.” Don’t we all know of clergy whom we suspect sleeps with their “collar” on?  Let this sign be posted on your office wall — Danger: This Role Can Devour Your Soul. 

My point is this: avoid the either/or and embrace the both/and. Some pastors either lose themselves in the symbolic role or they resist the authority in their symbolic role by going around communicating, “Oh, I’m just human. Treat me as ‘one of the gang.’”

Or, we can embrace the paradox fully, appreciating the truth of both ends of the continuum. Wise pastors know how to claim the symbolic power of their role to bless and heal and announce. And they know how to “take off the robe (symbolic role)” and be themselves apart from the role. And they know when each is called for.

Furthermore — and this is not easy to accomplish — mature pastors have friends outside the congregation with whom they can drop the role of symbol-hood, friends with whom they can share the intimacies and vulnerabilities of being human.

If you have the time to comment, I’m interested in your experience of this paradox.