Friends, I have revised my website and blog to reflect this time in my life. As a way of leaving this vocation that always exceeded by grasp while filling me with purpose, I’m going back and picking up some tools (re-frames) that I found useful in the gardening we do. These “re-frames” mattered to me in my years of pastoral ministry. I’m passing them along with the hope that some will serve you as well.
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Pete named it: “I feel like a hospice chaplain and a midwife.”
In our circle of pastors we were responding to the question: “Your current ministry feels like or looks like a … what?” Pete’s response stayed with me. I played with it, trying on the images, experimenting with seeing pastoral ministry through these lenses. Over time it became a re-frame of the role for me. Of course, no metaphor captures the complexity of our work. But this frame reflects a truth I want to explore with you. Let’s consider these images separately.
Hospice chaplains help people die. They look for ways to align with the little, sometimes compelling movements of faith and gratitude during the journey toward one’s final breath. Pastors, as well, are given this sacred opportunity with parishioners.
But Pete was not referencing the standard, expected grief ministries of pastors, namely, the responses to personal losses that include death of a loved one or marriage or job or reputation. He was pointing to another level of loss more peculiar to the church in our historical moment.
This grief takes us to another category: the loss of church status, once “main-line,” now “side-lined”; the loss of congregational programs once vital but no more; the loss of familiar faith concepts, once life-giving but no more; the loss of institutional loyalty; and the loss of consensus about the essentials, e.g. what is Spirit/God about? … what is church about? … what is being human about?
Pastors these days hear a litany of laments:
“We don’t have young people like we used to” …
“I miss the old hymns” …
“you don’t talk about God in ways I’m accustomed to” …
“our ‘active’ members only attend maybe twice a month” …
“why, we used to have a thriving Sunday School” …
“nobody talks about tithing any more” …
“change, change everywhere, and now in church too.”
But there is an even larger sense of loss and lamenting, seldom named but nevertheless in the air we breathe. Nation-states are collapsing. Refuges know homelessness in unprecedented numbers. No longer can we assume a stable climate, predictable shorelines, and an ample, unending supply of clean water. Others have noted that 9/11, 2001 symbolically represents the undoing of U.S. exceptionalism. For sure, we are witnessing a gradual decline of our sense of privileged super-power at its peak during post-Cold War years.
This is my point. A huge amount of felt loss — losses on multiple levels, deaths experienced in various ways — is experienced by every pastor on a regular basis. People grieving over some kind of dying are the norm, not the exception. I think Pete is right. We are more, but not less than hospice chaplains.
Yet, I know of no pastor who “signed on” to be a hospice chaplain. Not one. Granted, hospice chaplaincy is both worthy and needed. But to see oneself as a hospice chaplain is a major shift in self-perception. A re-frame. It means valuing and appreciating grief work on these many levels. A priority insists on being clarified and embraced: assisting others in the letting go of what is no longer life-giving and, at the same time, companioning with others in the move toward re-formation, toward new life, toward birthing.
Yes, birthing. This takes us to the second image — a midwife. Clearly at this point I am now beyond my personal experience and can only draw on conversations with others, particularly with my ob-gyn physician daughter-in-law. But the birthing metaphor is so perfect, so essential, so biblical, so full of awe and mystery. Think of the fetus forming in the womb, growing until pre-natal life outgrows the constricting walls of the womb. The mother’s excruciating pain announces this point of no-return. But the movement toward new life cannot be stopped. Pushing forward is demanded. Evolution will not be denied. Either this singular evolving life will be supported or aborted. Amid it all, persons with “midwife” capacities offer skilled, compassionate, supportive presence.
Pete, in explaining his metaphor, felt the excitement of a midwife. He was witnessing pushes for birthing the new. Here and there, emerging from congregational relationships, were experimental ideas, programs and practices. This included many who were at work re-imaging their understanding of God, church and discipleship. The winds of spirituality blowing largely outside of the institutional church were beginning to blow within the congregation as well. It was as if he was midwife to emerging life pressing for birth, for breath, for new forms against the womblike strictures of the church.
At first glance, this metaphor of Pete’s — hospice chaplain and midwife — might appear as binary, as either-or. No, it’s not. It is not as if we do grief hospice work in the morning and midwifing of the new in the afternoon. Rather, I see the two dimensions, hospice chaplain and midwife, as held together by our most central theological affirmation of faith, namely, dying and rising, death and resurrection. It’s the Spirit’s way.
We affirm, as I understand our faith, that life and love cannot die; only the form of life and love dies. Any form — whether stage of human life development or stage of church life development or stage of faith development — will die. Our ego, ever clinging to form for security and comfort, will resist the dying, the letting go of our finite formulations. But like the trapeze artist, the trick is learning repeatedly to trust the letting go of one bar, enduring the up-in-the-air anxiety before grasping the next bar coming toward us. Isn’t this what we in the church name the paschal mystery embodied in Jesus — letting go, taking hold; dying, rising; life, death, resurrection.
If true, then this is our work: to help others learn to die in order to live, to help others learn to let go in order to embrace the next stage, to help others release their efforts to control/cling and trust the new life wanting to birth through them. This is where hospice chaplain and midwife meet. It’s one work that faces in two directions. It’s one call to be present in a way that bridges past and future.
This reflection ends with admiration. To stand in that breach, attending both to helping in the letting go and supporting the new being birthed, takes courage. Especially in our time of paradigm shifting, experienced in every institution, this role is seldom understood and appreciated. You can see why. Who likes to hear the message that much is dying in the church? Who is eager to hear the invitation to let go and trust the new yet unformed and unknown? Expect no kudos for that message! Then, on the other hand, what innovative souls, eager to get on and experiment with “being church” in fresh ways, want to hear, “Now be patient with those still denying the death occurring in the church!” Expect no kudos from them!
But this leadership during the “in-between-time” is critical. The church needs clergy called to this challenge. This challenge includes the inner work required. The pastor must learn to release dependence on kudos, to let go of the egoic need to be understood and affirmed, to, as Ethel Waters once said, learn to become “applause deaf.” To relinquish the known and trust the birthing Spirit of the unknown may be the hardest inner spiritual work embedded in this re-frame — being both hospice chaplain and midwife.
I hear this same re-frame in Vaclav Havel, the poet, playwright, philosopher and first president of liberated Czechoslovakia. Let’s give him the final word: “We offer leadership in a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born.”
Writers and publishers are also bobbling around in the wake of an old system’s partial collapse and the uproar of new ways and possibilities. It’s both exciting and a lot of work we didn’t sign on for. Would love to know how one becomes applause-deaf.