I didn’t know what I was getting into. I thought being a pastor was similar to being a teacher or social worker or father. These roles give you a position from which you can contribute. That’s the way I saw it.
I went to seminary with the excitement of a seeker who had just discovered a new map of unexplored terrain. This joy of a larger purpose freed me from an earlier vocational direction assumed by my family. I knew no one at the seminary when I arrived. Being Baptist had little substance. Church experience was limited. My knowledge of clergy was almost nil. To be “called” felt strange and remote. But the idea of some kind of paid work that allowed further exploration into the realm or kingdom of God was promising.
Surprise happened in an introductory class on pastoral care. The professor had recorded on tape his pastoral conversation with a grieving widow. I heard his gift of empathic listening and skillful questions that helped her find a measure of release and hope. On that day, in that moment, sitting on the fourth row of a large class in the “Map” room at Southern Baptist Seminary, I whispered to myself, “I want to do that!” And I have for forty-eight years.
What I felt then, and never lost, is this: the role gave me a way into those holy places of people’s lives, where I could offer a presence with a caring curiosity about their pursuit of meaning. A reporter once asked me, “What do you like most about your job?” I heard myself say, “I love having a ringside seat on how people make sense of their lives.” This was the constant joy—the role unlocking doors to these sacred places of presence and conversation.
You can anticipate my shock at running into the full complexity of this vocation. Immediately I protested the “difference,” the “set-apartness” that came with the role. I resisted the various titles—Brother Mahan, Preacher, Reverend, Pastor Siler, Doctor Siler. “Just call me Mahan,” I sometimes said. “I’m just a regular guy with a huge curiosity about life and faith in God.”
My ordination, with its language of “being set apart” to serve the church, declared more about my future than I could absorb at the time. I was wonderfully challenged by the vows yet felt broadsided by the loneliness and projections that came in their wake. The new role changed how people perceived me, including my neighbors and larger family. Even my pre-ordination friends didn’t quite know what to do with my new identity. I felt placed into a separate category I didn’t understand.
Eventually a re-frame came to me, in the form of a gift from a rabbi friend, which described with clarity the role I was assuming. The gift was a book from another rabbi, Jack Bloom, in which Bloom describes the tension: as rabbis (or pastors) we are both living symbols of More than we are and ordinary human beings. We are both. Both at the same time.
A symbol points beyond itself to some other reality from which it draws power. Take our national flag, for instance. We know it’s not simply a colored piece of cloth. It draws our attention powerfully to the “republic for which it stands.” Or, even more familiar to us, we regularly participate in the transforming symbolic power of water (baptism) and bread and wine/grape juice (Eucharist).
But acknowledging our symbolic power is another matter. Imagine the scene: rabbis, priests, or pastors in the pulpit beneath a robe and stole (or dark suit) with Scripture in hand. Note the symbols. Note the symbol we are. Yes, we remain very human under the robe, with all our peculiar human traits. But we are so much more. We feel it. We know it. We are symbols of More than we are, signs of a narrative and worldview we call Gospel. Or to say it boldly: You and I are symbols pointing to God, the ultimate Mystery. By just being a clergy person you announce a huge wager. You and I dare to wager that God is real, a loving presence in us, with us, and through us, active in the world making love, making justice, making shalom. And furthermore our symbolic identity deepens with each passing funeral, wedding, worship service, and pastoral visit. We are walking, talking representatives of More than ourselves. The projections abound. The symbolic role opens doors; it closes doors. We are different. Not better, but different.
And, if that is not enough to carry, as pastors we are not just symbols, we are symbolic exemplars. Certain ethical behaviors are expected of us. 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 additional moral pressure. Pastors, and in some sense their families, are expected to show, as well as tell, what loving God and neighbor looks like.
Bloom puts the two together: The pastor or rabbi as symbol and as exemplar. Then he mixes in the third reality: we are symbolic exemplars and ordinary human beings. It’s a re-frame that has mattered.
Let’s place these truths on a continuum — symbolic exemplar on one end and human being on the other end. The extremes are easy to see. On the symbolic exemplar end we have observed pastors and priests overly identified with their symbolic role. Behind the role so much of their humanity is hidden. Their sense of self is fused, it seems, with their pastoral identity. “He must sleep in his collar,” I recall hearing about a Lutheran pastor in my neighborhood. At retirement these ministers have the toughest work of discovering who they are apart from the role that has identified them for so long. I admit, when I retired this inner work was necessary for me as well.
The other extreme is protecting our humanness, so much so that we discount the authority and appropriate power invested in the role. To insist, “I’m just me, a person like everyone else,” is folly. I found, as you have, that there were times when this transcending power was undeniable. You know it when, on occasion, while preaching, the message comes more through you than from you. Or standing by the bed of a very ill parishioner, or sitting across from a person in crisis, you palpably experience being a symbol of More than yourself. When they see you they see the faith community you represent. When they see you they “see” the un-seeable you represent, namely, an invisible Reality. In those times it’s so clear—the person is relating to you but also to so much More than you.
There are times when we consciously, intentionally call on the full authority of the role. I am reminding you of those times when you are face-to-face with persons, usually in the safety of your office, who pour out their sense of “not being enough,” who are feeling particularly victim to relentless, self-condemning voices rising from their depths. In those times we deliberately wrap the role around us like a robe. Our voice is up against the self-despising voices we are hearing. In those moments you too would claim your pastoral authority and say something like, “What you tell yourself is not true. Your deepest truth is this: You are a child of God, loved and loving, totally forgiven and full of worth just as you are.” By claiming this authority we hope that the Power we symbolize undermines and eventually replaces the power of these self-condemning voices.
Or, the best example is the obvious one. Every time you and I rise to stand behind the pulpit to lead in worship, we intentionally wrap ourselves around the privilege and courage of being both our authentic selves and More than our authentic selves.
We know multiple examples of those in our vocation who have abused this symbolic power to the great harm to others, to themselves, and to their congregation. The examples are legion. But the longer I was a pastor the more I understood and appreciated this power to bless and speak in the name of God. But it always felt uncomfortable. The audacity never left me. Each deliberate attempt was not without a good measure of “fear and trembling.” I was flirting with danger, and I knew it. Speaking from ego, for ego, or speaking from God, for God—which was it? No doubt it was a mixture of both. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Precisely; that’s the point! When we embrace this tension of being both symbolic exemplar and the very human person we are, you and I are reduced to prayer. We are driven to our knees. The chutzpah demands mercy; the mercy makes possible the chutzpah.
Naming the un-nameable Mystery … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Putting on, like a robe, the privilege, ambiguities, set-apartness, projections, and loneliness of this work … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Embracing the tension of being both living symbol of More than I am and a human being not more than I am … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Being a flawed leader of an imperfect institution that frequently contradicts the compassion it espouses … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Bearing the symbols of God, even being a symbol of God, at the perilous risk of playing God … Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
I leave you with a paradox — being both fully, uniquely human and fully, uniquely a symbolic exemplar. Embracing, not resolving, this paradox became for me a re-frame that mattered.
Reference: The Rabbi As Symbolic Exemplar: By the Power Vested in Me, Jack H. Bloom
Living in the tension of the symbolic exemplar and the flawed leader does send us to prayer. And the mercy is essential to heal and sustain us.
Thank you for writing so clearly about this tension within our calling.
Christ have mercy, indeed.