Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Office and Person

There was a time when my father and stepmother attended Blessed Sacrament once a month, commuting from their home over a hundred miles away in Palm Desert. My stepmother is an ultra-dedicated and super-effective Christian grief counselor, and led a grief support group at Blessed Sacrament on a monthly basis. (In my opinion, probably her greatest triumph was ministering so effectively to my father at the time of my mother’s death that they were married two and a half years later.)

Often after church and before the grief group met, we would go to the rectory for lunch and a visit. More than once my stepmother observed a phenomenon that eventually concerned her enough to speak up. It was obvious that at church I was “up” and excited and full of delight being with the members of the parish in worship and fellowship. And in sharp contrast, at home I was silent, withdrawn, and depressed, just moments after leaving the church.

I ministered to people with confidence and usually a measure of effectiveness, but I did not make myself vulnerable in the love I showed, and over time that weighed on me deeply. Probably my self-protectiveness had grown during long years of near-unsupported struggle against intense opposition from various quarters, in which unjust and often anonymous ad hominem attacks were commonplace. Fortunately, this part of parish life has been behind us for six or seven years. Surely, however, my closedness was caused by something more, some unknown thing older than that decade of persistent attack.

In many helping professions, including the pastoral ministry to an extent, reserving one’s personhood is appropriate for maintaining a professional boundary, but I had made a brick wall of it. As a result, in some areas of ministry I had become super-sensitive and raw. I knew enough to recognize it, but did not have resources to address it effectively.

That created in me the curious dichotomy my stepmother saw of my being jubilant at church and despondent, almost vacant, short minutes later at home. It seemed to me that even in a healthy and vibrant, loving parish people praised me for what I did, but no one really knew me as a person. Mostly it was because I did not let them.

As time passed and many of my colleagues disappeared from my circle for various reasons, mostly having to do with the corrosiveness to one’s soul when one is an orthodox priest in the Episcopal Church, I suddenly realized that I was, for all intents and purposes, alone. Simultaneously the parish was growing, and the demands on my time and skills and people’s need for counsel grew commensurately while, without support, my own resources weakened and drained away. Gradually, as slowly as the descent of evening causes light to fade, my own sense of personhood was dimmed. I had almost forgotten who I was, and there was no one left who could tell me.

“My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion” (Psalm 88:19).

My professional confidence and competence were built up in years of tempering through meeting opposition, learning, persevering, committing. Now, trying to find a way to minister in my person without abdicating my professional office is a knife-edge. It is, almost certainly, the most grueling challenge I have ever faced in my life. Attempting to do so is compelling me to address the subject of what it means to be a person and a priest at the same time, and truly and deeply grow in the knowledge of genuine, godly love. In some ways it has been happening with incredible power and speed over the past few months, though it has involved a dozen or more episodes of genuine fear, depression, elation, avid desire for intimacy, humiliation because of missteps, and other strident emotions that I am not used to.

Emotions now churn powerfully inside of me, but they do not come out into the open. For years I kept them in check, mostly for my own sake but also for the sake of others. My emotions are there now when I give counsel or spiritual direction; they are close to the surface when I preach and deliver retreat addresses. I do not wish to contain them so much now, but when I cautiously seek personal contact with people, I am intensely strained both with the desire to open my heart and the fear of doing so. Fear of being misunderstood, dismissed, or doing harm continues to smother my desire to be seen and valued as a person.

Just a few days ago, when I was in a good place, I wrote to my stepmother about these things, and she responded, “I think you are your ‘most bestest’ self in your thoughts and feelings shared this morning. A new you is emerging, you are cracking the shell that you've been captive in for so many years. I believe now your mind, your beautiful mind, and your heart, even more beautiful than your mind if that’s possible, are becoming new friends, perhaps for the first time ever. And you are finding safety in that, and newness and even exhilaration, yet you may be tempted to return to safer positions now outgrown.”

Though I expect it will return, my “good place” is gone now. Most definitely, at the moment I am not finding safety in whatever “progress” my stepmother saw, but I know that I cannot go back to the “safer positions now outgrown”. Things are too different now. That means that I am emotionally “homeless”. I am acutely wracked, with a relentless, grinding, heart-rending solitariness. Fear and desire, office and person battle inside me, and in the battle my usually confident self is a weak thing. Where my greatest need is, there my self falls most short.

I have almost forgotten how to relate to others on a personal level, and when I try I am painfully aware of what can charitably be described at best as “awkwardness”, but is more likely almost complete inability to connect. With ease and joy I can love people in the name of God. In my own person, I have almost nothing to offer.

John Lennon put it beautifully in the plaintive “Julia”, one of my favorite Beatles songs: “When I cannot sing my heart, I can only speak my mind.” But my heart does sing! It does! But almost no one can hear it.

Though I am no longer hated and despised by selected members of the parish, and in fact I am generally appreciated and valued by a wonderful and loving parish family, I cannot expect these beloved people to provide personal friendship. It is not fair to them. I know that most of them love and respect me as a priest; I hesitate to give them a chance to love me as a person. I do not know how to do it. When I have tried in the past, only in the most rare of instances have I been able to do so successfully; in all other cases it has been futile, and has put people into an awkward, unwelcome position.

I probably can’t describe the situation better than when I spoke to the Bishop in the presence of the Vestry last August. The words took me by surprise even as they emerged:

I have a fantastic parish and vestry. I need them now, in a way I never have before. The past six years have called forth a lot of new skills in me that I never had, but as the need for them is growing rapidly, I am becoming tired and not seeing or thinking as clearly as I used to. I am feeling hard-pressed and solitary, which I think is primarily the fruit of an accumulation of years of labor and finally becoming very, very tired.

I am afraid of asking for help from my parishioners, but I think that they are the only ones I can turn to for nurture—at least on a regular basis.

Of course, everyone has needs that only others can meet, but priests and others in helping professions are in a position that usually excludes them from getting those needs met by the people they spend most time with. But recently I have concluded that this is not the best pattern for Christian love. I believe that my people know that I love them, and I know that true love, if it is to be true, must be received when it is given. But I am not good at this.

Seeking support and strength from my parishioners is very hard. The few times in the past when I have done so, when I was in a hard spot, I didn’t know how to do it. I wonder whether I did more harm than good. Seeking support from my parishioners means shifting my boundaries and, once shifted, I don’t know where to place them. And shifting boundaries on people is not always fair to them.

Infused throughout my self is the immortal joy of the intimate knowledge of God, but I am always on the outskirts of human joy. For years I have loved the line in the psalms, “Whom have I in heaven but you? ―and having you, I desire nothing upon earth” (Psalm 73:25). But I know that this does not mean that personal intimacy is optional or an extra. Even though he was “ministered to by angels”, Jesus also longed for his disciples in his hour of painful vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane. Moments before that he had said to them, “No longer do I call you servants; I have called you friends” (John 15:15). How to do this is a puzzle I have not yet learned to unravel.


Anonymous said...

I hear what you're saying. I wrote about some similar matters here and here, which you might find of interest. Are you familiar with the writings of Eugene Peterson? I find him very helpful when dealing with this - his 'The Contemplative Pastor' is probably the best place to start. (A member of your congregation put me on to your blog!)

Cate said...

Dear Father David,

As a mostly absent but increasingly fond member of your parish, I was increcibly heartened by this post. I am studying at Institute for Spiritual formation at Talbot, and we spend a great deal of time discussing the difficult personal dilemma of being a minister of the faith. In your professional position your strength is used to make others strong, and therefore it is an easy temptation to hide any weakness. But too often we have seen the long-hidden weaknesses of pastors and priests erupt into private burn-out of public shame (I can't help but think of poor Ted Haggert). Thank you for being authentic with your parishioners and letting them minister back to you. You need the love they can give you and we are better served through your fulfilment.

Anonymous said...

Dear Father David+,
For all the years i have known you, you always ministered to your parish. I never knew about Jesus until you taught me, showed me how to love myself and others through Jesus. I have faith today because of you.
However as the years went on i could see the drain it put on you.
It seemed like it weighed very heavy on you, but you never let it show. Sometimes you were distant, but, i believed you just needed spirital privacey. Seldom did you ever show that you were tired, you were always there for all.
Thank you for sharing this heartfelt story of you.
I remember when you first took the Blessed Sacrament over, there weren't many people there. You have made it what it is today, a wonderful place of worship. All i see is growth, you have really grown spiritually since St. Anselms and i feel Blessed to have you as my priest. Thank you for sharing your heart with all of us.

slowlane said...

I began your post thinking that perhaps you would put forth some clear course of action that I could follow as I am only a beginner in this helping career.

But I am surprised to find comfort instead in knowing that I am just one of many to wrestle with the "how to" of ministering and being ministered to.

Kyle said...

Dear Father David,

Thanks for sharing this piece; I suspect this kind of honesty to be helpful to you and other people.

One of the reasons I decided I couldn't serve in my local diocese was the strict "ministry-as-a-helping-profession," "priest as professional therapist" paradigm that insists that a priest may not be friends with his people. I think it kills souls.

It doesn't sound like you would disagree. :-(

Peace, Father.

Brandon said...

Dear Fr. David,

I hear what you are saying here and I can echo your thoughts in my own life as well. Not being a priest/minister myself, but one who is increasingly becoming more active in my local church in various committees and serving ministries, this sense of "burnout" even affects us laity who serve in various capacities in our local parishes. Your second paragraph describes precisely what I go through every week after my parish's youth fellowship (where I'm the "leader").

It's a struggle with having to keep up a face while your there serving but then being depressed and withdrawn at other times. In my own situation I'm finding that it's increasingly because of the way in which I am serving that is leaving such a sense of physical, mental and spiritual lethargy afterwards. My pastor said similar things to me (as you said in this post) after I raised my concerns and thoughts with him.

Just remember that you aren't alone in feeling this. There are others out there in the Christian world who are going through similar experiences as you (clergy or laity).


Father David said...

Actually I would disagree—I am just aware of many spectacular failures when other priests have tried to become friends with their parishioners and only did so by abdicating their ministry--when they allowed their needs and desires to become more important than those of their parishioners. I want to avoid that in my own situation. I would very much like to learn how to be both priest and friend to the members of the parish. Being able to do so would enhance both the pastoral and the personal sides to the relationship. Fortunately, in some cases currently I see some great hope. It’s just harder than I thought, but I am determined to make it work.

Thanks for your comment!

Anonymous said...

Hi Fr. David,
I don't know what to say, except for two things:

1. I relate to what you shared, if on a much lighter level (probably because my participation in my "helping profession" takes less of my time and energy than does yours, and because I'm just a young kiddo and don't have the life experience you do); and

2. I love you very much. Your fatherly love for me over the last 5 years have gone deep in me, and so you are deep in my heart - whether I know you as a person very deeply or not. I'm really thankful that you exposed your need here, and let those of us who love you know how we can more effectively pray for you.

-Katie P

michael jensen said...

Wow: so much to resonate with in your post. Not much time to comment, but thankyou.