Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Priest and Friend

Shortly after I was ordained, someone in authority (I have entirely forgotten who) told me that I could not be friends with my parishioners. Now I was young and idealistic and eager to do things right, so although I was disappointed and somewhat puzzled by the counsel, I followed it. Whoever gave me this advice wanted me to avoid abdicating the leadership that the ordained office gave me. Many other clergy had done so, seeking a measure of personal acceptance at the cost of their effectiveness. It didn’t take too much imagination to figure out that when people come to confession or are in need of encouragement, counsel, or even rebuke, if the priest had made himself merely “one of the bunch”, his ability to guide could be, and often was, compromised.

And I understood that. Even with my minimal experience, I had seen priests and bishops mistake their position—office and charge—for their personal sense of selfhood. They didn’t want to be “separate”; they wanted to be “one of the guys”. They encouraged everyone to call them by their first names, and played down the ritualistic recognition of their office as if such honor paid them were actually due to them as individuals instead of themselves as the priest or bishop. They abandoned leadership in the hope of personal acceptance.

Now of course, if one is a priest one must truly lead. That is the nature of the ministry. If one is a priest and parson (the official “person” in the community as Rev. Sam’s post points out, which I quoted in “Person and Parson”), one is charged with the responsibility to show what Christian discipleship is like—indeed to stand apart. Some of Blessed Sacrament’s newest members who came from traditions without priests see this as a great boon. They treasure the “apartness” of the priest during liturgy as a powerful and authentic part of their new and enriched experience of worship. Yet they want both the apartness and the personal intimacy. Can one have both?

Coming to appreciate the value of love for my parishioners gradually built up in me the downside of the apartness—loneliness. Of course, there were other reasons for that too. My background, personality type, and the shifting of my place in the wider Episcopal Church all contributed to that.

As the years passed and I grew in experience, I came to understand the value of genuine affection and love for one’s parishioners. My blogpost “Hugs and Kisses” is about that. This blogpost I am writing now is my twentieth. Some of my posts have been rather heavy, but “Hugs and Kisses” is still my favorite. That one, I think, reveals the workstyle of my heart more than any other. I really am an emotional person. (In a comment made on another blog about my post “Winner Take Nothing”, someone described me as “a romantic with a mind like a supercomputer”. A bit over the top but still gratifying.)

After about three decades in the priesthood, I realized that, in spite of someone’s best intentions, I had been given inadequate advice about friendship. I concluded that the over-professionalization of the clergy that was common in some circles when I was ordained makes one less effective than one could be, and removes a powerful source of support. No wonder so many other clergy swung too far the other way.

It is indeed an error to abdicate leadership in order to receive personal affirmation, but such abdication is not friendship. Being “over-professional” and not receiving the love and respect and affection of one’s parishioners not only builds wells of isolation and loneliness in the priest, it does not serve the parishioners well either.

Is it possible to be a leader and a friend both? It is. Swing the pendulum but let it stop in the middle. What is right? Naturally, we look to Jesus to find out.

On the same occasion (the Last Supper in John’s Gospel), Jesus said to his disciples, “You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am” (John 13:13) and “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). Both. At the same time.

My stepmother, whose wisdom and encouragement seem to be appearing in this blog more than I anticipated at the beginning (thank you, Barbara!), reminded me recently that Jesus had personal friends: Mary and Martha of Bethany. She hoped that I would find my “own Bethany. A gift from your Savior just for you for such a time as this.”

That made me indeed think more of Mary and Martha. They were opposite sex friends of Jesus who ministered to him intimately. Mary even anointed him. And there was another woman who ministered to Jesus intimately—the woman who washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. And Jesus allowed that ministry to happen even though he knew that the Pharisees who were present would object to it! And normally they would have had good reason to object—it would have been considered unprofessional at best. But Jesus went on to explain to the Pharisees why it was okay, even necessary, for him to have that kind of contact with the woman.

These contacts were not only permitted but recognized as godly, even though in normal circumstances most people would have found them suspect. But Jesus permitted them and defended them because they were right and good and godly. The other people’s consciences had to be educated. That was the course that Jesus took rather than keep the contact with these women from happening. Similarly, when his disciples tried to push the little children away, Jesus rebuked them and called the children to him. Not very professional. Very godly.

The pattern was set in Scripture by Jesus himself. He fully understood boundaries, leadership, friendship, intimacy, and affection. Jesus does not come across to me as a “professional”, but rather as a lover—a lover of all people in whatever circumstance he met them and according to their need. And the way he loved people included letting them love him back, even in personal ways.

When I had a lunch date with a young woman in the parish not too long ago, she said that she had told her friends, “I’m having lunch with my priest.” And she was right. Yet it was not a business lunch, I didn’t wear clerical garb, and it didn’t have any particular purpose other than social—to further friendship, i.e. fun. Yet she spoke rightly—I am indeed her priest and that was never in question. I am also a man, a fellow Christian, and (I trust) one who is growing in friendship. No longer do I separate out these parts of myself, for that is artificial.

In previous blogposts I have mentioned how difficult it is moving boundaries. Now that some time has passed, I realize that moving them wasn’t so hard after all. I haven’t got it down pat yet, but knowing that I haven’t is part of the new insight. Boundaries do not have to be completely defined; trying to do so makes friendship, or any relationship, so rigid that it is almost choked for breath. Though the actual details of a friendship cannot, or at least should not, be completely drawn up, it is quite obvious what the boundaries must exclude. And what is left within the realm of possibility can still be quite intimate and deep.

So moving boundaries was not quite so hard after all. Like many other things, I just had to get used to it. It was like moving into a new house or rearranging furniture; yes, at first it is awkward, even problematic—but before long it becomes comfortable.

As I related in “Hugs and Kisses”, I chose to become an affectionate person, hard and painful and risky as it was, because I believed that doing so would conform me more and more to Jesus. To put it into a sentence, this is all I want in life. So in this case I have chosen to correct the well-intentioned but defective counsel I was given at the beginning of my ministry.

In short, while retaining that love called agape (charity), I have taken on the loves called philia (friendship) and storge (affection), and found that they deepen agape much more than I ever imagined. Wonderful and holy as charity is, it can be rather bloodless without friendship and affection. In fact, without philia and storge, agape is deficient.

I have learned that being so professional was really being selfish and unloving. When I said in the post “Office and Person” that when all I had to offer was myself I had nothing to offer, I was wrong. I have plenty to offer—like every other human being.

I have learned that friendship can cross many lines—gender, age, level of experience, ethnicity, and all the other things that can be in the human family. There is enormous variety of life among the individuals in God’s creation, and those who love find that there is no limitation of true love.

I have learned that one can have “favorites”. Agape is the love we are commanded to have for all, but there may be a few people for whom one need not feel affection, and there are obviously some people more than others that one would want for friends. And one may feel friendship with more intensity for some than with others. It is natural to do so because it is human nature. I suspect it is proper probably even among redeemed humanity. Among the twelve, Jesus had a “beloved” disciple. We are nowhere told what that meant, but clearly it meant something within the perfect love that Jesus showed all of the Twelve, and there is no evidence that the other disciples believed that Jesus played favorites or that they themselves were loved any less.

I have learned that, as one would expect, opening my self up to affection and friendship made me far more vulnerable to others than ever before, and that means that I can suffer heart-pain more than before. And this is good. It is a kind of pain that feels good—like the bite of an icy wind on the cheeks on a brisk early morning walk, or the sting of hot water in a steaming shower after a hard workout. I feel more pain than I did before when someone I love is far away. I have even found that this pain works backwards in time. In a new and deeper way, I now miss people with whom I was friends many years ago and with whom I have lost contact.

Early on in this transformation, I had a great fear of making mistakes because I was afraid of making myself vulnerable and showing need. I was saying to myself, “Okay, I’ll open myself up to people but only as long as it doesn’t hurt. That means I can’t ever allow myself to give them a reason to question or doubt me, to look foolish, or even show anything of my heart that anyone could object to or laugh at.”

So whenever I tried to offer only my self to someone, immediately I felt like a plastic spoon on a formal table full of silverware. Once I got past that and realized that most people were just like me—a little short of confidence and wanting to be liked for themselves—I became a little more at ease. I found that people were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt because they wanted it for themselves and that’s just a normal part of friendship. Give and take. Try, and sometimes fail and sometimes succeed—forgive and be forgiven. In short, you don’t have to be near-perfect to be liked.

In almost every case, when I have offered my self rather than my professionalism, people have responded positively. Almost without exception, they have said that doing so has made me seem “more human”. And they are right, and they find it encouraging. It has encouraged them to put more trust in God who guides us both, and it relieves the pressure people often feel to be perfect. So I learned that even when I offered godly friendship I was still leading, teaching, and encouraging people—almost effortlessly.

Thank you to Kyle Potter, who wrote to me by direct email after I posted “When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong”. He wrote, I look forward to reading more of your work, and seeing how you reflect on being both “priest and friend,” and how one conditions the other.

Here is it, Kyle!

By the way, your blog is outstanding!


Kyle said...

Haha, thank you, Father. And you're welcome. I enjoyed this post. For me and many of my peers who are trying to move away from the "clerical professionalism" of the Christian denominations and engage as men who are also (or would be) priests, these are very encouraging reflections. Leadership in the Christian community ought not by its nature be as intensely isolating as some would have me believe, and it's good to hear otherwise.


Anonymous said...

Hi Fr. David, this is Charity Anderson. I just read your blog for the first time tonight (I am not much of a blog-reader) and really enjoyed this post. On the note of favorites, I have long wondered in what sense John was Jesus' "favorite." Just a few weeks ago someone suggested to me that Jesus actually loved everyone to the same degree, but that what set John apart is that he accepted or understood that love more than the others. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this suggestion. Thanks for being a priest and friend. Charity

Anonymous said...

I'm still musing on many of the same things - tho' not in quite the same way - but this is helpful and encouraging. What I am pondering is how far the vocation - which leads us through surprises to discover who we really are, and therefore makes us more human - is not a matter that requires the externalities to be evident, and the externalities can get in the way (they can be helpful, yes, but I have come to believe that they are prone to distract and obscure precisely that humanity which is at the heart of the vocation).

What I mean is that when I am most relaxed, with friends who have known me for a long time (some of whom knew me when I was militantly anti-Christian!) the priestly side of me cannot but emerge, and even those non-Christian friends recognise it and affirm it. When I am most truly myself, then I am being the priest God calls me to be. The separating out, the exercise of Christian leadership - all these things God will accomplish, and being ourselves - in a non-trivial sense - is how it works.

I suspect that the one giving you that advice had a distorted idea of what friendship was about - becoming 'one of the lads' is a motivation rooted in fear, rather than self-acceptance. (Which is the issue I still struggle with).

BTW have you come across 'Touching the Face of God' by Donna Tiernan Mahoney? It touches on all this. You might find it theologically thin, but it is useful all the same.

robert said...

Nice post..I liked the way u have defined a friendship between human and religion....really nice post!! u can check out my blog too for some exciting stuffs on friendship :)