I remember a television show or movie I saw when I was a teenager about a young fellow who had been misdiagnosed as retarded when he was a child, and his parents had put him into an institution as hopelessly incurable. Ten or more years later, when his family was long out of the picture, somehow someone discovered that he was, in fact, normal. A group of people immediately formed that was dedicated to teaching him to lead a normal life—how to read, how to engage people socially, how to manage finances. Gradually he became employable and then he moved out of a care center into his own apartment. The people in the group assisted him, monitored him, and mentored him as he learned.
Then one day, at a point toward the end of the movie, someone from the group went to his apartment and learned that he had moved without leaving a forwarding address. I can still recall how upset I was that the fellow had shown such bald-faced lack of gratitude, and felt that the movie had ended poorly—had even “tricked” me by not providing the good ending it had implied all along.
But then the last scene of the movie showed his mentors discussing what had happened, and they concluded that his departure was the final proof of his healing and the guarantee of his independence. They knew that as long as he remained “friends” with them, their connection was a constant reminder to him, and to the members of the group, that he was not yet fully able to be responsible for his own life. They recognized that the young man had to leave them behind, and they were gratified and pleased that they had been successful.
The ending impacted me powerfully. Years later, when I became an experienced priest and pastor, it helped me to understand when situations like this happened to me in real life. Several times over the years I have spent many, many hours with certain individuals to bring them out of terrible life situations into a place of healing, and then seen them move from gratitude and devotion to distance and finally rudeness and even contempt for me before they disappeared without a word. Yet I knew that I was the one who had changed their lives dramatically. (I know, of course, that it was God working through me, but there was still a lot of “me” that was spent in the process. This is how God works.)
Such endings to pastoral ministry are by no means inevitable. They happen only rarely, but when they do they are always very hard on me. I must remember that I am not truly called to be a “friend” in the commonly understood sense to the people whom I help. For a few people, for their healing to be complete, they need me to be gone from their lives.
Still, I am greatly moved by God’s own anguish over this reality. The first time I read these words from Hosea, I was moved to tears: “The more I called them, the more they went from me. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them” (Hosea 11:2-3). To be sure, in this case it is rebellion, not growth into independence, but the impact on the one who is rejected must be about the same.
I do recognize my own personal desire for friendship, to be enjoyed as a person, to be wanted as an individual. On this blog I have posted a number of items on this theme—how to connect personally with the people to whom I minister professionally, to whom I am first of all a “symbol” rather than a person. I have concluded that the “over-professional” model of priesthood I was trained with was insufficient, and that having some personal elements of myself come out into ministry was not only possible but would be good, and that many of the younger generation of my parishioners might even prefer it.
Now I am not so sure. Maybe it is possible and even desirable, but I have not learned the secret yet. I blogged about how Jesus was called “Lord” and could still call the disciples “friends”. Yet certainly that was a special case.
So recently I have thought about Saint Paul. Maybe that’s a better example. Paul was strict about his standards and demands for the congregations he had founded or over which he had some authority. It is also abundantly evident that he was lavish in his loving. He loved deeply and gave himself fully—yet there isn’t much evidence I can see in the New Testament that he had friends. To be sure, he had colleagues, and he was respected in many places, and there were occasions when congregations sent him gifts and expressed concern for him, and he was grateful for that. But wonderful and moving as these connections were, they were all “professional”; I see maybe nowhere where Paul was truly loved as a person. “Luke alone is with me,” he wrote in 2 Timothy 4:11— in Paul’s last epistle before his execution, one of the most heartbreaking lines in the New Testament.
And yet... there is Paul’s long farewell address to the elders of Ephesus with exhortations, warnings, etc. This is in Acts 20:17-35. In the middle of the address, coming across almost as a casual comment, was his declaration that they would see his face no more. Yet when he had finished speaking and knelt down to pray with the elders, it was this declaration that had impacted them most, and for which they wept (Acts 20:38). Did these elders actually care for Paul as a person? Did he know it, if they did? Though I had read this passage a number of times over the years, I still remember the first time it walloped me personally.
Do I give the impression that I don’t really want people to get too close? Do I really shut people out? Do they feel unwelcome beyond a certain level of intimacy? It could be. I don’t know whether this failure to be able to be friends is part of the authentic ministry of a pastor—at least a senior pastor who sets the standards and sometimes makes unpopular decisions—or a part of my personality. It really doesn’t matter which it is, because either way, or both, it is my experience.
Someone said to me once that this is not unique to me, by any means. It is, in fact, the human experience, common to us all: we all want to love and be loved beyond our ability to give and be given to. It just looks a little different in each person, depending on the circumstances of the person’s life. Looked at in that way, the experience is really one of desiring the fullness of a kingdom we have not yet attained. We can therefore be filled with the sure hope of the joy to come.
In the meantime, if this is the cross I must bear to be effective as a pastor, or even just as a human being who happens to be a pastor, then I must bear it. There is no other option anyway, except complete failure in pastoring and I will not choose that way. When I have sought solace and companionship from parishioners, it has almost always soured or failed somewhere. I don’t think it’s because I have no skill in friendship, since I do have successful and long-term friendships outside the Church.
Once not long ago there was a member of the parish who said that she was able to walk through my walls effortlessly, and we grew a mutually satisfying friendship without any compromise of pastoral authority. It amazed and delighted me that doing so was indeed possible! It was at her inspiration that I posted some of the early blogposts on this theme. But one day even she disappeared, giving me almost no notice or explanation. I concluded that I had indeed been more of a “symbol” to her than a person, and that she was working out some of her own issues in our relationship and got to the point when, for her own sake, she needed to disappear. I am sure that she didn’t intend it that way or even recognize it, but it seems likely to be true, and the sudden undeserved loss of friendship grieves me just the same.
It is not just that I make mistakes, because that is to be expected. I have not failed morally nor sinned greatly with anyone. I have let people down, but everyone lets people down at one time or another. I don’t think that it is usually a reason to cut off a relationship—yet too often it seems to be so. I have just not figured out how to receive or cultivate godly friendship without relinquishing my pastorship. I am ready to conclude that it really isn’t possible, and that God doesn’t even want it to be that way.
It was like that for Jeremiah. He loved God and the people of God deeply, and was greatly revered long after he died—but in his own lifetime, he was respected only by a few and opposed by most. It appears that he was certainly without personal connections. To be in this state was his calling, and this is why God made him to be an “iron pillar” (Jeremiah 1:18). The account in which the Lord said that he would provide this strength was in the first chapter of the book, before Jeremiah had even begun his public ministry. There were times he hated that calling and the conditions in which he had to exercise it and he tried to quit, but couldn’t. His love of God and his people and his dedication to duty would not permit it. He kept going.
My heart has been profoundly affected by the many young people who have come into the parish in the past seven years, and that time has seen a powerful deepening of charity and service within the entire congregation. As the parish has changed, I also have been greatly opened and warmed, and become more willing to be vulnerable. The dynamic of pastoring has changed enormously in these years, and that has raised these issues of “friendship” within the ministry of being a pastor. It is amazing and surprising to me that as the love in the parish has grown and transformed many people, it is necessary that I should remain somewhat isolated from it for it to take place. Perhaps this is how it must be. It seems to have been so for Jeremiah and for Paul.
Yet the elders of Ephesus wept when Paul finally left them for the last time. I wonder if Paul understood their tears. Luke, who alone was with Paul before his execution and who wrote about the elders’ tears, clearly understood. Was the elders’ affection shown to Paul when he was ministering to them? Did Paul himself understand their tears when he was leaving them? Was he surprised by them? We are told nothing about that. I wonder.