It Was Fear That I Saw

Photo Thanks to Matthew Wiebe

Photo Thanks to Matthew Wiebe

I’ve seen the look in too many people’s eyes. And I don’t say that as a pin of honor or badge on my lapel. It was a dreadful thing when I first started seeing fear so regularly. There’s nothing like the naked, bold, and startling fear in the eyes of a person who watched the slow-coming death of someone they love. Love makes us hold tightly. Love, often, is the enemy of surrender. And I thought about it when a woman asked me, in a way, about my own loves.

When I first started in ministry at Sweet Holy Spirit, my role was primarily administrative. Aside from some relatively small amount of pastoral care, I functioned the way an executive pastor functions, looking at costs, praying about meeting budget, managing operations, getting to know a staff, decreasing that staff, trying to compensate the staff based upon the unique and faithful expressions of ministry’s vocations. I brought an attorney on retainer, developed relationships with insurance agents, learned about wage demands from the IRS, and became a master at explaining differences between exempt and non-exempt employees.

Being an executive pastor who was in the seat when the pastor was away was more responsibility than I was ready for. It aged me. It still does in a way. And I remember seeing fear in those days. But it was a different fear. It was a fear of missing marks that were mostly set in the wide generous room of a large church. I had my own fears. But in terms of the real fears of others, I was hardly exposed to much. I was the person who kept at the overarching system so that the good folks in our church could come and hear the words spoken. But I hardly had enough time with those folks, those listeners. They would have taught me differently about different fear.

When I came to New Community, I came, in part, because it was twenty times smaller than my home church by my conservative estimate. I would be able to pastor in a classical way, and that vision is one that I’ve been able to live. I’ve been in homes, around tables, having conversations and not just at the office or even in my study at home. I’ve been able to search the lives of others at their leadership and invitation. I’ve seen more fears in the eyes of our people.

And still, my church is “relatively young” church. I find myself over the years putting up three or four fingers when I tell people how many times I’ve visited hospitals for the people of New Community. It’s relatively young, I tell them. People don’t ask the pastor to come to the hospital when a baby is born, and twenty and thirty-somethings don’t generally get hospitalized and require pastoral visitation. Where I preached twelve funerals a year (as part of a staff of ministers) at SHS, I’ve done almost as many weddings during some of my ten years at New Community.  Fear looks differently in those congregational contexts.

When I started working as a chaplain, I started seeing fear differently. In the medical center, I saw it all the time. I see it all the time. I can see it daily if I choose. Unfortunately, there is always somebody (perhaps a somebody in 900+ beds) negotiating with fear.

The good thing about being a chaplain who is also in the supervisory education process is that you’re always doing action, reflection, action. Always working in that CPE model of learning. In fact, you have to stop yourself from doing it. At home, in the congregation, in conversation with people who know nothing about this model of learning. Stop being shaped the education and be. Still, it relates to how you see yourself.

You become a process person, loosening your grip on content and becoming more interested in what’s happening, what’s taking place, what process we’re in, rather than the superficial and low-hanging surface of what’s merely explicit. Process is hardly ever explicit. And fear is the same. You have to see it even though it’s facing you.

That’s why relationships falter because it takes a therapist or a spiritual director or a guide who’s outside the dyad to say, “Hey, what’s happening here?” or “This is what I’m seeing.” or “If you keep in this direction, where are you headed?” These aren’t content statements but process ones.

You begin to see your own fears. You make friends with some of them. You give grace to them, gifting them with new understanding because the words behind and under those fears are understandable. They are real just like the fear.

Estimates of Your Leadership

Skitter PhotoLast month I had the opportunity to visit my mentor and father-friend, Dr. Johnathan Alvarado, on the occasion of his 50th birthday. His wife, Dr. Toni Alvarado, invited a collection of colleagues, parishioners, friends, and extended family to a party. I stayed for the full weekend as we celebrated him. I had the chance to represent those who JEA have mentored over the years—in my case, nearly 25 years.

The weekend and the writing of my reflection ahead of it gave me an opportunity to bring to mind all the things which he’s been to me, to my marriage, and to my family. His (and their) exemplary ethic in the practice of wise, enduring, faithful, intellectually responsive, and Spirit-led ministry mark me in my attempts to do similarly. I’m part of the fruit of his life. I’m part of the estimate of his leadership.

Bishop Alvarado shares me with other people who’ve mentored me. He and they are regular parts of my growth. As I described his impact upon me, I couldn’t help but visit my own ministry, teaching, and service to the world. I couldn’t help but question my own family life when I heard his daughter (their youngest) speaking so lovingly about her dad.

Bishop Alvarado esteems others well, and to participate in a public affirmation of his life was splendid. To review–even in my own life–how his life mattered and how his effort provided a currency for our own development as a person was of double benefit. It underlined my sincere appreciation that he is alive.

Listening to earned tributes has that impact on a person. You hear and you want to emulate what you hear. I want the estimates of my leadership to sound and look and feel like those did in December. I want to be the husband, father, leader, pastor, educator, caregiver, and writer who loves well and is loved well. I want to see the estimates of my leadership as I lead and to count them worthy.

“I’m Still Scared”

The first day or so into my residency I heard my supervisor utter from the corner a response that I scribbled into my calendar. I swipe quotes from people like free gifts, and his words were a little gift to me–a gift I’ve looked at and played with ever since.

We were gathered as interns and residents and going through the initial orientation to life in CPE at Northwestern Memorial. We were just starting our adjustment into life as chaplains at the area’s premier academic medical center. Some of us had never been in a hospital setting for CPE. A few of us had been in 3 or 4 hospitals before to serve as chaplains.

I don’t remember who said they were scared. I couldn’t quote them if I did for the confidences we keep. But I’ll out my supervisor since I won’t name him. The person had said in a sigh that they were afraid, and he said to the comment, “I’m still scared.” We had already heard a bit about how long he’d been in ministry, and his reaction in those three words, together, were a life raft.

It was an immediate frame of vulnerability and risk and strength, his words.  I’ve thought about the many reasons to fear in this ministry.

The ministry of serving others in a congregation brings fears. I know that as a pastor who has served in churches for close to 15 years. The same is true for the role of a chaplain in a medical setting. We should fear. We should name our fears. They are real and they are credible. We could really muck things up.

And, of course, fear isn’t the only feeling in the room. There are other emotions. And all of them, like voices in a chorus, will be heard. Tenors and sopranos and every other important voice needs to be respected as it sings.

I’ve heard the fear with each beep of the pager. I like to tell my colleagues that the 3 to 4AM hour is my golden hour when I’m on-call. I’ve always been paged at that hour for, at least, one trauma. But with each page, with each shift, the fear gets smaller.

I can see how it works now. I know a lot about what will happen. Of course, there is the long spectrum of surprises that comes with any interaction. I don’t know how it will go with that next person who’s in crisis. That’s the beauty of it for me. The beauty of seeing what will be said, seeing how I’ll listen better, seeing how God will move between us.

But the fear part, the part of me that didn’t know what to expect is schooled by these first 4-5 on-call shifts now. I know what it looks like for a response team to descend upon a quiet floor when a patient is “crashing.” I know the frenetic, nervous space filled by firefighters and police officers and nurses while respiratory therapists are working to help a gunshot victim breathe. Those fears are decreasing.

Yes, I’m still afraid. This feels especially true this morning, after the night we’ve witnessed in Missouri. But I’m less afraid. And that feels like a part of the goal for life and for CPE. To be less fearful. To have those fears respected and known but less in control.

I’ll go to the next patient visit with less anxiety. I’ll feel more like myself as I sit with someone whose loved one just slipped away after the ventilator has been removed, after their breath has left their bodies for that final time.

And though, like my supervisor, I’ll still be afraid, I’ll be stronger, and I’ll be more in my skin as a less anxious presence. At least those are my hopes as I finish this on-call shift, as I walk out of the hospital and face the rest.

Nudge Toward Self-Scrutiny

I’m reading Pamela Cooper-White’s book, Shared Wisdom: The Use of Self in Pastoral Care and Counseling. It’s essentially a book about countertransference and it’s good use in the pastoral ministries of care, counseling, and psychotherapy. I grabbed the title as one-to-read at the beginning of my residency and mostly because my previous clinical supervisor in Urban CPE suggested that I continue to explore the notion and practice of “use of self” in my work.

I hadn’t read Cooper-White’s work before I heard that direction from my supervisor. When we started our residency, we were given the option to choose one book to read and review in place of one verbatim. So, I’m reading Shared Wisdom in order to relay what findings I’m seeing and how they relate to chaplaincy in particular and to pastoral ministry in general.

I’m not going to review the book here. I’m 90% through it, but I want to finish it before commenting deeply on its high significance, even for ministers without any real introduction to pastoral care literature, psychodynamic theory, or the variety of approaches to pastoral counseling. The book is a great introduction to all those in my view, though it doesn’t intend to be exhaustive in that introduction.

I want to pull one quote that I think will grab at the book theme and intention. It’s context-less, which I’m generally against, but it does stand on its own and communicates a few things about the total work (It’s from pgs. 173-174):

Not only is none of us immune to the occurrence of unanticipated enactment moments in deep therapeutic work, but I would venture that none of us is immune to at least occasional seductive desires to be the omnipotent healer. While this probably does not constitute an entrenched, predatory charaterological pattern in most practitioners, the very dynamics that often draw individuals to pursue caregiving professions virtually guarantee an intensification of unconscious impulses along a healer-healed axis. Grandiosity may not only appear in the guise of being the special healer of our patients. It may also appear in the form of overestimating our capacity to contain and analyze all the possible meanings that can arise when enactments do occur. As Arnold Goldberg has stated, many enactments may not in and of themselves constitute anything overtly unethical in the moral sense. However, we must acknowledge our limitations in being able adequately to process these enactments and to contain the energies they generate.

Cooper-White is doing a few things here worth capturing:

  1. She reminds us that enactments happen.
  2. She pushes us to question our self-understandings as leaders, particularly of the omnipotent sort.
  3. She says what most don’t know: certain kinds of people go into ministry and we generally have certain impulses.
  4. She uses the word grandiosity which in itself is a nudge (or a wall) worth lingering with.
  5. She writes about limitations and the notion is deeply theological, anthropological, and ethical.

Why Pastors Should Take CPE (1 of 2)

I’ve been writing this post in my head for more than a year. That doesn’t mean it’s good as much as it’s something I’ve been mulling over for a while.  I’m taking a series of units of clinical pastoral education (CPE) at a Chicago hospital.  I took a unit last year at a different site, Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly. And my thoughts are coming out of those experiences as well as loving theft of smarter people who’ve said things about the same.

Here are some random thoughts about the early reasons to take a unit in CPE. My next post will comment on the content and group work in ways that keep the right confidences:

The requirements are minimal. You do need a theological background, so you have to be friends with graduate theological education. But if you’re in the work of that or if it’s behind or under you, the steps to enrolling in CPE are doable. Getting in tends to be an extremely hospitable process, one where you are lovingly and graciously asked significant questions that will in themselves be an education.

The requirements aren’t minimal. In a sense, just by going through the application process, you know that people around the table, in your peer group, have taken the decision to attend very seriously. It takes recommendations and essays and answers to fairly deep questions to get an interview for a site. But you know that everyone has answered, or been pushed to answer, the same strong questions.  Once you start serving in your site and doing group work, you’ve joined a group of people who are generally good at making and staying with commitments.

CPE is a continuing education. Most people are familiar with CPE as part of a seminary education, but because I was working at a church during seminary, I didn’t take a unit in CPE. I didn’t have the time. The beauty of CPE is that you can take it at any point. And pastors need structured continuing education in theological reflection, in pastoral arts, and in group dynamics. The education provides for those.

Choosing gets easier. You have to choose your site, where you want to “do your unit,” where you want to learn. Part of that choice is in your experience of the interview with the potential group leader/clinical supervisor. This person will become either a very poor influence in your life over the months you’re learning or someone you “esteem among rubies.” In my case, my clinical supervisor was a critical reason I kept going forward to get more units. Her way and expertise with teaching us and me were outstanding. You should pray to have a supervisor like Sister Barbara at Urban CPE.

Praying gets harder. If you’re lucky, you’ll sit in a group with people as different from you as a new morning. That alone might shock you into transformation, growth, and learning. All of you being ministers, all of you won’t come from the same ministerial background. Welcome that for what it’ll do to how you approach God. You should find yourself using a broader range of words for God, expanding beyond your well-crafted experience of God, and, thereby, deepening in the way you’ve created that range and that craft. But praying may take longer. You’ll integrate yourself in prayer, listen to feelings and how they make their own prayers, and you’ll be heard differently as you pray for others in the intimate homes of people unfamiliar with your way of doing ministry. You may become a bit more humble.

We need feedback. As a pastor, I spend time telling people what I think, and I spend time helping people reflect on what they think. I needed an education that would come alongside me post-seminary which would enable me to regularly reflect on my practice of ministry and, as importantly, give me feedback. My experience of the pastoral care part of leadership is that you don’t get feedback normally.  Building a vehicle for it was important. Once you go through a group or two, you expect feedback, learn how to hear people, and learn what it feels like to be heard.

Supervision is a gift. Clinical supervision is a weekly meeting with your supervisor, a pastoral educator who has had–by the time they sit with you–years of post-seminary training in listening, group work, paper writing, grief, chaplaincy, and teaching. She’s been to therapy in order to sit with you. He’s been through what you’ve been through at least half a dozen times. So, when you close the door of your meeting room and talk about what you’re learning as you serve in your clinical area, you’re receiving something precious.

The education is somewhat tailored. You develop your goals for CPE. There are common outcomes because the education is accredited through the ACPE. There are standards to meet, but you determine how and whether you meet them. The grading is first very interior because the focus, from application to post-unit evaluation, is on you and what you need. My interview at Northwestern was an inviting time of discernment last summer. The first question they asked me was, “What do you need from us today?” Blew me away.

Pastors doing process notes change. Ministers do a lot and we could even do more than we think. In other words, we could do what we do and not think. Process notes are an essential part of CPE where you write weekly reflections to 5-6 questions. You write out of your experience at your site, thinking through what you’re doing, interrogating your experience. Over time, you read your notes, see your growth, and you change. You add the language of the noted question to yourself and begin to monitor whether an interaction is illuminating. If your supervisor comments on your notes, it’s increases the amount of wisdom you’re gaining.

We start asking better questions. On my current process notes template, our supervisor has this question, “Where did you meet God this week?” Can you imagine answering that weekly for yourself? Before you lead a meeting or close the study door or leave for your Sabbath or give a benediction or counsel someone, knowing that that question is waiting for you is framing and powerful and internally shaping. When we asked good questions, it turns us into good questioners.

Conversation with Eugene Peterson & Correctives to Pastoral Job Descriptions

One of my favorite people is Eugene Peterson.  He’s up there with Howard Thurman, Gardner C. Taylor, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Henry Nouwen in terms of heroes.  In this video he talks about being a pastor.  If this is meaningful to you, you should certainly read Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor.

Monday Considerations, Pastoral Routines, & Soul Junk

Monday has been my off day for years, ever since I started working in a church, with the long exception of having to be on-call at Sweet Holy Spirit for administrative matters.  Back then, it wasn’t strange to get a minutes long call from our accountant or from a co-worker that changed the direction of the week.  Those Mondays are distant, though I hardly forget them.

Usually by Monday, since Sunday is traditionally a longer work day for pastors, I’ve lived through the equivalent of a work week with the compressed emotions of half a second one.  There has been the previous week itself.  It will bring with it conversations that stop me, meetings that unsettle me, group chats where someone is inevitably struggling with faith, offered counsel that helps or hurts people, conflicts left open for too long.  There are projections about the future of the church, potential partnerships or courses of action.  Quiet is seldom found without effort.  There is the loneliness that feels like a heavy blanket in summer.  There is the balancing of my own soul.

By Monday, my sleep has been disturbed for a few days in a row, dealing both with the expectation of Sunday and all that it brings and the throbbing exhaustion that comes afterward.  Sleep will catch up to me by the next day usually, but when Monday comes, I’m somewhere in the middle of looking at the day for the deep breath it will bring and planning for the week, even though I’m trying not to plan.  The busy tapping of my phone tells me that there is an email or a text.  I check it, only to see if it’s from someone whose text I actually read on Mondays, a tiny list of loved ones whose requests are of a slightly different order.

On Mondays I do much less.  Sometimes I fall into the mode of catching up with things at my address.  There are errands to run for myself.  Things Dawn has asked me to do.  There is laundry and dishes and remnants from the previous night’s dinner, and all the things in everyone else’s home.  There is the smell of urine that comes from the place where my son tossed his pajamas that morning, and the sneaky feeling that I’ll never stop cleaning the tile and washing the sheets, that I’ll go to work smelling of my boy’s liquids.  I remember the conversation about reintroducing pull ups for the overnight shift, and I feel that aching familiar feeling of failure that never totally leaves.  It’s one of those reminders in my life that I need grace.

For a long time I think about meaningful moments from the previous week.  And I try to think about nothing at all.  But I’m not successful.  There is the crammed calendar and the list of things.  This week there is one more sermon in the current series.  There are the big anchors of the upcoming message rolling around in my head and falling to my feet.  There is the nagging persistence that what I preach matters and doesn’t.  There is the slow, night-time work of an assignment due before the end of next week.  There is the upward and onward motion of not wanting to stop and the competing better desire to quit for a bit.

Quitting for a bit is the point of Monday.  But it is hard to do.  Leaving my moleskin at home and walking.  Picking up a book of poems and heading to the Point.  Exercising with no thought or nobody’s question or open conversation rattling for resolution.  Eating a recreative-for-me meal that someone has prepared.  Laughing with my friends or someone who for a moment is in my life for that sole purpose.

The anticipation of tomorrow is brutal on the soul.  Not just mine.  Not just a minister’s.  But everyone’s soul.  Thinking ahead into the next day, into the next post-Sabbath, into the second day of the week, is theft.  Planning ahead is robbery.  It’s sinister because we both believe it must be done and are so good at it.  Good at leaving now for later.  Good at staying nowhere for long.  Never being present.  Never reaching future.

It seems to me that it’s underneath most of the layers of our junk.  Yet it’s also over the basic simplicity of our souls this movement ahead.  But there are springs that come up through the layers.  Springs: those people who ask a simple question and wait for a response.  Springs are those messages that come from the lips of angels, the ones that stop your breath for a moment and help you appreciate the moment because it almost took you.  These are the things I need to consider on Mondays.  God, help me, especially since it’s Tuesday and the next Monday feels like a year away.

Leadership’s Interview With Gardner C. Taylor

Our interview with Dr. Gardner C. Taylor is in the Fall edition of Leadership Journal.  I reflected a few times on the conversation in July.  I imagine I’d like to revisit the experience again, in a bit, now that the Journal has printed a portion of the time we spent with this preaching hero.

It looks like a little less than half of our questions and his answers were able to be printed.  That means I walked away from that conversation with more gifts than I thought!  I have his melodious tone in my ears talking about things that can feel a little like secret wisdoms given to me and Marshall Shelley, the Journal’s editor.

Leadership hasn’t put the interview online yet.  I won’t attempt to reprint it either.  You should subscribe if you’re interested because, well, you can’t have my copy.

I will offer you two glances here from the interview.

Have you faced different struggles during different phases of your life?  I think they’re mostly the same struggles.  They just get recycled.  At root they are the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life.  Everyone experiences them, though some people seem not to.  I think though, that people who do not have these struggles miss something.  They may be “innocent,” but they miss something.  Like that old hymn says:

Sure I must fight if I world reign;

Increase my courage, Lord.

I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,

Supported by Thy Word.

I sang those things in my childhood.  I didn’t know what the song was talking about then, but I think I know now.

Sometimes I envy people who are free of that struggle.  But to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I would want to be one of them.

And another, after Rev. Taylor had said something about being aware that we are strangers and pilgrims, not exactly home.  Re-reading this took me back to the deep stare in his eyes as he looked beyond us.  I wondered what he saw.

Tell us what you mean by “home.”  All in all, life’s a great experience.  But by faith we believe there’s a better one.  It’s hard to imagine what it can be like.  At the point I have reached, one ponders more and more what it’s like.  It does not yet appear.  But this we know, the Bible says, that “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

Those are tremendous things to wrestle with.  Not too much for the human mind to ponder, but too much for it to have.  I cannot picture this.  The best I can do is try and understand the crude symbolism that we’re given.  Our home will be far richer, far finer than anything we can think of.  The maker of that home is God.

Otis Moss Jr Giving Words To Live By

This is a quote from a collection of sermons, Preaching With Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present, which my coworker Nina mentioned to me a couple months ago.  I love love love this anthology.  In this brief portion, Pastor Moss, whom I’m thrilled to say I met in Oxford a few years ago, is talking about the role of the preacher as a prophetic voice.  The sermon is entitled “A Prophetic Witness In An Anti-Prophetic Age,” reflects on Isaiah 61:1, and was delivered in February 2004.  Here are three paragraphs:

…What a sermon!  Have you ever preached a sermon shorter than your text?  And then they engaged in a brief dialogue.  I think it was after the sermon.  And he started talking about some things.  And before the dialogue was over, we would call it a fellowship, he almost got killed just talking about the sermon.

How often have our lives, as representatives of the gospel of Jesus Christ, been threatened for having dialogue about the sermon we had just delivered?  We are not in particular danger because we have too often adjusted to this anti-prophetic age.  There is no danger in the sermons we preach, no challenge, and no threat to anybody in particular.

But Jesus almost got killed on his first public sermon–perhaps, his first public sermon.  And let me say, we ought to remember that the community, the world does not like prophets, and neither does the church.  The world does not like prophets.  Prophets disturb us.  They shake us out of our dogmatic slumber.  So we prefer comfort to commitment.  The world does not like prophets.  Prophets override our creeds and our half-truths.  Prophets expose our injustices and our contradictions and put to shame our mediocrity.  The world does not like prophets and the church often refuses to celebrate them.

Why Don’t Pastors Tell People Who To Marry

If you’ve read a few posts on this blog, you may know that I’m in the midst of wedding season.  I’m officiating weddings this summer.  A lot of them.  So many, in fact, that in my spare time, I’m giving my energies to the rest of what it means to be a staff pastor at a church, an adjunct faculty member at a seminary in an intensive class, and a cab driver and chief entertainer for my son.

When you look at my schedule, it almost looks like most of what I do is weddings.  Thus far I’ve had one in the chapel at NU, one on a boat, and one in a rose garden.  Later, this year I know I’m going back to Alice Milar, maybe twice.  I have three more in front of me.  I’m toying with the idea of learning to play the guitar and making a full-fledged business out of it.  I could sing, open the ceremony, charge the couple, and lead the vows in 30 minutes or less!  I could offer a package.  I know a great photographer.  I could ask some capable videographers to go in on the work, too.

Uh, I’m kidding.  I don’t officiate everybody’s wedding, despite my schedule.  I’ve pointed to my thoughts behind my pastoral practice in this post here.

The other day I met with one of the couples for whom I’ll officiate in August.  The groom-to-be asked me an interesting question.  We were talking about discernment, my word for decision-making.  I had asked my two questions for the first premarital session.  He was answering the first question.  And in his answer he asked, in other words, why pastors weren’t forthcoming with helpful feedback or wisdom when it came to a guy deciding to marry.  When a guy wanted to know if this girl was the right one to marry, would a pastor be helpful?  I loved the question.

My response to him was only slightly satisfying to me.  It was even less satisfying to him, I think.  And I’d be interested to know if you had any feedback.  I told him that the decision to marry was a narrow decision inside a larger–what word did I say? I can’t remember, so I’ll make another up–world of decisions.   Pastors are concerned with helping people develop the overall ability to pay attention to scripture (since that is our primary text), more appropriately to attend to the God of the scripture, and to connect the story of scripture with the stories of our lives (since the lives of people are our secondary texts, if you will).

I told him that our roles in people’s ears was to say over and over, “Are you submitted to God?  If you are, your decisions will reflect that, including the decisions about who to marry.”  I told him that when we’re submitted to God, it doesn’t matter, the particular question.  I told him that pastors do our best work when we stay a little distant from the questions about this job or that job, about this relationship or that relationship.

Of course there are flags to respect.  Wisdom and experience leave pastors and ministers with some tools and abilities that we must honor and offer when obvious.  But offering my experience is a slippery slope if someone could mistake what Pastor Michael said with what God said.  That happens.  And it’s a slight move, in some people’s lives, to go from “I had my doubts about this person and when the pastor said to stay or leave them, that’s what I did” and “Since the pastor thinks this, it must be what God wants.”  So here are a few reasons why pastors don’t tell people who to marry.

  1. People are grown.  A friend of mine asked me if I took the weight of marriages on my shoulders.  I told him no.  I told him that I didn’t for the same reasons that I didn’t take the decision for a couple to marry on my shoulders: those people are grown.  Sure, I told him, I have a responsibility to care, to offer biblical and theological tools, to connect dots, to point out potential concerns.  But the couple is grown.  And, in the words of a seasoned pastor, grown people do what grown people do.
  2. We respect the decisions couples make.  We should.  Yes, we should “check” those decisions when needed, but we should still respect the agency of the men and women in our churches.  We are pastors, not police officers.  Well, there is an example or two where a pastor (one of my mentors) will look at a guy’s credit report and say to his intended, “Don’t you dare marry this guy.”  Indeed, we are shepherds and spiritual leaders, and our role, in part, is to ensure that our couples have a sense of what marriage will bring, an understanding of the covenant of marriage, language for what scripture and tradition says of the relationship, and community to challenge, support and love them through their transition as a couple.  That means that it is a couple’s solemn responsibility to choose, to decide, and to do so every day after a marriage ceremony.  We don’t just choose when we pop the question.  We choose when we wake up every morning next to the same person, when we come home daily, when we’re present and committed.
  3. Pastors aren’t that smart.  One of my favorite researchers in marital literature is John Gottman.  I first made his acquaintance through the text in James Cordova’s psychology of couples and intimacy course at Illinois.  Dr. Gottman can predict divorce.  He’s a 30-year veteran of marriage, relationships, and psychology, and he can predict divorce after watching an interaction with a couple.  But pastors are pastors.  We aren’t John Gottman.  We aren’t psychics, not that Gottman is.  We aren’t future tellers.  Most aren’t at least.  So why would we set ourselves up to be someone we aren’t?  To misrepresent ourselves and our work?  Our work is not to identify the couples that will last or to only marry the good ones.  Our assumption and approach is that every couple will honor their vows, living together in faithfulness to those sacred words, for life.  And there are no good ones if the Gospel is true.  All of us are incompatible, and that’s how grace becomes essential to life.  But we can’t predict tomorrow.  That’s why we are professional people of faith.
  4. Pastors aren’t supposed to make matches.  We get in trouble when we do.  People break up, before the altar and after the altar.  It’s a sad truth, but it is real.  And if a pastor steps in the business of suggesting who is a good fit for you, that pastor is inviting a problem.  He or she is doing something that is best done by the people who watch your life closely.  In most churches, that’s a small group of people, a circle of friends, a ministry group, not the pastoral leader.  As a rule, introduce your pastor to the person after you’ve come to some sense of determination.  That’ll relieve us.  We don’t want to decide for you.  Now, we might not mind taking the credit for your relationship 20 years down the road.  And even then, we’re telling ourselves that your relationship was not in our hands.  Our lives as leaders should be daily reminders to ourselves and to our congregations that our lives and our relationships are in Someone else’s hands.  That doesn’t mean, though, that pastors can’t be in the business of weddings after the couples have matched.  We can sing at weddings.  So if you hear that I’ve started guitar…

Pastoral Suspension

My friend, Winfield, was in town this weekend.  He was set to preach for youth day at the faith community of St. Sabina.  But Father Mike, St. Sabina’ s pastor was suspended last week from pastoral responsibility.  And when the cardinal sent over the substitute for Father Mike, the expectation for Sunday’s homilist was changed as well.  Instead of preaching, Winfield met with family to discuss an upcoming reunion and with a circle of friends for pizza.  He spoke briefly to some of the folks at St. Sabina; that was it.

I’m told that in general it’s not acceptable for non-Catholics to preach in Catholic churches.  There must be wiggle room because St. Sabina has a long history of non-Catholic preachers preaching on Sundays.  In fact, another church on the south side has the same.  I preached at St. Ailbe’s mass once a couple years ago as has other folks I know.  Nonetheless, Winfield was politely uninvited for his spot this weekend.  The media showed up.  Thousands of faithful members from St. Sabina came as well, of course.  I wasn’t there.  I was at my own church.  I haven’t spoken with friends from the faith community about being in church without the pastor.  But I can imagine some of the mixed feelings which were likely running through the place on Sunday.

The suspension of Father Pfleger became a, perhaps, unsurprising spectacle over the last few weeks.  I know that the cardinal was taking care to work through another round of decisions concerning St. Sabina and, more specifically, Father Pfleger’s role as pastor of the church.  Even in the letter Cardinal George publicized, you can hear his intention, some of the process, and, of course, his decision.  We’ve been around this block before when the priest was suspended last time.  The community’s support for him was large and wide–“community” here means his church, Auburn-Gresham (the neighborhood), and a host of others who are familiar and impacted by the work of Father Pfleger and St. Sabina.

I know that the people in and around St. Sabina has many feelings when it comes to their pastor.  I have them.  I grew up listening to Father Mike from time to time.  When the Soul Children rehearsed in the church’s fellowship hall, we came up greeting him, hearing devotionals and lessons from him, being prayed over by him.  I watched and participated in many services at St. Sabina and personally witnessed and was impacted by an exceptional priest who has served longer in one place than, I’m sure, the overwhelming majority of Catholic priests in Chicago.  I have reflected as a Protestant pastor and come to more questions but much less clarity on the number of concerns wrapped up in being a part of a black neighborhood that was, for all practical purposes, forgotten by Catholics before a great leader committed to it thirty years ago.

Have you ever been a part of a pastoral suspension?  Are you familiar with some of the pain involved?  Anything to add?