Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Pastor Trap

I think one of the biggest challenges of being a pastor is being there for your parishioners in a way that fulfills their needs, not necessarily our needs.

Now depending on how you read that sentence you either elicited a "duh." or a "wha?" - here is what I mean on a larger scale:

Parishioner Couple have been in a car accident and Spouse A is having emergency surgey. The pastor waltzes in, storms towards Spouse B, hugs, reads Scripture, begins to pray fervently and loudly for the well-being of Spouse A. At first glance this might not seem too bad, but is this what Spouse B needs and wants at this time? Maybe Spouse B just wants to know you are there. Maybe Spouse B needs someone to pick up the children. Maybe Spouse B needs a little space.

The question the pastor needs to ask themselves is: Am I doing these actions because it makes me feel needed, feel like a better person/pastor, look like I am doing my job...
or am I doing these things because that is what Spouse B needs at this time?

Here is another example on a smaller scale. If a parishioner is going into the hospital for surgery I always ask them if they would like me to come in and pray with them before they go in. Some say no. Why? Some would rather not be seen in that flimsy gown... some would rather not be seen 'in that state'... some who come from a different religious background equate a preacher's presence in the hospital to the giving of last rites and understandably want nothing to do with that!

God hears my prayers for them from home just as well as God would from the hospital, so if I force my presence on them is it for their benefit... or for mine?

Recently a well-respected and beloved minister in the Presbyterian church in a nearby town died suddenly and unexpectedly. The Memorial service was not until a few weeks later in order to get arrangements made... including travel arrangements for the many people she had touched from all over the world.

I had maybe spoken with her three times and was about to begin some committee work with her but at the point of her death 'acquaintance' was definitely how you would describe the relationship.

So, you go to the service to show your respect for her and her family, right? Well, I really struggled with this. Was I going for me (colleagues see me pay respects, able to remark on service in get togethers with others, etc...) or was I going for her and her family (respects). I knew it was going to be VERY full; should I - who barely knew her - take the seat of someone who needed that opportunity to grieve their friend?

When I told my friends of my struggles they understood; when I opened up this can of worms to a fellow colleague - only because she overheard me - she looked at me with total disgust. (She by the way immediately called the widower when she heard the news despite the fact that she is only their acquaintance as well. I mean really, who was she doing that for, him, or her own need to be there in an emergency to make her feel like a better pastor?)

I know I have an issue with cynicism. And I admit that definitely comes into play when I judge the actions of others (pretty sure you are NOT supposed to do that). However, when it comes to my own actions it is not cyncism as much as the desire to be genuine.

By the way, I did go to the Memorial Service to pay my respects. We sat in the third overflow area and watched it on the big screen. It really was a beautiful service... oh yeah, and it was 1 hour, 59 minutes, and 4 seconds (I couldn't resist).


Songbird said...

Okay, I can't take these all on right this minute, have to get The Princess to school, but here's my take on the funeral for a colleague. You go. You go. You go. It doesn't matter how well you knew the person. Someone is telling the family how many clergy showed up, and they are taking it as a mark of respect for their loved one. Believe me, I know this from the backlash after not many clergy showed up for such a funeral here. It was at a terrible time of day, and no one dared tell the daughter for some reason, and she was infuriated by the lack of respect for her 95-year-old mother, who had been in active ministry for 70 years, almost until her death. Did I know her well? We were once on a committee together, and she laid hands on me at my ordination. Did I know the daughter? No. But I think you can file this one under Professional Courtesy.
I'll be back later to talk about the other stuff. Good questions.

will smama said...

Songbird -
Can't wait until you come back.

Please remember...
1) I did go.

2) I went for the reasons you stated - professional courtesy. Also, to show my respect for her and her impactful life on ministry and in the community.

3) I also went to support my friend who was a lot closer to her than I was.

If there was any doubt of how many people would have been there I would not have even given it a second thought. In this case, I knew it would be overwhelmingly packed and who was I to take the seat of someone who needed that seat to grieve?

My point is only that clergy have to be especially aware because the gifts that make us so accessible and so good at our jobs can also get in the way of genuine ministry.

We have to constantly ask ourselves, "Am I doing this for them? Or am I doing this for me?"

In the case of the colleague's funeral, no matter how packed, I was going for them... and that I agree - is the appropriate response.

Songbird said...

Sorry,I was rushing and sounded critical. The repeated "You go" was as much for me as for you, because I regret missing that funeral. It was at 4 on a Sunday afternoon, the time our Association usually meets for events, and it was September, and people had previously scheduled youth kickoffs, and I don't remember what I had, but it was something. Meanwhile, the daughter (60ish) was imagining the kind of procession of clergy you usually see at an ordination. As it was, the word went out late about the procession, so half the clergy in attendance didn't know they were expected to robe and didn't process. What a debacle!

On the hospital scenario, there are so many different ways to handle that, I guess it depends on how *you* understand the parishioner's understanding of the pastoral role. Does that make sense? I agree, my retired Catholics associate prayer before surgery with death. I don't go in the morning of and try to see them beforehand for the following reasons:
1) Very few people are admitted to a bed before surgery anymore these days, so it's hard to find them and i don't want to get in the way of the pre-surgical stuff going on, having been on the mother of a patient side of that interaction.
2) I think some pastors who do a lot of that love the drama of whisking in to the hospital.
3) I love the drama of whisking into the hospital, so I try to manage myself.
4) I agree with your point that prayers count wherever they are prayed, and it gets to be a lot like voodoo when we don't remember that.
5) I think you are doing the right thing by asking.
6) And on a side note, if they're going in early in the morning, I'm getting kids ready for school and unlikely to be available. I would go out for a death at that time of day, but that's about it. My backup systems don't allow for anything else.

For the partner of a person injured in an accident, I agree that triage or needs assessment is the first thing to do. Hug first, ask questions second, listen third, pray whenever, hold onto scripture for later. How does that sound? Reading of scripture seems to feel like a deathbed thing to New England Congregationalists, so I don't jump right to it.

Good, good questions, will smama.

apstraight said...

Very good questions. Yes, you go (you went). And maybe the motives aren't all that easy to discern- sometimes they are just muddy and I do the best I can and hope that it will be sorted later. I use the "will I be sorry later" test.

I struggle with how quickly I respond sometimes. I have asked time and again for the church to compensate me at a level that will allow my husband to stay at home with our child. They don't. Which means that I have to be home with her at specific times (not some horrible chore). But you can't rush to the hospital with a two year old. And so I'm not really on call 24/7.... I have to say no sometimes...

And I absolutley agree that the right response isn't always rushing in. I'll never forget the time I got a call at 5:00 in the morning telling me a member had passed away. His wife wanted me to know, but she also didn't want me to come right over- later that morning would be fine. And it was.

Thanks for asking the questions...

cheesehead said...

Yes, very good questions. And timely too!

Yesterday I had three hospital admissions all in one morning. One was the 7 year old son of my office admin, oenw as a 90 year old for dehydration, and one was for a 55-year-old who had his hip replaced for the second time since I've been here. (Actually he was admitted on Monday, but the wife didn't let anyone know until Tuesday.)

I knew tht the 7 y.o. was a must-visit, so I did that even before coming in to the office. I'm very glad I did. I ran into the wife of a gentleman who was there to have radiation for prostate cancer--a fact that she did not tell me until pressed in the hospital cafeteria!

I called the 55 y.o. and he very nicely declined a visit. I was happy to oblige him. No driving n extra 40 miles round trip to the next county to see him freed me up to see the 90 y.o.

We're all just doing the best we can...

Quotidian Grace said...

My husband always makes a point of attending every funeral or memorial service at our church that he can. He believes that people always appreciate the gesture--particularly when there are few attending the service--and that it is important to the life of the church community. I agree with him. I'm glad you went.

Sally said...

Yes deffinetly to the memorial service- though like you I struggle with issues of motive!

As to the hospital visiting- here is my experience last year, my experience of being the relative not the minister!!!

My 20 year old son underwent major heart surgery- he was born with severe congential heart defects and hospital has been a part of life...the scheduled op was for an 8 hr surgery, complications made it a 12 hr one.

He spent 6 weeks inintensive care, 3 weeks struggling for life, at one point he was hooked up to a ventilator and kidney dyalisis, along with 15 lines of drugs ...

My Superintendent came to visit, he behaved in a most perculiar manner- he quized me on the drugs and machinery, he then decided to read the Bible to Chris who was completely out of it...he prayed loudly....I was furious, at that point after almost 3 weeks in hospital sitting next to my sons bedside I needed a friend, not a minister, or a boss...I needed a coffee in the cafeteria and someone who would talk about ordinary things. People with loved ones in hospital with really serious stuff need us to be human and compassionate first and professional clergy second.

Most people in hospital are just grateful to see a friendly face...I believe we should offer to pray before we leave, but we should never force prayer, or asume the you say we can pray from afar...we can pray as we talk...

I believe you would do the right thing if only because you are so aware of the possibility of doing the wrong thing...!

will smama said...

Thank you Sally. You said it far more eloquently than I did.

see-through faith said...

I hear you sis :)

These are timely questions as our pastor died and was buried just before Christmas. I still grieve the absence of someone who I feel should have been there 'no matter what'. I suspect the family is more forgiving than I am.

I have much to learn.

Bad Alice said...

You are so right about asking people in crisis what they need rather than just flying through with prayers and assurances. I'm so grateful for the pastor who arranged for folks to visit us with meals after Firecracker's hair-raising birth. And the pastor we barely knew at a church we had only been to a few times who showed up with a check for our rent when we hit an unexpected financial calamity.

I would definitely want a pastor who thinks like you.

Kathryn said...

Oouch....I've been pondering alot of this recently...Thank you for raising it here, and eliciting such a wonderful collection of responses.Not much to add really,except that it's a huge issue for me at the I too seduced by image of caring pastor K? or am I actually meeting needs/expectations as I do so? Feel a little like the centipede found lying in the ditch counting his legs...and trying to decide which one to move first...could too easily get paralysed by anxiety as to motives. God knows they are questionable, but He also knows that my sincere underlying desire is to please Him...So He'll maybe have to square the circle for me.
Sorry. Rambling...

the reverend mommy said...

I'm late into the conversation -- but yes, you go, if at all possible. The only time you don't go is if you can't without it being detrimental to your own family unit.

Besides, I go to take notes. (how's that for cynical!) You go to practice the ministry of presence. You never know who will be at that Funeral/Wedding/other event that will be a serendipidous (spelling?) meeting. (A God Thing)

The hospital visits -- that's a real judgement call sometimes. If it's one of "my people" (the ones that fall under my care), I go. Sometimes for the person in the hospital, sometimes for the caretakers. It's sometimes the caretakers that will be under so very much stress -- again, nothing but the ministry of presence.

The hard ones for me are the ones I am assigned to by the Sr. Pastor as a "cold-call" -- someone who has either requested a pastoral visit in the hospital or whose caretaker has asked for a visit. Without previous relationship, it's hard -- hard to build relationship AND give care.

Our church has a culture of care -- it is one of the core values that everyone who has surgery will be visited by the pastoral staff. We are there to just visit and offer an ear. We are not there to thump the Bible -- just to BE there. You develop a sense of who wants you there -- who finds it a comfort and who would rather be left alone. For the former, you visit. For the latter, you leave a business card with your phone number.

I haven't felt that feeling of "am I here for you or am I here to be seen?" in a while for some reason. Only when it's an activity I'm not particularly comfortable with myself. For instance, I had someone request extreme unction. I felt self-conscious and weird.

And I realize that my main role at a surgery is with the persons in the waiting room, not the one in the operating room.