22T4D:: ::D:D:D:P=/Setting the Boundaries

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Charlotte County
Setting the Boundaries
November 7th, 1993 Rev. Sam Trumbore

Almost three weeks ago I attended the Florida U.U. Ministers Association's fall meeting. U.U. ministers have these meetings to take a break from our busy schedules to share news, stories and impressions. Through our time together we gain new insights and ideas about how to better serve this labor of love called ministry. Our topic for this meeting was a workshop on sexual abuse suggested for all UUMA chapters. It's a hot topic these days as priests are accused by former altar boys and Bible thumpers are caught with their pants down. Those of us called to holy position have been discovered in some very unholy ones. The issue broke open for U.U.'s several years ago when one of our well known ministers, Tony Perrino, was accused of having sex with several of his parishioners while he was in a counseling relationship with them. He was later removed from fellowship as an U. U. minister. All this created quite an uproar.

Some of the ministers in our district were on edge because twenty years ago some were extolling free love and open marriages. Everyone it seemed was sleeping with everyone else as husbands and wives swapped partners and experimented with new forms of relationships. Some ministers also tested the boundaries of love thy neighbor.

Well, things are different now. Most of those experiments failed and many marriages were destroyed. Some churches are still suffering from the effects.

We've learned a lot the hard way. There are solid rational reasons for monogamy and the prohibition against adultery. Today we see very clearly that ministers should not engage in sexual relations with individuals in their congregation. This was the easy part of the workshop for me: just say no. The harder part came when we began to discuss just where are the boundaries in the minister/congregant relationship. Just how close is okay? Just how much touching is appropriate beyond the handshake (which is even suspect in some New England congregations. There, the nod of the head tells the minister he or she did a good job.)

I want you to know that I haven't answered this question yet. I decided to share my thoughts with you about this because we are in a formative stage of our relationship together. We are in the process of feeling out just how close or distant we wish to be with each other. By raising our awareness to this interpersonal process we can be more respectful and caring of each other. I want you to know that you can tell me if I get too close for your comfort or don't like to be hugged. On the other hand, if you need a hug, let me know that too.

The problems arise because ministers are professional lovers. We stand up on Sunday mornings and open our hearts to you. We share our thoughts, inspirations, joys and sorrows with a level of intimacy that might only be found in a television or stage drama or perhaps in a close friendship. My passion touches your passion in ways that bond us together. Many times have I felt a special affection as I heard someone praising his or her minister. It is a rare privilege to bring inspiration and joy into those hearts. I have found no greater reward in life than to help that seed of love sprout. As preachers, our gift for language and expression help us win your respect and appreciation.

But there is more going on. There is a transfer of power. I've listened to quite a number of sermons over the last 15 years and met many men and women who have delivered them. I'm not one to put people on pedestals but something happens to good speakers when they stand up and start talking. A group consciousness forms which seems to amplify the effects of listening to an inspirational talk. In the process, the speaker begins to seem more and more powerful. If you want to see this process in action, watch Bill Clinton when he has an audience behind him riding the wave of fellow feeling. On CSPAN, I saw him give a speech to the Gillette employees about NAFTA that could sweep away any doubts you might have.

Through our title, words, presence and actions, ministers accumulate power. This can be harmful when ministers abuse this trust but can be very beneficial when that power is used to further the goals of the congregation. But have no doubt, ministers are powerful people and the office augments that power. This is why congregations must take great care in selecting a new minister.

The minister carries this power down from the pulpit and into personal relationships. It can make us seem somehow larger than we really are. The classic example of this is the innocent young woman who idolizes the male minister and wants his attention. (A problem I don't think we're going to have here.) The unaware minister make take this adoration personally rather than professionally and be tempted to consummate the affection. Yet the young woman in this example is not really in love with the minister as a person but rather as an image. On the other hand if one disagrees with what the minister is saying, one's emotions can become quite hostile. Rather than seeing the sermon as food for thought and reflection, it becomes a threat and the minister must be de-clawed. The unaware minister pulls back from this person rather than engaging that person to discover the reasons for the difference.

This mismatch of pulpit image and human reality can create problems. I know a minister I loved to hear preach but who I found quite difficult to get along with out of the pulpit. There was such beauty in his language yet he wasn't able to practice what he preached. It made me quite critical of him. One can feel betrayed when their minister reveals their humanity. It can be hard to accept a flawed leader. We see this today in our demands for saints as public figures whose mistakes are exposed by headline journalism as their day to day successes are ignored.

Things get more complicated when a minister gets involved in a personal friendship with someone in his or her congregation. The experience of minister as preacher and friend are an example of what in the trade is known as a dual relationship. These are relationships which have a professional and personal component. Some examples might be:

an English professor who has an affair with one of his or her students

a Ph.D. student and his adviser who are "drinking buddies"

a physician who attempts to treat a family member

a teacher whose child is a student in the school in which he or she teaches, in relation to the school's principal

a minister who asks a member of the congregation to baby-sit for their children

The theory is this: When a minister attempts a dual relationship with a congregant, client, employee, student, or staff member, the ministerial relationship is in jeopardy.

This was the most disturbing idea that I encountered during the sexual abuse workshop. I am a social person. I want everyone to love me and I want to love everyone in the congregation. I enjoy the give and take of conversation and joint activities. I'd like to have a 10 minute conversation with each person at the end of my sermon and hear your thoughts and feelings. Yet the concept of a dual relationship suggests I must be careful just how close I allow myself to become for if I get too close, I will sacrifice my role as minister which is what you've asked me to be for you. Our personal relationship may make it harder for you to ask me to be your minister.

I heard this sobering example which got me thinking. A husband and wife minister team, call them Tom and Sue, served a medium-sized Midwestern congregation. They were friends with a couple in the church named Bob and Mary. Tom and Bob were particularly close as they had many shared interests and spent a lot of time together going fishing and playing golf. As fate would have it, Mary took ill and Tom spent a good deal of time comforting Bob and trying to ease his pain. When Mary died, Bob called Sue and asked her to conduct the memorial service. As you might imagine, Tom was very hurt that he hadn't been asked to do it. Someplace in their friendship, Tom stopped being Bob's minister and became his friend. So Bob chose the one he still recognized as minister to perform the service.

Another example which comes to mind is the case of a woman, call her Jane, who was friends with her minister Sally. Both were single parents and supported each other as they struggled to hold it all together. Sometimes Sally would even baby-sit Jane's kids so she could have a night off once in a while, an act of kindness for which Jane was deeply grateful.

Jane became concerned about some problems she saw with the religious education program. The teachers needed better direction and coordination but she held her tongue because she knew Sally didn't take criticism very well (something she found out through their friendship). Jane was afraid of losing Sally as a friend to help her with her kids. Her need for Sally as her friend interfered with her ability to talk to Sally as her minister. Unfortunately, some problems later did arise in the RE program and several families left the congregation.

Ministry is unlike any other professional relationship. Our job requires very personal interaction with the people in our congregation. I think about different members of this Fellowship as I prepare my sermons and tailor the words to the ears which will be listening. I want to know about the troubles in your lives and help out if I can. The ministerial relationship is much bigger than other helping relationships such as the doctor/patient, the therapist/client or the teacher/student relationships. It doesn't have the limitations of an economic relationship.

All this is troubling to me because my impulse is to be both minister and friend. Yet because of this desire to be everyone's friend, I don't want to compromise the effectiveness of my ministry here. There was some lively discussion at the ministers' meeting about this subject. The single ministers grumbled about loneliness and isolation. One minister said she had cut back on hugging people. Another protested the validity of the theory. One said he got mad when a friend decided to join his church, for it meant they couldn't be as close as they once were. Another complained how their new ministry was made difficult because of all the friends the previous minister had in the congregation. Just about all admitted that they struggled long and hard with how close they could become with members of their congregation.

I think it's important we recognize that this negotiation goes on here as well. We are both new to ministry. We are both in the process of deciding what our roles are. We both want to do the right thing. This isn't something that I learned in seminary or a UUA workshop. My internship didn't prepare me for this. Finding the appropriate boundaries happens by doing it - experiential learning. And as is true with all learning, there will be success and mistakes.

The metaphor that comes to me for this is a dance. The goal of dancing is flowing, graceful movements that blend together as one, yet each partner is distinct. If the partners are unfamiliar with the other's style, steps are missed and shoes are scuffed. I remember trying to learn the polka with an old girlfriend and both of us falling flat on the floor. As the partners get to know each other they begin to recognize each other's subtle clues and find how to control their center of gravity to make each step flow into the next.

We are in those awkward first stages of learning to dance together. I happen to know I've already stepped on a toe or two as I practice the steps I've learned by rote. The most important thing, I think, is responding and adapting to each other. For once a minister and a congregation find their center of gravity and move with it, great things can happen for the benefit of all.

We can create a relationship which isn't a personal friendship or a professional/client connection. I believe we can have intimacy and appropriate distance, mutual care without dependency. It will be like no other relationship that has ever been created and serve both of our needs for religious community - not at every moment as we feel our way along - but enough to strike a satisfying balance.

I'm doing ministry because I believe in the transformative power of love. We are both transformed as our hands meet and we begin to move together with the music. May I have this dance?

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