Public and Private Ministry

A few members of my congregation are upset with me because I haven't been calling on them and keeping up with their lives and illnesses. Most often these are the ones who are older and not as involved in the Fellowship as they have been in the past and ones who have recently been in the hospital and are now recovering. My usual defenses against the permanent ministerial guilt complex for not attending to my congregation better were compromised by the particularity of the individuals involved who were important leaders in the congregation. How could I possibly have forgotten about Mr. High Pledger and Mrs. Church Lady!

For me and I expect for many ministers, these pastoral duties are challenging to keep up with and discharge consistently and successfully. When we gather at UUMA meetings we often commiserate at the impossibility of being intimate with every member of our congregation--especially the ones we don't like. And it isn't as if I feel like I've been slacking off. I can barely keep up with reading my mail! My life seems permanently scheduled from the time I get up till I go to sleep! Yet there was a twist which captured my attention.

The part of ministry in which I feel most comfortable as I complete my third year serving my first congregation is the public dimension. I'm in my element Sunday morning greeting people, conducting the service, responding to people and catching up on the events in their lives. I'm at home in the various committee meetings and teaching adult education classes. I feel most comfortable in groups and in the public eye speaking with a prophetic voice.

My difficulties with the personal dimension of ministry initially wasn't obvious to me. I'd been fooled into thinking I didn't have a problem with pastoral ministry because there are people in my congregation with whom I find this kind of ministry comfortable and easy. These are the members whose personality and temperament are quite compatible with mine. My pastoral visits seemed generally good when I did go to the hospital and to the home.

It wasn't until I spent a sleepless night wondering how I could forget to call on these pillars of the congregation that I began detect the origins of my behavior. I began to surface patterns of values from my family of origin. The principle that you don't interfere in other people's lives and respect their privacy came to me out of the depths of my conditioning. The message "Just leave other people alone and don't bother them" was subtly driving my emotions. I was withdrawn emotionally from my congregation much in the same way I felt my dying mother was withdrawn from me during the final phase of her death from cancer. In the presence of uncertainty of how to do pastoral care in my congregation, I recreated and projected what I did understand--my family.

What is most ironic about this for me is one of the reasons I entered the ministry was the delight and joy I feel when I am close and intimate in interpersonal relationships. I had been withdrawing unconsciously from the very intimacy I desired.

With help from my Committee on Ministry, I realized I couldn't trust my feelings to tell me when to call someone--which is scary to a person who relies heavily on intuition to guide him in human relations. My emotional conditioning was preventing me from serving in the unique ways ministers are given the privilege to operate. For the moment at least, I'd need to become much more mechanical in attending to my pastoral duties until I do have a stronger emotional bond with my congregation.

What I'm most struck with in this process of self discovery and (hopefully) transformation is the craftiness with which old emotional patterns can sneak into our actions without revealing their presence in the size of the reaction. I've generally used large emotional responses out of proportion to the current situation as a flag to warn me of the presence of childhood emotional pathology. Now I'm recognizing detached, muted feelings can also be a signal of that same presence.

It is so easy to loose track of our emotional life in our focus on social and political issues, in our efforts to provide meaning and stimulation on Sunday morning and in our blizzard of administrative tasks and responsibilities. Some of the greatest transformations of our ability to minister (and be ministered to) can be found observing our emotional life with great care seeking opportunities to attend to the hurts of the past to make us more present to the healings of today.

Copyright (c) 1996 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved. This was published in First Days Record's April 1996 issue. For more information or subscriptions ($30/year) please write to:

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