Paradoxically, the hardest and the most satisfying part of ministry for me is intimacy with members of the congregation I serve.
Right after beginning my first settlement here in Port Charlotte, I attended the Marie Fortune training for our Florida UUMA chapter. We were confronted with how some ministers use their position and capacity for intimacy to take advantage of vulnerable members of their congregations. A few of our gathering spoke of their own struggles with members of their congregations who wanted more closeness than the minister felt appropriate receiving unwanted touching and sexual advances. Nearly everyone struggled with how intimate to become with the members and friends of their congregation. I left the workshop feeling cautious, being a male minister, of touching or even holding eye contact too long with the people, especially the women, to whom I have agreed to minister. I wondered if ministers really can be intimate anymore without putting themselves and their congregations at risk of a lawsuit.
The training connected with my own anxiety around intimacy. I didn't date much in high school mostly because I was afraid of the girls. My reaction to my strong adolescent sexual desire was to sublimate it in school work and projects rather than release it and put myself in peril of rejection, or fatherhood. Strong emotions have more than once carried me into activities which I later regretted (thankfully never harming people besides myself). Rather than loosen control and face the possible negative consequences, I chose, like many Unitarian Universalists, the delightful, stimulating and distracting life of the mind.
One can be an acceptable, benign minister living in your head, but not really a great minister. In my three years of ministry, I've gradually become aware of my resistance to intimacy of pastoral calling preferring to keep busy with administration, committees, projects in the community, the district, and my Continental level work encouraging the use of electronic communications. To challenge myself, I decided to do an extended Clinical Pastoral Experience spread out one day a week over six months at a local hospital. I realized I needed a place to work with other ministers in my community on improving my pastoral skills and discovering my blocks to intimacy. I needed a place to get out of my head and into my heart.
All of the other participants in my class are Christian. Particularly notable so far for me in their verbatims is seeing how the Christian use of words through prayer, the name of Jesus, and the words of the Bible at the bed of the sick and dying, creates a great feeling of intimacy among believers. This is probably opposite of the experience of most Unitarian Universalists. I know for me in particular, Biblical words get in the way of intimacy and throw me into mental resistance. Being the bright, clever person I am, I'm more aware of how scriptural texts can be used to manipulate people than of how they can be used to heal.
This is probably why I've always been so attracted to the profound silence of Buddhist meditation. There are no words to get in the way during deep meditation of what I recognize as universal religious experience. The most intense intimacy I have ever felt was at the end of a ten day silent meditation retreat during which I didn't speak or even look at people. I even took my glasses off so I would be as completely alone as possible. In this deep aloneness and silence, I discovered great love and compassion.
What I have failed to do is to carry this retreat experience into my worldly existence - until recently. I experienced a deep moment of intimacy sharing the struggle and pain of religious life with another minister who I hardly even know. But the intensity of our intimacy connected with my silent retreat experience and inspired my faith that the universal love and compassion I found in silence could also be found by me in human relationships.
I'm still mostly stuck in my fear of intimacy and its tremendous power. I fear the sexual arousal which often accompanies intimacy. I fear the expectation of commitment often felt after an intimate meeting. I fear taking on and being injured by the emotion turmoil which can arise in any congregation.
And I feel a new opening of possibility through my CPE training and recent experience. And I can gradually open to the shared sense of the holy which can happen in human relationships. And I'd rather love, make mistakes and be hurt than be an acceptable, benign minister giving a pleasing message on Sunday morning and never really serving his calling.
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore Port Charlotte, Florida