Last Saturday, Bethany and I, lead by Jen and Soren, watched a three hour video series called, “A Sacred Trust: Boundary Issues for Clergy and Spiritual Teachers.” The series seamlessly hears from clergy throughout the range of religious practice, from a Catholic Priest to a Buddhist monk, on the variety of issues that inevitably arise when interacting with congregants. The videos impress the idea that, no matter the religious tradition, the role of a clergy person innately carries power and influence that must be monitored. The videos skimmed the obvious no-no’s (No manipulating people, no inappropriate physical relationships with congregants, etc), and spent the majority of the time discussing the more subtle responsibilities of the clergy. In this internship at Marsh, I spend a good deal of time thinking about how to listen to people, respond to their remarks, read between the lines, and initiate helpful conversation and meditation. A lot of the Vocation Care exercises and other education revolve around how to interact with the other person from the view of the other person. These videos, however, turned the discussion on “you,” the leader, rather than “they,” the congregant. They addressed challenges like duel-relationships, the power of the pulpit, and transference by using the narrative of the leader, not the follower. They prompted soul-searching questions like: “Do I get too much fulfillment and excitement by being someone’s confidant?” “Am I pushing my own agenda at the pulpit for a desired result?” “Do I contact congregants because I need the contact?” “Do I need my congregations help and support?” “Who are my friends, and how should I be in friendship with my congregation?”
The different leaders highlighted in the tapes had many different approaches to the questions posed. When it comes to friends, some said one can absolutely not be friends with a congregant, some said they recommended being friendly without spending time with one another, and others made a distinction between social friends, or friends you go bowling with, and personal friends, friends in which you confide your feelings and troubles. Rather than leaning on their congregations, some recommended finding emotional support in therapy, others through spiritual advisors, and a few through clergy contacts. All recommended a variety of self-care models, whether it be strictly observing family time or eating right and staying healthy. There seemed to be a general consensus, though, among all those interviewed, that to be the most effective spiritual leader, one must strive to be a whole and supported individual.
Generally speaking, the videos offered educational, but foreseeable, insight and ideas. For example, while I previously may not have considered the possibility of a congregant botching my eye surgery (or some other less-dramatic duel-relationship), the scenario reveals rather obvious complications. There was one idea, though, which surprised me. The videos encouraged clergy to be very aware of how invested, and the level of enjoyment, they receive through pastoral contacts. They warned against getting too much of a thrill from hearing people’s secrets and offering advise, and suggested making sure congregants can function without pastoral contact meetings. After I thought about it, this definitely makes sense, but I’m very glad it was called to my attention. I think, in the ministry profession, hubris and dependence are very slippery slopes. Loving the job is great, but getting too excited about giving someone the BEST advice, or falling in love with the demand of your presence, are easy ways to neglect the best interest of the congregant. A large part of ministry involves leading people to healthy, safe, relationships, and to do that, an awareness of your relationship to them is pivotal.