(Every Tuesday I try to post an observation on pastoral ministry. These are the thoughts and reflections of someone who has been involved in pastoral ministry for about 35 years. I get it wrong a lot which is how I learn to do it better.)
It’s impossible to overestimate the amount of dysfunction in most people’s lives.
I’m not talking about people being “bad,” I’m talking about the struggles that most people have, seen and unseen, recognized and unrecognized that make life challenging.
That make life messy.
Someone once said, “Everyone is normal until you get to know them.” One of the challenges of pastoral ministry is that reaching an agreement on what “normal” looks like is difficult. Most people, myself included, generally live with the view that they are normal.
Their way is the normal way.
Their feelings are the normal feelings.
Their family system is how normal families handle things.
Their beliefs, world view, politic and faith are all normal.
If you differ on any of the above, you are the one living in dysfunction.
Thomas Oden, who wrote a book on pastoral ministry, said that the particularity of the individual means their issues are unique to them: their suffering, grief and joy. Therefore, what is helpful to one may be harmful to another and vice versa. Pastoral care is not a “one size fits all” system but one that must be customized.
Oden riffs a little on what Gregory the Great said about the challenge of pastoral ministry back in the Sixth Century. Here’s a sample of Gregory’s insights: “No one does more harm in the Church than he who has the title or rank of holiness and acts perversely.” And “those who do not speak the words of God with humility must be advised that when they apply medicine to the sick, they must first inspect the poison of their own infection, or else by attempting to heal others, they kill themselves.” He also wrote, “For who does not realise that the wounds of the mind are more hidden than the internal wounds of the body?” and “Hence, too, every teacher, in order to edify all in the one virtue of charity, must touch the hearts of his hearers by using one and the same doctrine, but not by giving to all one and the same exhortation.” In other words, not every “patient” with the same “illness” should be given the same “remedy.”
So the challenge of pastoral ministry and the dysfunction of people’s lives isn’t something new.
But it is hard and it makes the work of pastoral ministry especially difficult if you like things to be black and white.
Or you like your answers simple.
Or if you’d like a scientific approach to this pastoral life.
If you have read the Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, you will remember the scene where the Ghost is in a love/hate relationship with the red lizard that perches on the Ghost’s shoulder, whispering in his ear words that torment and soothe. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to. An Angel offers to set the man free from the influence of the lizard and the man is torn – desperate to be free, desperate to hold on to the familiar spirit that torments and soothes.
We’ve all got our little red lizards.
All of us.
I’ve never met a person yet who doesn’t have one. I’ve met many who seem to be keeping a nest of them. And some of us – us people – we know the lizard and some of us are under the influence but we won’t recognize the source until we’re the Ghost and the Angel is making us the offer to be set free. Pastors will sometimes find themselves in the very difficult position of noticing a lizard on the shoulder of someone following Jesus and having to walk through the very dangerous minefield of offering to help someone get free.
Let me say one more time, just because I know how lizards work in a moment like this, I know I have my own lizard(s). But at a time like this, a lizard, if you have one, will whisper in your ear, “He thinks YOU have a lizard? Nonsense! He’s infested with them! Shall I point them all out to you? Shall we name them together?” And you will get so busy listing my lizards and soothed by how many more I have than you, that you’ll never be able to keep it in your mind that you have your own.
The nature of relationship in Christ is that we bear with each other’s stuff and out of the safety of our relationships we are able to talk to each other openly about our dysfunctions. We are meant to speak truthfully to each other. But often, as pastors, we discover that people who most need to hear the truth about the lizard on their shoulder are brittle, fragile and easily broken. They are terrified if you start focusing on their lizard. The weight of the truth will crush them even if it can heal them.
So our lizard laden tendency is to strike back. To lash out. To gather a company of others with whom we can diminish the pastor by magnifying the list of things he or she is doing wrong or not doing right. We focus on their shortcomings, the errors they have made, because we all do, and we bring attention to the lizard on their shoulder, because we all have them.
In pastoral ministry I have found the people most eager to fix me are generally living in the most profound dysfunctions. Of course, when I say, “dysfunction” a picture comes to your mind, perhaps of a life completely out of control. The reality is that most dysfunction is very quiet, subtle and nicely veneered. In the church, however, there are so many dysfunctions that we tend to reward, that it’s a very tough knot to untangle. If pastors are honest, we rely on the dysfunction of certain members in order to get things done, to get our way, to accomplish our agenda.
And if I’m perfectly honest with you, we’ve created a system to maintain our dysfunction. Which, coincidentally, is a characteristic of dysfunctional systems.
And when we move to reform those dysfunctional systems, we tend to choose members of that dysfunctional system who the current system trusts to become the evaluators of the old and architects of the new system, guaranteeing we perpetuate that which was from the beginning and now ever shall be, world without end, amen and amen.
How do we break the cycle? How do we in the church and in pastoral ministry get free from this way of living?
I will tell you. I will tell you right here and now.
But before I do, please hear me, you will not like my answer.
You already know what to do. But it’s too hard. So when I tell you, you will nod or shake your head or ponder a moment. And then your lizard will get you busy or distracted or soothed or all the above.
But for this second, while it’s not so loud, I will say it because I promised to and then I let you go.
Stop lying. Tell everyone the truth.