Friday, October 2, 2009

Little Fishbowl on the Prairie?

For the past five seasons, one of the most successful programs on Canadian television is Little Mosque on the Prairie. In this popular sitcom, the fictional town of Mercy's Muslims band together to hire a Imam and form a faith community. Laughs follow, naturally.

Besides a talented cast and the usual contrived humour found in most sitcoms, the show succeeds because it reflects truth back to the audience. It explores the tensions between immigrant and existing communities and peels back the layers of perceived differences to show that we are all, after all, the same.

Take for instance, the relationship between the young, inexperienced Imam, Amaar, and his mentor, the wise, seasoned Anglican priest, Duncan Magee. No episode is complete until Amaar and Duncan have a heart-to-heart talk about whatever challenges Amaar faces with his flock or in his romantic relationship (or lack thereof) with the beautiful, single Rayyan, a member of his congregation.

What strikes me about this relationship isn't the incongruity of a Muslim seeking counsel from an Anglican, but the deeper truth that is played out in faith communities everywhere; that is, our clergy are essentially alone in their own congregations. No matter how much they love and are loved by their congregations, when it comes to choosing confidantes, clergy often seek safe relationships outside the church.

More likely than not, clergy and their families are like fish in a bowl. They have each other, but to their congregations, they live out their lives on display. They can't choose their spectators, or what parts of their lives are observed. They may be respected, revered, and even loved, but the essence of their relationships within the church, and even outside it, are often dictated by the glass barrier between them and others.

One pastor's wife recently confided, “We're so lonely in our new church. We have no friends here and we don't know who we can trust.”

The pastor (and his wife) of the first church my husband and I attended as a married couple became good friends after we had both moved to new communities. When we visited their home, we noticed they purposefully used an answering machine to screen all incoming calls. And after an hour, we understood why. The phone rang constantly and on the few evenings they were home, they needed to focus some energy and time on their children.

In a new community, in a new church, our new pastor confessed his deep sense of loss and loneliness when his closest friend, a minister of a different church, was transferred by his denomination.

Just a few weeks ago a colleague explained that he and his wife had elected to stay out of regular church ministry in order to serve as safe friends to a pastoring couple.

The truth is, I don't know a ministry family that doesn't live in a proverbial fishbowl.

From a rational perspective it makes perfect sense. Close friendships in the workplace between people at different levels in the organization are seldom encouraged. How can a supervisor correct or discipline a subordinate? And in the church, there is the added dimension. The ministry family is tasked with teaching and preaching the truth, and yet their livelihood is dependent on the continued support of the members of the church. Unlike most businesses, they're not answerable to one boss or an established hierarchy with clearly laid out performance expectations and annual 360 reviews. Clergy are employed by as many people as attend the church, be it 50 or 5000.

And while Christ's church should operate differently than the world, our fallen natures are strongly in evidence in the church. We come broken and hurting. We count on our ministers to not only bandage our wounds but to show us how to live as new creations in Christ. We forget, sometimes, that our clergy are human, too.

Ministers are subject to the same pressures as the rest of us. They struggle to make an often meager paycheck last to the end of the month. (What is the old saying? When it comes to ministers, the church will keep 'em poor and God can keep 'em humble.)

They have family problems—marital, sure, but also difficult relationships with parents, siblings, and children, too. And often those problems fester for years because so much is at stake if the family asks for help. My husband, a family physician, has seen many ministry families in crisis with nowhere else to turn.

Like Christ, who is God made man, ministers face every human weakness and failing. But unlike Christ, they are not God incarnate!

The fishbowl dynamic of ministry families and churches isn't likely to change any time this side of heaven. The reality is, close, intimate friendships between clergy and their congregations or even between ministers on the same staff, are fraught with dangers.

There are two forces at work on clergy. The first is the depth of trust invested in them. Many ministers spend a large proportion of their time counseling church members. They know too much about too many of the people in their churches.

The other dynamic is the fishbowl. Everyone in the church "knows" the ministry family and perhaps feels a personal connection to them. But it doesn't take ministry families long to put up protective barriers against the barrage of familiarity directed their way. People in the church often know their ministers or their families only on a superficial level.

What, then, are we to do to befriend our minister?

Pray for your ministers and their families. In your prayers, be specific. Ask that God would provide each member of their family with safe friendships.

Understand their unique position in your congregation. Know that they may have defenses in place, and those defenses exist for a good reason. Don't take it personally. Instead, strive to be generous and supportive by extending the hand of friendship without strings attached. If you do become a close friend and confidante of a ministry family, know that you occupy a position of supreme trust. Every friendship should be based on trust and confidentiality, but the reality is, with ministry families a misplaced word here or there could result in church upheaval or even the loss of a job.

And, be aware that clergy often from strong bonds outside your church, denomination, or as in the Little Mosque on the Prairie example, outside your faith. Those outside friendships aren't a betrayal of your beliefs, but a way for your ministry families to have their need for good, honest relationships met.

Thank you for stopping by today. Share your clergy experiences and leave your email address (in this format: name [at] domain [dot] whatever) and I'll enter your name to win Carolyn Aarsen's The Matchmaking Pact. I'll draw a name on October 5, 2009.


  1. Brought the coffee this morning. Too tired for any intelligent comments, but I must check out the "Little Mosque on the Prairie." Are there episodes online?


  2. What a well conceived post, Wenda. And you've hit the nail on the head. Sometimes being a friend to your minister means simply respecting the boundaries they've placed. Whether you have a weekly family get together to chat and play board games, or not, you can still be a friend.

    Protect them from unreasonable demands on their time. Ministers are often, by nature, givers and so they find it very difficult to say no. That doesn't mean you set yourself up as gatekeeper, and allow no one near, but it does mean be sensitive to the load your minister carries and step in to help when/if you can. Protect them from gossip. Protect them from outrageous expectations. By doing these things you are showing yourself trustworthy not just to that minister, but to Christ. And isn't that what matters?

  3. Wish I would've thought of your clever title for my WIP, which I call, "The Secret Life of a (sometimes reluctant) Preacher's Wife."

    Thanks for understanding. These posts have nourished my soul.


  4. Bravo for a wonderful week of topics.
    You've helped me to better understand our four ministers and their families--and top my prayer list with their names!

    Thanks, Wenda!

  5. Wenda, how you've blessed me today. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    That show sounds hilarious. I'm with Dina, I'll have to look online.

  6. Thanks, ladies for stopping in.

    Lisa, I appreciate the added tips for befriending ministry families. You are so right to point out the need to respect boundaries and to focus on pleasing Christ in our relationshpis!

    Here's the link to online episodes of Little Mosque.

    I'm not sure if they'll be available outside of Canada. My daughter, who watches all her television online, couldn't access the programs she watches on Canadian websites when we were in Florida last year.

    Let me know if you can view them. I'm curious.

  7. I totally discovered a new addiction! "Little Mosque on the Prairie" is must see research for my new novel with the Islamic character. I wonder if my husband knows about this show.

    I only watched part of one episode, but it's smart and funny. Even if I don't agree with everything, I'm sure it will be informative.

    I know this is far off Befriend Your Minister topic, but I feel like I just struck gold!


  8. Wenda, clergy do live in a fishbowl. Which is why it's amazing to me that often their real needs are hidden to so many. Ofttimes this is of the clergy's own making. We're so afraid to be honest with our congregants that we hide our needs. And the sad thing is that this then becomes learned behavior, not only for the minister and his wife, but their children.

    I've learned that the majority of people are truly loving, mean you well, and are willing to help. If they know what you need.

  9. I've really enjoyed this week's posts too.

    A nice inky how-do to Jeannette. I hope you know how nice it is for us to hear from you and know you've been blessed by our topic this week.

    Nice job, ladies and thanks again to our guest blogger yesterday Pastor Rob.

    Little Mosque on the Prairie, huh? Wenda, you've given us all something to look into.

  10. Patricia,

    You are so right about those living in the fish bowl hiding what is really going on in their lives.

    When my husband and I lived a similar type of fish bowl--he was a physician in small rural communities--we finally discovered that we had to be completely transparent with others. Yes, you can be hurt by others, but when open up about what is really happening in your life, your rob the enemy of power to do harm in your life and others. You also open the door for others to share their deeper hurts and shame.

    And Dina,

    I'm so glad you found Little Mosque and it will help you with your characters.

  11. HI Patricia. Good to see your smiling face here.

    You know what else, guys. Now that i've recovered from ACFW/Cold/No Sleep/ I miss you Denver Niners. I wish we could get together for coffee this weekend. Alas.

  12. Wenda, what a great post. I really enjoyed reading what you've had to say, and thank you for telling us about the Little Mosque show. It sounds delightful. I'll have to check it out.

    Deb, did I know you were sick and just forgot? If so, I'm sorry. I'm glad you're feeling better.

  13. Hi Wenda,
    Great post. How long has Little Mosque on the Prarie been on television in Canada? Interesting idea. I'll have to check it out on line.
    I miss your face. :)

  14. Thanks, Wenda. Thoughtful and insightful, as usual!

  15. Hey everyone,

    Now I'm sniffing from missing Inkies and not from my post-Denver cold, too!

    Little Mosque is starting it's fifth season (I got it wrong in the post) so it's been on for four years.

    Thanks for stopping in. We'll have to coordinate a live chat one of these days!

  16. Excellent post, Wenda.

    I don't watch many sitcoms but I did start watching Little Mosque when the kids and I were extras in it. Yes, if you look in the background of several episodes you'll see the kids and I...

    Of course we had to watch the whole show to see our small if-you-sneeze-you'll-miss-it-if-it-didn't-land-on-the-cutting-room-floor scenes. As as we watched it, we became interested. The show is taped just 45 mins from our farm and they even built a small mosque in the town for the show. And since there are so many orthodox churches left on the prairies, it doesn't even look out of place.

    I really like the show because of the differences it brings to the public forefront.

    But you know, I never thought about the relationship between Amaar and Duncan before, other than friendly rivals. So thank you, Wenda, you've added another dimension to the show.


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