Friday, October 2, 2009
Little Fishbowl on the Prairie?
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.
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