Fire Bells in the Night
Twenty-six years of ordained ministry have hammered home various points about this peculiar vocation. Some are realized intuitively over time, and hopefully become part of the background wisdom that informs the exercise of ministry. Other key points are discussed or taught openly in a variety of formal or informal settings. It is hoped that some of those insights will be found to be authentic and, like the earlier, intuitive lessons, will be incorporated into the healthy living of vocation.
Some have greater truth than others. Some have a greater sense of resonance. Some are like a fire bell in the night.
I have been fortunate to have known and worked under some very thoughtful people. The lessons they have shared and the wisdom they have exhibited have been great gifts. I hope some of them have stuck. It is true, indeed, that what we do not know can hurt us.
Years ago, before I was on diocesan staff or the Commission on Ministry, I heard of the marital break-ups of three close friends, all of whom were clergy. I reflected on what I saw as the trail of wreckage left by clergy whose lives had descended into the depths. I wrote an earnest letter expressing my concern to the chair of the Wellness Subcommittee of the Commission on Ministry. While he and I commiserated personally on the situation, the response was much like the sound of silence that Elijah encountered outside the cave on Mount Horeb.
I recently heard other news. I learned of the deposition of a longtime friend in another diocese. Like others I have seen over the years, there was sexual misconduct involved. Some situations which have arisen in years past were hardly a surprise. This one was truly unexpected. But, from what I understand, the essential predictive elements were present – as it seems they always are. Warning signs are there. But they go unheeded. Lives are ruined. A vocation is lost. Countless costs – spiritually, emotionally, vocationally, and personally – are incurred. The impact is like a meteor crater – a definitive point of impact with concentric circles of damage emanating outward from the original damage
Again and again, in various forms, the key point is conveyed: Balance is a key element in the healthy exercise of ordained ministry. Absent that balance, an ordained person either becomes ineffective (by lack of intellectual, spiritual or vocational rigor) or, tragically, by burning-out and acting out. It is all too predictable.
The former situation (characterized by lack of engagement or connection with the congregation) is a subject for another time. However, the imbalance which leads to destructive behavior is my topic here.
In the CREDO component focusing on Vocation, there are two elements which have a bearing on this subject and can lead, at least partly, to the slippery slope that ends in loss of vocation or vocational identity. Those two areas of focus are Margin and Emotional Labor.
Margin has to do with “open space” which exists in our emotional, physical, financial, and time lives. A credit score might be a good metaphor for margin. If a priest has a metaphorical credit score of 350 in any of those four areas of margin, they are skating on thin ice. An image of a rubber band may be helpful, too. If the rubber band is stretched too far, it snaps. Likewise, if we stretch ourselves too far in the areas of emotional, physical financial, or time reserves, we are in a potentially dangerous position. (Note: A helpful book on this aspect is Margin, by Richard A. Swenson, M.D.)
Emotional Labor is another potential area of peril. This has to do, to a great extent, with hiding, disguising or minimizing emotions. Critical to this concept are the display rules we observe (or are imposed on us in terms of expectations). Clergy may feel elated over something about which it would be perceived as inappropriate to feel that way. Likewise, a cleric might feel anger, sadness or any other form of emotion which might not seem to be appropriate in a particular setting. This can lead to a phenomenon known as deep acting, in which we are so separated from our true emotions, we are not aware of them at all. This is a form of suppression, and can be dangerous to one’s wellbeing. (Note: A good book on this subject is The Managed Heart, by Arlie Russell Hochschild.)
These two topics highlight some of the dangers of unawareness in the ordained vocation. There are others I would highlight very briefly:
· Overwork – Workaholism is a valued behavior for clergy by congregations. There are rewards (short-term) for the congregation and the cleric. Ultimately, though, it is destructive. Congregations tend to value an over-functioning rector. Likewise, clergy find the approval they receive for such over-functioning is like crack cocaine – addictive, giving a sense of a high, a steadily increasing requirement for “more”, but ultimately of no value. There is likely to be an ultimate crash.
· Isolation – When clergy become lone rangers, alarms should be sounded. We find vitality and wholeness of life in community. With a cleric, community will need to be more than one’s parish. A peer support group or constructive involvement in other ways with people outside the parish is important for balance. Withdrawal from wider church functions is frequently evidence of such isolation.
· Mania – The hyperactive lifestyle should be noted. This is the behavioral and unholy whirling dervish. Life is accelerating. The high which accompanies this level of mania serves as a drug to anesthetize inner wounds. This may sometimes be accompanied by a loss of appropriate boundaries. The cleric exhibiting these tendencies is potentially moving quickly in the direction of being “out of control.”
· Anger – Another “mine canary” would be anger, or maybe resentment (best defined as anger with dust on it). This may be low-grade, simmering anger. Or it might be evidenced in outbursts that are out-of-proportion to the circumstances. The anger may sometimes be within the parish or, more likely, directed toward ecclesiastical superiors, such as the Bishop.
· Despair – This word may be a bit too dramatic, but it captures the heart of the matter. Sometimes clergy feel trapped and do not see a viable option for moving upward, downward, or sideways. They may have been involved in search processes which led to dead-ends. They do not know a way out of the circumstances. The despair fuels the anger and isolation. Depression may set in. The fuse is lit.
· Emptiness – The ordained vocation can be one of great depth and texture, but like a vineyard, it must be tended. I am referring to one’s spiritual journey. Spiritual disciplines – which are so much more than the empty “pray without ceasing” – can provide a foundation below which we cannot fall. The importance of regular, anticipated connection to the numinous helps us to maintain perspective, clear lenses through which we can comprehend our journey, and, above all, a sense of hope. In those disciplines – even when we encounter the Ignatian experience of desolation – we discover that we are not alone in this ministry. A reading of Romans 8 is tonic for the soul. Mindfulness and time alone in silence can be enormously restorative.
· Addictions – These are more the result of the above – evidence that the horse is out of barn. Addictions come in many forms – alcohol, drugs, work, spending, sex, inappropriate relationships, pornography, and gambling, among others. These are among the most significant red lights to be observed and responded to.
This listing is by no means complete or authoritative. These are my insights gained over 26 years of ordained ministry, and they are characteristics of which I am mindful. If I discern them in my own life – or, if, by God’s grace, someone points them out to me in my own actions – I seek to take restorative action. If I see them in others, I want to respond in a healing, renewing, honest, and hope-filled way.
The irony in all this is that the church and its leaders have been well-aware of all the warning signs associated with these tendencies. Yet we do little or nothing about them. The church tends to be complicit in the denial of their significance. The person who is (hopefully) lovingly told of his or her tendencies in these areas will likely resist such insight. He or she may be expected to become angrier and withdrawn – which is counterproductive to the desire for healing.
Sadly, the dance of denial or avoidance continues – until it all comes crashing down. And when it does, great was the fall of lives connected and the institutions served.