Monday, August 1, 2016

Letting Go of Idols

           One observation I have had over my years of ordained ministry is that retired clergy are frequently very angry with the Church.  It seems that they have a sense of betrayal by an institution they have served, regardless of whether that sense is grounded in reality or not.

            I have chalked up that sense of feeling betrayed to numerous experiences.  One is a sense that, maybe, they have been forced out before they were ready.  Another might be grounded in the reality that the priest had become emotionally spent long before, and the last year or two were years of utter exhaustion in which resentment against the institution built.  Still one more possibility might be the eagerness and energy with which a successor arrives into the congregation – greeted by a welcoming congregation which had been lethargic in recent years.  The priest feels a sense of betrayal.

            I am quite certain that many cases are grounded in anger at the hierarchy (read the diocesan leadership) who appropriately require the priest to separate from the congregation he or she had served in recent years.  When such a group of people have been the focus of one’s life for so long, it is hard to set those emotions and connections aside.

             The most glaring reason, I suspect, is also the least acknowledged.  It is a dual sense of being discarded combined with the reality, I believe, that the church rewards bad behavior but does not recognize faithful service.  I have seen congregations pay large severance packages to clergy who have been less-than-fully-appropriate in their functioning (In some cases that is a monumental understatement), while other clergy who have been diligent and faithful are given a handshake and shown the door.  There is moral hazard in that approach, in the rewarding of inappropriate behavior over faithful functioning.  I have warned leadership about that tendency in the past, but I do not believe that it has changed.

            Of course, I would point out that all retired priests are granted a wonderful pension benefit.  That particular benefit increases as years of service build. Once one has become vested in the pension system, the benefit can never be removed.  It does not matter how a priest exits active service – through removal for moral reasons or retirement at the end of many years of service.  All of us who have been privileged to serve as priests should feel gratitude for that wonderful benefit.

            Having said all that, I have still noticed that many retired priests feel a sense of alienation from the Church they have served – and, in some cases, even anger.  I think that sense of anger or alienation has many causes and explanations but, regardless, it is there.

            For years I have vowed that I would not allow myself to sink into that pit of anger and despair.  I have loved functioning as a priest.  It has been a blessing beyond words.  I have been blessed to serve at each congregation and in each position.  There have been wonderful friends all along the way.

            So, even with all this awareness of the issues, imagine my surprise when I found myself with a rising sense of resentment.  It slapped me hard in the face as I prepared my sermon for this past Sunday.  It gets touchy when a priest is preaching to himself or herself! But, I was.

            The insight for me was this:  As pilot Chuck Yeager might say, I was holding too tightly to the stick.  Recognizing that my time in this position is coming to an end, I was investing a lot of energy into seeing that things were done right (which, coincidentally, was my way).  My way of doing things had become my idol.  And, surprise of surprises, others would not bow down and worship my idols.

            So the lesson for me is clear: Don’t hold so tightly to the stick.  Let go.  Again, again, and again.  Allow others to assume positions and responsibilities which will provide for a smoother transition.  I must begin to step back from the central role I have had in some areas.  My prayer needs to be an amended Serenity Prayer.

            There is one other element, however, of this gumbo of emotions I am feeling.  It is a dynamic that all priests face, regardless of whether or not there is an awareness of the name.  It is called emotional labor.  Emotional labor is that which is done with either emotions hidden or controlled or that which involves very difficult and stressful work.  All clergy do emotional labor and all pay a price for it.  Sometimes we are able to deal with it appropriately or constructively – such as through prayer, therapy, spiritual direction, or peer support groups.  Other times, when the emotional labor is ignored or not dealt with, it will come out sideways – in ways that will either hurt us or others.  Addiction can be one of those unhelpful offshoots.

            Emotional labor always takes a toll.  Over years, it can become a boulder in the heart instead of just a pebble.  It is much more difficult to bear.

            I am aware I have reached my limit with emotional labor.  I have seen enough sausage made.  It is time to step back, release my burdens, let go of the stick, and take the mule to the barn.

            Sigmund Freud wrote of the talking cure many years ago (a term he actually appropriated from an earlier writer).  This exercise of writing this blog has been a writing cure.  It has allowed me the opportunity to think through, process, and come to some sense of my current state of mind and spirit.