The Ministers’ Morgue: A Discussion of Intimacy and Authenticity

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
The Ministers’ Morgue: A Discussion of Intimacy and Authenticity

In December I posted a short story called The Ministers’ Morgue. If you would like to read it, here are parts one, two, and three. The following is an invitation to conversation about some of the issues that story addresses.

A little background

After I completed seminary, I spent 18 months in a Clinical Pastoral Education program at a hospital in Texas. The head of pastoral care at this hospital had an idea that ministers coming out of seminary, their heads filled with spiritual thoughts, needed to be reminded of the biological realities of humanity. Accordingly, it was required that all new CPE interns view an autopsy.

It’s the kind of thing that sticks in your memory. Clearly it stuck in mine. The autopsy scene from the story is inspired by my own viewing of an autopsy. Veterans of CPE, recalling the painful honesty and severe introspection required by that program, may also think the metaphor of being gutted appropriate for other reasons.

Issue #1 - Intimacy and authenticity for helping professions

The story is about intimacy and authenticity in the context of professional Christian ministry.  I feel certain that people of many helping professions - social workers, therapists, etc. -  struggle with similar issues. I think intimacy and authenticity are particularly troublesome issues for ministers, because our boundaries are difficult to sort out. A social worker knows who her clients are, who her friends are, and who goes to her church. For many ministers, these lines are far less clear, if only because we are members of the very churches we serve.

In a blog post years ago, I referred to the people in my congregation as my friends. I got a couple of emails from pastors in higher church traditions, warning me that thinking church members could be friends was dangerous for a pastor.

I understand what they meant, but how could these people NOT be my friends? They were in my church.

Question:

How should ministers relate to the people in their churches? Should they be like hired clinicians, caring for the flock but carefully reserving their friendship for people who are not in their churches? Some seminaries teach this approach. Or should ministers fully immerse ourselves in our communities of faith, trying to be shepherd, friend, and brother or sister in Christ all at once?

I wish I had an answer for this. I served a church as a minister for twenty years, but I never quite sorted this out for myself. In the end, I ran out of steam and resigned, in part because I no longer wanted to carry the weight of the powerful role we call pastor.

Issue #2 - Becoming vs. being

Christianity is about redemption and transformation. We grow spiritually closer to Christ. We expect to be better people after years of devoted discipleship and worship. But what do we do with the sinful realities of who we are in the meantime?

The Church ought to be a place where we are free to be honest about our sins and joyful about our growth as spiritual beings. And yet, I know people who can confess their problems at an AA meeting or with friends at work but would never be so honest at church.

The central character in The Ministers' Morgue discovers that his friend and fellow pastor, Doug, died trying to be things that he was not. Doug was not a bad person or a hypocrite. He was trying to be what he thought a pastor should be and believe what he thought a pastor should believe. Sadly, Doug had no community of friends wherein he could share his own weakness, brokenness, and sin. Rather than seek out such a community for himself, he developed a less healthy coping mechanism that ultimately killed him.

I believe that Christian ministers in our culture often become impersonal symbols of what we collectively wish we could be. Maybe you don't know the Bible as well as you should, but it is comforting to think that pastor Bob does. Maybe you struggle with lust or envy more than you can publicly admit, so you feel inspired by reverend Susan, who seems completely pure in heart.

Ministers live with a certain persona, marked in different ways by different traditions. In the Catholic tradition the minister is set apart from the community by his celibacy. In other traditions the minister wears a collar. Ministers in evangelical traditions, without official vestments, often affect a stylistic way of speaking when preaching or an overly-loving persona when dealing with people in the church. I've known ministers in private who are nothing at all like the person you see at the church on Sunday mornings. They slip into their persona as easily as an actor slips into a costume.

QUESTION:

How can a pastor be honest, transparent, and fully human, while living in a role that requires him or her to be a spiritual leader, an example, and an inspiration?

That is the question.

I do not have the answer. That may have much to do with why I am no longer a pastor.

Is it possible to find the grail-like Tertium Quid mentioned in the story, the way of sacrificially serving Christ as a pastor while being well in spirit and body?

What do you think?

by Gordon Atkinson, author of Reallivepreacher.com and Turtles all the Way Down. Photo by Plain Joe Studios.

Clinical Pastoral Education