Defining a Self: A Function of Faith?

LEAVEN Vol. XXVIII, No 10 May,1999, p 2-3 OR, Grants Pass :NNECA

Mickie W. Crimone, M.S., APRN

I was intrigued by the editor’s question about the relationship of a priest’s spiritual life to differentiation. I began to think about all the clergy I have coached and several stories came to mind. One situation involved a young priest who had been in a staff position and only recently returned to the pastorate. His new church had a reputation, but he thought it would be a challenge. In the beginning, the priest did have a tendency to try too hard and respond to everyone’s needs He worked on this and began to define himself and handle the predictable sabotage. Perhaps things were going too well. At the beginning of his second year he decided to get married. The priest went away for a week to visit his fiancee. On the Sunday he returned, two women announced they were leaving the congregation announcing that “he isn’t fit to be a priest.” The anxiety in the system started to climb and started a series of events culminating in the priest wanting to leave. As one of my other trainees so aptly put it: “the clergy’s white collar is the screen on which people project their immaturity.” How true!

When anyone, and most especially the pastor, makes a move to define self (differentiate), it is predictable that the forces for togetherness will gather to sabotage the effort. The priest becomes the “lightening rod” for the interconnecting systems of the parishioners, the church’s work system, and their own family. The priest’s only salvation is to focus on self and regulate his reactions. Differentiation is the hardest work I know! Where does a priest get the stamina and resolve to stay the course? To stand, as a non- anxious presence is possible only if grounded in one’s faith commitments and trusts in God. And, I believe that to develop a mature relationship with God one must become more of a self.

The priest in defining oneself is in reality defining his belief of what God wants in this situation. Differentiation or defining a self is really about charting one’s own course based on clear internal values, principles, and goals. If a priest has not developed a mature relationship with God how can one define a self else where? It is this primary relationship that aids the priest to see clearly and keep one’s vision.

Differentiation means knowing where you are and others begin. It is about separateness while staying in touch with those around you. Differentiation cannot be done in isolation. But rather a mature person maintains a relationship with the important people in one’s life (family, vestry, or even the choir ) in spite of their ability to drive you crazy. One doesn’t adapt to the others immature demands but instead challenges them to grow. Staying connected to the unlovable is true reflection of Christ’s love.

Differentiation means reigning in the “helper genes.” Remember that helpfulness is usually more a function of one’s own need to help, rather than the actual needs of the other. People can’t grow if anyone is in their space and they can’t hear you if they are running from you. Have you ever tried to talk to a teenager as they are walking out the door? No one can “hear” unless they are coming toward you. What attracts others is a solid self. Christ had an infinite capacity to love, yet He never chased or forced anyone to come to Him. It was His presence that “cured” those who reached out to Him. I believe it is challenge that promotes growth in ourselves and others. Differentiation is a life long process of becoming.

Back to the priest I mentioned. The anxiety of system was clouding his ability to think. In response to the attacks, all he could do was react and try to defend himself. What happened to this priest? His vision got lost in the atmosphere of the congregation. The implication of impropriety, although not based on fact, is enough to get any congregation upset. In these situations, I always remember Friedman saying “in order to be a leader, one must not only be able to take a punch but love it.” A series of questions began to clarify the situation. Although the priest had told the senior warden of his marriage plans, no one else in the church “knew.” But of course they knew, in the way kids in a family know something is happening. On an emotional level, the pending marriage of the pastor threatened the church with a decrease of his attention. The two women who left the congregation were divorcees who were losing their fantasy husband.

How to aid the priest to refocus and stand his ground? He needed to evaluate what let the anxiety flourish, as well as regulate his reactions. Rather than defending himself, it was important to be a non- anxious presence. To over simplify the process, I asked him to reflect on his call. Where did God want him to be? This change of focus enabled him to begin to self regulate and reconnect with what was really important. This is not so different from Christ’s vision of the Kingdom which was unshakable in spite of the reactions of others. Of course, this didn’t make the church situation immediately better, but the priest was able to switch from reacting to the anxious congregation to calmly stating his position. The priest began to handle the vague accusations by letting everyone know about them and using this to connect to the congregation. The priest also asked the congregation to pray for his up coming marriage. Indeed, this crisis gives him a chance to change his functioning with the church. It is predictable that the sabotage will increase for a while. What will sustain him in the isolation of differentiation and enable him to continue to take clear stands? I believe it will be his faith and the knowledge that, in God, he is never really alone.