MLCI Series: Reflections on Pastoral Identity
Over the next several weeks, we’ll be hearing from various guest writers as they reflect on their own sense of pastoral/vocational identity. We’ve asked these writers to share their thoughts believing that an essential piece of overall health and well-being for clergy is a sense of self that extends “beyond the pulpit”, but that also embraces the realities of their calling to ministry. We’re grateful for the thoughts of these fine pastors and welcome your engagement with them in conversation.
This week’s contribution comes from the Reverend Erin Wathen, LTS alum and pastor of St. Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, KS.
As clergy, we know that healthy boundaries can make or break a ministry. We go to SUPER FUN AND EXCITING training sessions once every five years or so, to make sure that we are equipped to keep those boundaries in place. We are reminded to keep sabbath; to protect confidentiality; to make time for our families; to care for passive-aggressive people without engaging their dysfunction; to report abuse, neglect or criminal activity when it comes up in a pastoral setting; and/or, to not sleep with inappropriate people. As self-evident as they seem, these are good reminders and, clearly, important practices to keep us—and our congregations—healthy and safe.
Boundaries are CRITICAL to pastoral identity, and I want to be clear on that upfront.
However—sometimes intentional boundaries can become unintentional barriers. It’s a fine line, and I don’t know the answer to discerning when good boundaries become self-limiting ones. But I can name the moment when I decided that I wasn’t going to barricade myself behind the “Reverend” title and the robe.
I had been blogging for a couple of years, and for the most part, it had served my small church well. It connected folks during the week. It was a way of articulating values that we shared as a congregation, and giving my people a language of faith that could serve them in the wider world. It also proved to be a valuable evangelism tool.
But occasionally—you see where this is going—just every now and then, it was trouble. Because I’m not always “Reverend” anything in that space. I am just me. And ‘just me,’ as it turns out, can be a bit much for folks. A pretty left-leaning feminist. And an English major with a taste for colorful language.
I remember one day in particular when a woman, fairly new to the congregation, called me. She had read some recent posts and was outraged by some little signs and symbols that I had used —comic book style—to imply choice words of the 4-letter variety. In fact, she was angry enough to hang up on me. I took a few breaths and called her back, to see if we could have a conversation about this. I tried to respect her discomfort. I talked about the ways a blog is not the pulpit—the ways it was drawing people to our church because of its ‘real’ and approachable nature. I ventured into the possible generation gap that MIGHT, just maybe, make her feelings about those words (real or implied) different than my own.
I was kind. I was pastoral. I resisted the urge to shout “Then I guess you don’t watch TV, or movies, or leave your house EVER!” But ultimately, it was too much for her. She left the church. She would not speak to me in the grocery store. Those things are painful, to we who value community and relationship, above all.
I also know that my decision to “just be me,” whatever the cost, has drawn far more people into congregations that I serve than it has turned people away from us. Whether I have pink or purple hair (usually), or refuse to dress like a nun, or use the occasional ‘informal’ slang, or talk openly about my love of bourbon—there will be people who find me inappropriate, off-putting, or maybe just a little too much. It’s been a journey, but I’ve learned to be ok with that.
Because really, 90% of ministry is just showing up, and being who we are. If we are going to be pastors, we have to show up as ourselves, above all. We have to trust people to meet us where we are, and love us for who we are—just as we try to do the same for them. For many people who have been damaged by the rigid expectations of traditional church, it is profoundly healing to hear the gospel delivered by a pastor who is as “normal,” imperfect and broken as they know themselves to be. If that brand of reality is my gift to the Church in my time and place—so be it.
This doesn’t mean I will never misstep or misspeak, needing to show up with an apology in hand. But it does mean I have made a spiritual practice of unapologetic authenticity. I let people into my real life—as far as that is appropriate and healthy—and figure that the Holy Spirit meets us somewhere in the middle of the swearing, pink-hair wearing, bourbon-drinking mess.
Hasn’t this always been our story, Church? And hasn’t it always been good news?
The Ministry Life Choices Initiative (MLCI) is a partnership between the Pension Fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Lexington Theological Seminary. MLCI’s goal is to assist pastors in years 1-5 of ministry with developing habits and practices for sustainable ministry. The relationship spans the first few years of theological education and the introductory years as a congregational minister.