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Corruptions of Ministry

Workshop by John Weston, Director of Ministerial Transitions at the Unitarian Universalist Association

The impulse to move from a pastoral-size to a midsize church is often fired by fantasy. The fantasy is that the church as a midsize institution will be able to meet more needs than it did when it was a pastoral-size institution. With a half-time or more church administrator, a half-time or more religious educator, a better developed music program, a more adequate facility, a minister freed up to spend more time on sermons and adult education and less on quasi-administrative tasks, the church will meet more needs.

True and not true. Yes, the church will meet more needs: needs for more completely developed and age-appropriate life span religious education, needs for a more and better music experience both for the choir and for the congregation, needs for more well-crafted worship and substantial sermons. That's the yes. And no, the church will not meet more needs; instead it will meet different needs, and leave some needs behind. The most important need that will be left behind is intimacy needs. No longer will the church be a place of "like-minded people," as the fellowship movement in Unitarian Universalism used to tout. It's often said that in a midsize church people don't join the church as a whole but one or more groups within the church instead, but that just isn't always so. It isn't even mostly so. The larger the church, the greater the percentage of church folk who will be involved very selectively, on the basis of interest, aptitude, and occasional need rather than because their ongoing need for intimacy is met in the "comfort zone" of pastoral-size church. As church size increases, the space between people increases.

That should be no surprise. The space between people is increasing in every other aspect of our lives. Church isn't any different.

Our concern here today is with the what happens to the relationship between the congregation and the minister when the spaces between people in the congregation increase and when the space between the congregation and the minister increases. What happens when the minister becomes a more distant figure, often an apparently more powerful figure, a person who is known by others much better than he or she knows them, a figure who is not intimate "chronically" any more, but intimate only "acutely"? What happens when the relationship between the majority of the congregation and the minister is one-sided?

Some of the best thinking, in my opinion, about the relationship between a congregant and a minister in a midsize congregation has been done not by ministers but by psychoanalysts. The kinds of emotional spillover therapists get from clients, called "transference," ministers get from congregants. An example of transference is when a congregant brings to the minister the emotional responses coming from the congregant's relationship with his or her father or mother. Let me be concrete. A minister I know was finding it very difficult to relate to a man in his early forties who was quite active in the church. I'll call him George. George would speak sharply, even bitterly, both to the minister and to other people when the minister was around. In fact the best way for a congregant to become the object of the George's sharp tongue was to appear to approve of the minister. Finally, after a confrontation with the minister George became very angry, refused all offers of meeting, and wrote a scalding letter resigning from the church. The minister later learned from a person who knew George very well that George had behaved similarly with his bosses at work and with another minister at another church. The person had reason to believe that George's father had rejected him when he was a teenager, and George could not rest until he was rejected by others who seemed to him to be in positions of authority.

That's a pretty drastic example, but it illustrates, in an overstated way, the kinds of responses ministers in midsize churches can elicit. Such reactions may not be quite so common or quite so hot in pastoral-size churches, because the congregants are more intimate with each other, and because the minister is less distant and often less likely to appear as a figure of authority.

But I don't want to create the idea that my subject is congregants who are leading troubled lives. Not at all. People leading troubled lives, and people leading successful and productive lives—all people—have emotional needs that can only be met in relationships. What I want to do in the rest of my time is to continue to use the psychoanalytic lens to outline a theology of church, a theology of the minister-congregant relation, and a theology of the minister's function. My goal is to describe three things: 1) what is church "for"?—what is the purpose of church?; 2) what is the minister-congregant relationship "for"?—how does that relationship help the church fulfill its purpose?; and 3) to what corruptions is the function of the minister subject, and how do those corruptions corrupt the church? I am drawing very broadly on the thinking of the psychoanalyst and Unitarian Universalist Heinz Kohut in my first two points.

What is church for?

Unitarian Universalists often, in mind, overestimate human nature. We consistently fail to appreciate the harm human beings will do to each other in our desperation to make relationships serve our needs.

What is church for? I believe that the purpose of church is to offer a setting in which human beings can overcome their distorted narcissism, their disproportionate love of self. "Narcissism" is not, in my book, a bad word. Narcissism simply refers to self-love. There is healthy narcissism, and there is what I call distorted narcissism.

Let me try to give you an example of healthy narcissism. [Stand at the rostrum beaming, arms spread on the rostrum but relaxed, a picture of loving acceptance.] You all know this pose. It is the pose that many preachers assume on Sunday morning, just as they are about to begin their sermon. It is the picture of a soul at peace with itself and with the world, happy in its work, glad to be here, glad you are here, and glad, like the Lord, to "lift up his or her countenance on you, and give you peace." It is, in short, a picture of healthy narcissism.

What goes into such a picture? Three things, I think. One, the minister looks as if he or she has been and is loved and affirmed as a human being by loving and powerful others. As an infant and child and youth the minister had at least one loving and affirming parent. Two, the minister looks as if he or she is able to love and affirm others. As an infant and child and youth the minister had at least one parent who was good as well as powerful, and was willing to accept being idealized and looked up to. And three, the minister looks as if he or she is on good terms with equals: not an inferior, not a superior, but in the same swim with other human beings. As a child and youth the minister had good mutual relationships with peers. To sum it up: the minister feels worthy of receiving love and affirmation; the minister feels empowered to give love and affirmation; and the minister feels comfortable being human on the same terms as everyone else. Healthy narcissism. The very picture of a person who has gotten the goodies everyone ought to get

Distorted narcissism comes about when the goodies weren't there. Maybe it's a parent who was depressed or ill, and so did not have the capacity to mirror love and affirmation to the child. Or maybe the parent was narcissistically disturbed, and so preoccupied with self or career that the child never felt important. Or maybe the parent absolutely larded the child with love and affirmation, until the child realized that these sicky-sweet goodies were all about the parent, not about the child. In any of these cases, the child may come away feeling unlovable and unaffirmed. There are other family dynamics that may lead the child to feel incapable to loving and affirming others. And still others that may lead the child to feel unique, isolated, outside of the overall human situation, kind of an emotional wallflower.

The purpose of church, as I said before, the reason churches need to exist, is to offer a setting in which people can work through the distortions in their narcissism. The old saw is, "church isn't a museum for saints; it's a hospital for sinners." If sin is a condition of separation rather than any number of specific bad actions, we are all sinners, all distorted human beings, distorted in our narcissism more or less. Church offers us a setting in which to overcome those distortions, not by suppressing them, or by repressing them, but by working them through. If church is successful, we will become more able to receive from others, more able to give to others, and more able to join others in creating a world in which more of us get what the goodies we need.

Not by suppressing our distortions, or repressing them, but by working them through. That's the rub. To work something through, you have to let it out of the bag. Most of us keep the distortions in our narcissism in the bag most of the time. If we didn't, our bosses would fire us, our spouses or partners would leave us, our children wouldn't come out of their rooms, and our dogs would defecate on the carpet, and our cats would shred the curtains. We have incentives to keep the distortions in our narcissism in the bag. But church is something different. The purpose of church is to create a safe space where we can let our narcissism out of the bag. Not so that we can act it out! Who'd go to that church, Our Lady of Distorted Narcissists. Actually, too many UU churches resemble that church. But the task is to recognize distortions in narcissism without acting them out—or at least without acting them out fully. The task is to acknowledge our terrible preoccupation with self, to confess our need for healing, and to heal ourselves and each other, bringing ourselves and each other into health. And maybe, just maybe, we can extend that health further into the world.

What is the minister-congregant relationship for?

If that's what church is for, then the relationship between congregant and minister in a midsize church is crucial to the success of the working-through, crucial to the success of the church. Let me not speak here about the minister's function as co-leader with the lay leadership of the institutional church. Let me speak about the minister as spiritual leader. Remember, in a midsize church any congregant sees more of the minister than the minister sees of any congregant. The minister is prominent, even conspicuous, and the minister is powerful. Who was it who said, "Never get into a fight with a person who buys ink by the barrel"? The minister has the kind of power in the church and to some degree outside it that the publisher of a newspaper does. It is the power to influence, rather than the power to command, but it is power nevertheless. But of course it's also personal power, which is a lot more compelling than mere ink.

So the minister is "hot." The minister attracts transference. Whatever feelings congregants have about people who have been powerful in their lives, the minister absorbs some of them. Mother, father, son or daughter, sometimes deceased husband or wife, sometimes ex-(ouch)husband or wife, sometimes older or younger sibling, sometimes boss, sometimes employee, the minister attracts transference. Never, ever, is the minister a simple figure. Other people, shadow people, cluster about the minister, different shadow people for different congregants.

This is as it should be. This is necessary to the success of the church as a place where people work through their distorted narcissism. In being the screen on which these shadow people are projected, the minister is doing an important part of his or her work. But not the most important part. That is yet to come. The most important part of the minister's work is not to conspire with the congregant in actually being any of these shadow people. The minister's most important work is to be himself or herself, and nobody else. Playing into a congregant's need to see the minister as father, mother, and so on, gratifying the congregant's need, denies to the congregant the opportunity to work through the distortions. In the language of family systems, the minister must remain differentiated, emotionally available but removed from each congregant's emotional drama of distorted narcissism.

Before I go on to my third and last point, I want to return to George, who had a deep need to alienate the minister, just as he needed to alienate other figures of authority. As far as I am concerned the minister failed. I can say this because I was the minister. I failed. I did fine at the less important job, letting myself be a screen onto which George transferred his father. But I failed at the more important job, because I gave in and became all too much like George's father. When George was rude to me, I maintained my sense of self. But when George started spraying his anger at a couple of other people, I confronted him in tones that were all too likely reminiscent of the tones his father used toward him. He made me his father, and I finished the job. Then he could reject me and feel vindicated about it. Had I been more aware of what was happening, and had I kept my ability to differentiate myself from George's emotional processes, it is possible that over time, George could have said, "well, not all tall white middle-aged heterosexual men in authority are like my dad. They won't all turn against me." But by becoming angry in return, I didn't give him that chance.

To what corruptions is the minister's function subject, and to what effect in the church?

In a midsize church the crucial function of the minister is to help congregants work through the distortions in their narcissism both by accepting the transference and by not going along with it. A minister who insists that she or he is absolutely unique, and that the congregant who thinks the minister recalls his parent is batty—this minister is failing. But the minister who accepts the transference and then buys into the congregant's game by rejecting the congregant just as his father did also fails. The minister is not mother, father, ex-husband or ex-wife, older or younger sibling, child, boss, or employee—although the minister may recall any of these "transferentially," so to speak. The minister is the minister.

In my job as Settlement Director I have the opportunity to read the ministerial agreement, or "covenant," setting the terms of virtually every new relationship between a minister and a congregation. I am concerned to report that a number of these agreements in mid-size churches seem to me to hasten the corruption the ministry, to speak very frankly. My guess is that many more ministers are experiencing similar expectations, although they may not appear in black and white. I refer to agreements which say in so many words: "The minister will be held to the following performance standards—having to do with growth, staff management, sermon quality, and sometimes pastoral care—and will report to the board."

In what ways do provisions such as these corrupt the ministry? First, they corrupt the relationship of the minister with the board. Historically in Unitarian Universalist congregations, minister and the board share leadership. Each is elected by the congregation. Neither gives orders to the other. They give mutual counsel—sometimes pretty candid counsel—but not orders. These new arrangements subjecting the minister to the board's authority put the board in the role of supervisors of ministry rather than partners in leadership.

Second, such provisions corrupt the minister's relationship with the congregation as a whole. If the minister is being handed performance standards, should not the minister be handed the authority necessary to bring about the changes that would make the attainment of those standards more probable? Move money from this budget line and put it in that one. Fire this staff member and give a productivity bonus to that one. Fire this congregation member and give a committee chairship to that one. The minister becomes the CEO. Cross her, or cross him, and you're dead meat. Of course these things don't happen. The upshot is that the allocation of responsibility and accountability in the church becomes simply unclear. When a time of stress arrives—and stresses come to every ministry—such lack of clarity will sow distrust among the minister, the board, and the congregation.

Third, such provisions corrupt in the minister's relationship with every individual congregant. Consider Congregant A, a fairly active member. Congregant A doesn't much like his boss, who reminds him of him critical father. With a minister who is CEO, Congregant A may easily start to see everything the minister does as just one more dictatorial move by just another CEO. Alienation is just around the corner. Consider Congregant B, a member of the church board. At work Congregant B is the boss, supervising middle managers. How long before she starts to see the minister as just one more recalcitrant middle manager? Consider, finally, Congregant C, who is being given a hard time by her boss, and who sees the board as giving the minister a hard time. How will she ever relate to the minister as minister, rather than as fellow victim? In each of these cases we need to ask, how can the minister, put in the position of being the closely-supervised by the board, assist these congregants by identifying with none of their transferences when in some sense all of their transferences are true?

No, the minister is neither employee nor CEO, and our churches are neither corporations nor not-for-profit agencies. The minister does ministry, a kind of work not quite like any other work, with functions not quite like the functions of other workers, for the sake of purposes not quite like other purposes. That purpose is, to enable the church to offer a setting in which our people—all our people, board members and congregants and ministers too—can work through the distortions in the narcissism and widen our little, self-centered worlds. We come into our churches as distorted people, every Sunday of every year. We need church to work through our distortions. We need the minister to work through our distortions. If we are to do so, we must not put upon ministers functions which reinforce our distortions rather than assist us in working them through. We must ask the minister to be merely the minister. It is job enough.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Friday, February 24, 2012.

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