Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Pastor: a Public-Private Figure

I have crappy balance. So being asked to walk tightropes is really terrifying for me. Thus, when kindhearted "advisers" begin telling me how various aspects of being a pastor are a matter of balancing this and that, I get a headache. Nevertheless, the list of apparently contradictory demands on a pastor is long. One that I've been ruminating on lately is the nature of the Pastor as a public-private figure.

Consider this:
  • A pastor is a very public role. Especially in small towns or congregations, your behavior is a matter of more or less constant public scrutiny. Most pastors set out self-consciously to serve as examples, and if they don't they are still regarded as such. You are called on at least once a week to speak at length, in public, on issues of relevance to the lives of your parishioners. Your opinion is often invested (rightly or wrongly) with a vague kind of authority. If you wear vestments you are immediately identified, even by those who don't know you, for your position and all manner of social baggage is attached to that.
  • A pastor is a very private role. You are often called upon to be present with people in extremely private moments such as death, deprivation, counseling, sickness and prayer. Confidentiality is the keystone of your moral authority arch. A majority of your work is performed in isolation and your responsibilities include matters like personal spiritual development and study which are typically very private. Furthermore, in order to effectively fulfill your public role it is often necessary to be more private than another person - your political views, past experiences, and even theological convictions can be an obstacle to effective ministry if made public. A pastor's sexual life is more private than a construction worker's for example.
The difficulty in negotiating this is significant. It is problematic for me because I value integrity highly and so I sometimes feel like any demand that I behave differently in public than in private is an assault on my personal integrity. Let's take one example...

You are asked by a member of your congregation how you intend to vote in an upcoming election. I prefer to just answer questions with complete honesty, but what happens in this situation if I agree with the person - they may take that as theological vindication of their personal opinion. And if I disagree than it is possibly a theological assault on their opinion. Either way pastoral authority can corrupt this into a situation where simple agreement or disagreement turns into approval or condemnation. This applies to more than politics obviously.

It is impossible to avoid all statement of opinion. Anyone who tries is an idiot, and probably also very boring. So clearly one important issue is how to manage agreement and disagreement in a healthy manner when pastoral power dynamics are at play. However, there are plenty of times when it makes sense to avoid this trap. Discretion is the better part of valor and all that.

There are a number of ways to go about this:
  • Be direct - tell them you prefer not to speak about that.
  • Answer the question with a question - turn it back on them "What do YOU think?"
  • Tell an anecdote/quote from scripture/use a parable - give them an answer they have to unravel for themselves, or an inconclusive answer.
Getting good at these techniques is really useful. However, I balk at using them much because they seem dishonest. These are the same methods politicians use to get out of answering questions aren't they? Shouldn't we just tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth all day and all night?

What do YOU think?


Doug Hagler said...

I'd say that of the three the first solution is the best for a few reasons.

Turning the question back on them is going to come off as exactly what it is - evasion. You're just postponing the inevitable. Even if they tell you, now you have more obligation to reciprocate with your own view.

The parable or story is better than the second option, but it'll take a while, and if someone just wants to lead into a conversation about what they heard on NPR or saw on Fox News last night that is on their mind, they'll get derailed, you know?

I'd say you might make it into a joke:

* "Hey now, Parishioner, are you trying to get our tax-exempt status revoked? I won't stand for it! We're pretty broke as it is..."

This deflects but also implies the problem - that you aren't supposed to be politically specific in your position as a pastor.

You could also be honest but in a way that opens things up for them a little:

* "Well, you know Parishioner, I don't want to influence you one way or another. But I've got to wonder if there's something on your mind? It sure looks like we're headed for some hard times no matter who wins."

Relationship also matters. If you know the person and consider them something near a friend, who will keep confidences, you might just say:

"You know, personally I'm going to vote for Dennis Kucinich as a write-in. I definitely respect everyone's right to make up their mind, though. I've gotta wonder, any particular reason you're asking?"

The key here is to open up a conversational door, in case the *real* issue isn't the election at all, but something deeper that you can actually address...fear of being laid off, or of another war, or of a child who is overseas, or fear that public service funds will be cut, etc.

You can even get a little goofy in a helpful way:

"Hold on a minute. Let me take off my pastor hat and put on my citizen hat. Ok, there we go. Now, what was your question?"

Heather W. Reichgott said...

In general I think honesty is the best policy. I have found it works well to be open and allow parishioners to know me, even the parts of me that they may disagree with. It builds trust a lot more effectively than being distant or evasive. Also, disagreement is not a bad thing, and giving people a chance to disagree with someone in a pastoral role and have it all come out okay is a great way to foster a community environment where a diversity of opinions are valued. (My longest pastoral experience so far was in a church where people usually saw eye-to-eye politically, but had a HUGE amount of impassioned diversity on theology and religious language... and I was up there preaching and saying prayers and stuff, as someone more theologically conservative than most of the congregation.)

That said, there are times (as in counseling) where someone's question needs to be explored: when the question really isn't about the pastor's views at all. Not to protect the pastor, but to lovingly support the questioner. "Why do you ask?" opens a lot of doors. "Why do you ask?" while paying attention to the questioner's nonverbal communication yields a lot of insight into whether the person simply needs to talk out the issue for herself.

I do think there are things we just shouldn't discuss in public, whether it's in a pulpit or on a blog, but those are the sorts of things that anyone would consider TMI unless they were a REALLY GOOD FRIEND.

Jodie said...

You should try being a pastor's kid sometime! At least you are following the vocation of your choice.

"You are asked by a member of your congregation how you intend to vote in an upcoming election."

My Dad's answer always was that our ballots are supposed to be secret. He said it was his civic duty not to tell who he voted for. And he never did.

Alan said...

"Shouldn't we just tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth all day and all night?"

Of course not!

"Honey, that dress is ugly and it makes you look fat. Where did you even find a dress that was stitched together out of old potato sacks?"

I rest my case.

The fact that parishioners don't understand the line, and don't have the manners to know when not to cross it doesn't mean you have to respond.

I agree with Jodie, tell people it's none of their business (which is, in fact, the truth). You'll be doing them a favor by teaching them an important lesson about manners that their parents apparently never taught them.

Aric Clark said...

@ Doug,

The problem with the first response is that it is brusque. If not done gently it comes off as rude and it almost always shuts down conversation. Sometimes that is what I want - if a conversation goes in an inappropriate direction it may need to be shut down. But I use this option very rarely.

As for turning the question back, you're right it can obligate you to answer, and it can come across as evasion, but I think it is also often effective. Jesus seems to use this method pretty often in the gospels (answering questions with questions) and I use it whenever I think the question I've been asked is somehow off-target.

For example: someone asks me what God's opinion is on such and such a matter... I might redirect that one by asking what their understanding of God's priorities are.

In the example I gave in the post this 2nd option doesn't work, you're right because it was a direct question and it will be an insult to their intelligence to "evade" them that way.

As for making it a joke - not everyone is as quick with the funny lines as you are. That's a gift.

And relationship and context DEFINITELY matter. Obviously, how I would respond would vary a lot from person to person and situation to situation.

Aric Clark said...

@ Heather

I prefer honesty as well. And perhaps I overthink things, but I tend to believe there are ALOT more times like counseling where the persons question needs exploring than you'd expect. In my perception there are very few "innocent" questions asked of a pastor. They almost always have something behind them and thus I think just "answering" the question is often missing the point.

Perhaps I gave the impression that I was primarily concerned about protecting the pastor's privacy in my post. That is not the case. I am not a private person. At all. Even things most people think are TMI I am fine with having public.

What I AM concerned with, is the power dynamic between pastor and parishioner and not blithely going about spewing my opinions when they have potential to damage because of my position of authority (such as it is).

In other words, the privacy is there to support the public aspect of the ministry.

I agree that letting people know you and fostering healthy disagreement in a community is a great way to build trust and such. Absolutely. 100% honesty all the way whenever possible.

Aric Clark said...

@ Jodie

I'm not comfortable with "civic duties" really. So that won't be my answer, but I've heard it works for many pastors.

@ Alan

lol. Don't tell your parishioners they are fat.

Of course, not every question has such an obvious wrong answer.

Alan said...

"Of course, not every question has such an obvious wrong answer."

Oh, there's a wrong answer to that question? Woops. Must be why I never had much success with the fairer sex. :)

In any event, given the Oprah-ization of our culture, the point remains that people are far too eager to cross personal lines that, in previous generations, when manners mattered, they'd never cross. Though I'm 99% sure I know for whom my pastor voted, I can't imagine asking him.

Manners make the man (or the woman). It is also good manners not to reward the bad manners of others.

Revdarth said...

I think that it depends on the spirit of the parishioner coming to speak with you.

There are some who are coming who are simply seeking justification for their own opinions or to do a "litmus test." But there are others who are coming seeking guidance upon the issue as they are working it out for themselves and are seeking discernment from a spiritual director.

When I was pastoring in SD, I was a part of a group that publicly opposed the ban that was voted down 2 years ago. We did a press conference, newspaper article, etc and I did it all with the approval of my governing board as the position was in line with our denominational perspective.

People, however, did not see in that light and there was a strong blowback becuase they felt I was speaking for that specific congregation even though it was never specifically mentioned. I learned from that experience that I would not approach a hot topic in such a way again.

In the most recent elections, I did not shy away from what / who I was voting for (or against), but I did not do it as "the pastor speaking for the congregation" nor did I do it in a sermon. Instead, it was in one-to-one relaitonships that I had built up over the years where there could be community even when we strongly disagreed.

Overall, I think honesty is the best way to do it. While I do have both a public and a private role as a pastor, I am an individual who has the right to my own viewpoints and can feel free to share those in appropriate ways.

Nick.Larson said...

Actually for me when it comes to something like Politics I've tended to play the "this is what I think card." I tend to think that if you listen to someone seriously from the pulpit every week then it will probably be clear which way they lean politically. I think it could be sorta an insult to dodge the question.

I do respect the "civic duty" answer, and not telling. That's actually what my Dad said to us while we were growing up. To this day I don't actually know who he votes for, but I think I have a pretty good idea. So if that's where you stand all the time with everyone in your life then great, that's definitely your answer. But it's not mine.

But like others have already mentioned it's the relationship part that's the key. I like to think that we can be honest in conversation about politics even to the specific. I would like to think that within a congregation that I'm serving I've built up relationships with people that would allow them to disagree with me and to know that I'm not the single holder of truth (both in general and within the congregation). I agree with Heather. I think one role in the church is to model disagreement. Politics is almost always an avenue that allows for that.

But my push back is I think you have to be very careful in the pulpit. I would never endorse a specific figure from the pulpit. (and not only because it would revoke our tax exemption).

Hey think of it this way, what are the topics your not supposed to talk about around the Thanksgiving table? Politics...and Religion. So why shouldn't we be linking these to together in the church?

Chip Michael said...

I was a pastors kid and I never felt that my life wasn't my choice. My father held the belief that he didn't specifically say who he voted for, although he was ademant that everyone should vote. However, he was also ademant as to what the issues one should consider when voting and how those issues should be looked at by members of the church. So, anyone listening to his sermons would know how my father voted, so no one needed to ask.

- I like the idea of turning the question around and perhaps turning it into a parable. Jesus told a lot of stories to get his point across and it isn't so much who we vote for, but what we believe we are voting for, the issues. These are easily turned into "parables" and thereby provide the voting guidance we need (want or are asking for) without actually naming names.