A Pastoral Paradox

Daily Episcopalian
By Richard Helmer

In a more provocative moment, I recently posted on Facebook that when confronted with the word “pastoral” I am increasingly tempted to wonder — if not ask out loud — if “co-dependent” is what is often really meant. It seems that “pastoral” can be code for mere coddling bad behavior, or simply leaving things dangerously alone.

Approaching eleven years in congregational leadership as a priest, I have heard “pastoral” used in a wide variety of ways by laity and clergy alike. Judging by the responses to my Facebook post, there is little agreement about what we mean by “pastoral.” The word seems to hide or embrace a whole host of meanings. And it often too easily gives rise to a whole host of platitudes.

We are often guilty of applying “pastoral” as a judgment:

“She’s a great administrator, but a lousy pastor.” (As though successfully managing a complex blend of personalities and agendas like a congregation or a staff isn’t “pastoral.”)

“He doesn’t have a pastoral bone in his body.” (As though being “pastoral” is something innate, rather than a learned skill.)

Worse, we often leverage “that’s not pastoral” when our leaders make difficult decisions, particularly decisions with which we disagree.

One response to my Facebook post talked about “pastoral” only in terms of presence. That is, being “pastoral” means being present for people while not trying to “fix” anything. It is true that much of the work of pastoring in a community is about showing up, listening, and being fully “on deck,” as those in our charge approach with the bumps, bruises, and paradoxes of this life. But is this way of being pastoral enough when the community is threatened by a toxic personality or two? Or when the most well-intentioned souls, if left simply to their own devices, might wreak havoc on the shared trust and integrity that the community relies upon to work out its mission in Christ? Sometimes being “pastoral” means holding firm the boundaries, plans, and structures of the community. Saying no can be just as pastoral — sometimes even more so — than simply listening. It is certainly more pastoral than the co-dependent “yes” that sometimes gives bad behavior permission to thrive, that allows the wolves to have their way among the sheep.

A well-seasoned priest once reminded me that sometimes no pastoral care is the best pastoral care. How do we as leaders decide what is important and what is the ordinary static of human relationships? And when does our attention to an interpersonal conflict magnify the difficulties more than resolve them? When is simply moving through the ordinary bumps of relationships — as many healthy friends, spouses, and communities learn to do — better than holding a “pastoral” conversation over a perceived problem? When do we back away enough to allow people to grow up in Christ in their own rough-and-tumble way?

I wonder at how sometimes we expect “pastoral care” to be some kind of therapeutic “I’m okay, you’re okay” — a mere validation of our feelings or, worse, a coddling comfort when we have erred. In my experience, that’s not good pastoral care. It’s not even good therapy. We need help to find our ways out of our bad behavioral binds, our emotional mazes, and sometimes our addictive patterns. Like lost sheep, we need pastoral care that guides us back to the green pastures and still waters that nourish us. We need to be told to get up and walk out of abusive situations and stand tall over and against the wrong, the hurtful, and even the outright evil that will inevitably come our way. We need to be supported by pastoral care in doing what is right, even when it is unpopular or profoundly difficult.

It’s taken me eleven years to learn to pray (a lot!) into some hard-knock, paradoxical learnings:

We need — whether we expect it or not — pastoral leaders who tell us hard truths and have the fortitude to bear the hostility that will sometimes be the response; to remember, in the words of a spiritual director of mine, that what others think of us is not really our business.

At the same time, we need — whether we expect it or not — pastoral leaders who are sensitive and vulnerable enough to work at discerning how best to disclose the truth in ways that we might be able to hear.

We also need pastoral leaders who will take tough stands on behalf of the community: leaders who will prayerfully discern when people need to be shown the door; when people need to be allowed to depart in peace; and when it really is time, in Jesus’ words, to leave the ninety-nine and go after the lost one.

Most of all, we need — whether we expect it or not — whole pastoral communities that are more than sacramental grocers or spiritual retailers. We need pastoral communities that hold their members accountable; that set expectations; that challenge us all to grow in the paths of our most faithful Pastor, and disclose the divine shepherding at work in our midst.

Br. Richard Edward Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA.