One thing I’ve realised more clearly than before, since leaving college, is the extraordinary power of pastors to hurt people.
While I’ve heard some beautiful stories of gracious pastors from people I’ve met in my neighbourhood, many people, and most who’ve joined our church, have stories of how they’ve been hurt by church leaders at some time. They’ve felt judged, misjudged, bullied, ignored, rejected or betrayed. Or they’ve been close to someone who has.
It’s not that pastors are more cruel or evil than other people. It’s the power they have that is the distinctive factor. How it works is: people trust us. They entrust themselves to us. They put themselves in our power.
People come to us with all sorts of problems and issues. Their worst tragedies which they can’t bear to tell anyone else – they tell us. Their deepest fears and insecurities, they want us to know about them. Their most painful experiences, their loves and losses. Their darkest, most shameful sins. They need someone to know, the burden is too heavy to bear on their own. They entrust the weight to us. The confessional is alive and well in the Protestant church!
All this puts people deeply, deeply under our power. It’s not just that we have the dirt on them. It’s that we are allowed further in to the exposed, unguarded parts of the soul than is usual. We deal with people at their most vulnerable. And we deal with them as representatives of Christ himself. What we do at those times has a massive impact, for good or evil. We can heal, and we can wound. We are in a unique position to strengthen faith or to destroy it. My interest here is in the destruction.
I think when I do people harm, it’s usually from ignorance. I just don’t understand them and their needs well enough to know how to help at that point, how to speak words of healing, how to minister the grace of God to them in the way they need right now. Insensitivity is a big part of it.
And most pastors are men.
Aussie men are not world-famous for their relational sensitivity. And yet we pastors find ourselves in this demanding relational role. We are required to operate in an area where we have little natural competence.
And where the stakes are high. One wrong move at that place of vulnerability can do lifelong damage. The consequences of stuffing up can be catastrophic for the people who trust us, and for their families. Scary stuff. And years of experience, rather than teaching us, can simply entrench incompetent patterns of relating and pastoring.
Of all the courses I did at Moore College, the one that has helped me most, that I’ve drawn on most often in ministry, is certainly the fourth year Pastoral Ministry course. The teaching was outsourced to pastoral care professionals who were fairly high powered in what they do, and had massive experience and wide recognition. Those guys taught us how to listen to people and how to understand their needs. At least, they tried to. There’s a limit to what you can do with blockheads in 40 hours!
But it really helped. In particular they drummed into our heads that when needy people speak to us, the cognitive content of the words people speak is not the main part of what they are communicating. The discourse of emotions that is going on ‘between the lines’ or under the surface, gives the real clues as to what is happening for them. And that message may be quite different from the words they speak. In other words, we need to stop relating to people as minds only, and learn the language of hearts. If you can hear a person’s heart, you know them.
As the truth of what they were saying gradually dawned on me, I came to the awful realisation that I was incompetent in this basic pastoral skill. I didn’t speak the right language. As a white anglo protestant male, I naturally prefer to operate from the head and deal with the intellectual content, the ideas, in people’s speech, not with the people themselves.
If I’ve had any success in not hurting people in ministry, it’s been because I’ve been trying to learn and practise the skills those guys introduced to us in 4th year. It was as I say the most helpful thing I did at college to prepare for my everyday work.
But here’s the thing that bothers me: most guys at Moore didn’t do that course. A lot finish at the end of third year, and it was 4th year course. Even then, it was an elective: you had to choose it, and many 4th years didn’t. Suspect they still don’t.
I know some guys are naturally good at this stuff, and are gifted at pastoral work. But for any who are like me, I worry a bit. If I’d come out of college without being challenged about this stuff, I hate to think of the harm I would have done by now in peoples’ lives. It’s scary to think of so much power in the hands of the clueless. Like a guy driving a massive rig with no driver’s licence.
Not that I think I’ve got the licence now. I’m just learning. I hope one day to be a skilful shepherd who knows how to listen and speak and act to bring hope and grace and healing into the lives of troubled people. But for now, at least what I’ve learnt is helping limit the damage I do. Minimising the ‘roadkill on the evangelical highway’. That’s the point of this reflection: it’s about damage.
So here’s my bottom line: I think it’s incumbent on all pastors to gain enough relational competence to, at the very least, be able to receive people’s sacred trusts without harming them in return. I know it’s not aiming very high, but it’s worth saying: surely we are responsible to gain the skills needed to stop the litter of casualties that fall by the wayside of our ministries.
And where are we going to gain those?
As I was leaving Moore, I pleaded with those in charge to make that Pastoral course a core subject for all students. I don’t think they did.