Thursday, September 21, 2006

A conundrum of ministry in a small community

One of the challenges of ministry in a small community is friendship--------where does the minister find friends? how does the minister maintain a certain professional distance from congregants without sacrificing a social life? is it really taboo to make friends with congregants?

I knew I'd face this when I moved to this island community. One of my strengths is being able to relate eye-to-eye with those I serve. It served me well as a junior high school counselor, because my kids didn't feel talked down to or patronized. They saw me as an adult, but an approachable one. I had good boundaries, I think, but I rarely set myself "above" my students, except to uphold school rules as necessary.

Now I'm a minister, trying to be authentic and my true self, but also aware that too much self-disclosure can easily work against me. Last night I had dinner with a couple in the congregation and we talked about this dilemma a bit. It's hard to explain the need for "professional friendship" to someone whom I respect and like a great deal, people I would readily glom onto as close friends, if it didn't feel a little dangerous.

It's not because they are dangerous, it's more because I am aware that my credibility as a minister can be damaged if I'm known too well or too intimately by those I serve. Yet the desire to reveal myself is strong when I encounter congregants with whom I feel compatible.

This morning I was reviewing the evening mentally and checking to see if anything I had said or done might have damaged my credibility with them---------even my inarticulate explanations of "professional friendship". I doubt that my one glass of wine would cause too-loose lips and I don't think I crossed any line, but I am acutely aware of the fragility of professional authority. I'm also aware that to tout professional authority in such a situation does damage to my desire to be approachable and eye-to-eye with those I serve.

I've examined my thoughts on this through the lens of "do I just need people to like/love me?" and I am aware that this desire is present in me. Over the years (especially as a jr. hi counselor), I've tamed this desire pretty thoroughly. I don't NEED people to like or love me in the old unhealthy ways, but, boy, it sure makes things easier when they do! If I can be liked and loved without sacrificing integrity, I'm a happier person.

So I'll continue my efforts to make friends in the island community where I can truly let down my hair and be real. As an extrovert not afraid to do things alone, I find it relatively easy to reach out to people I don't know. Of course, then there's always the moment when "you're a minister?" creates the old "English teacher" syndrome where the person I've just met is searching the past few moments to see if they've said anything that a minister would disapprove of!

Ah well, one conundrum at a time today!


Chalicechick said...

Hmmm... Your local small newspaper's reporters are in a similar boat for slightly different reasons.

My first day as a reporter, I was explicitly told not to make friends.

Eventually I did make friends with the local liberal Baptist minister, and my boss had trouble critcizing that one. The minister got to hear a lot about what was going on in the community, I got a bunch of good story ideas. (e.g. The effect of HIPPA on the community. Pre-HIPPA, the minister had just walked up to the front desk at the hospital and asked "Are any of my congregants here?")

One time close to Christmas, a woman called me to ask if I knew of any toy drives, she was very poor and didn't have any presents for her son. I did know my friend was having one, so I told her to call First Baptist.

There was a pause and then she asked, "Are they going to mind that I'm black?"


South Carolina.

Anyway, having had a job where you had to be liked by most and close to few/none, I personally stuck it out by joining a UU church 60 miles away and making friends there. (Including a LinguistFriend, FWIW.) And also by befriending the Baptist minister but never joining his church.

But it was still really lonely.


LinguistFriend said...

Well, CC's gotten here first, hmm...So you worked as a junior high school counselor; what courage! What an incomparable preparation for dealing with the worst aspects of congregational life! How many days in purgatory you have earned your way out of, beause you have already been there! My mother for a number of years ran a middle sized private elementary school in VA, and would comment on how children developed full personalities in elementary school, only to have them blown apart when puberty reared its head around junior high.
It happens to teachers/profs too, of course. It is rare that one makes a real transition from teacher to friend. I am having a pleasant and productive time in working on joint research with an Arabic scholar who finished his doctorate with me last year. So far, he and I have a private truce, regardless of the rest of the world; I cross my fingers, toes, eyes, about that.

Berrysmom said...

How well I understand, Ms. K. I live in a small town (16,000) and serve a church which draws from a larger area (about 200K). Nearly ALL the cool people in town are in my congregation, many of whom I would be friends with in a heartbeat if I weren't their minister.

Having been here ten years now, I am finally discovering pockets of other cool people: the Executive Director of Planned Parenthood, a woman lawyer who walks her dog in the park with me (and who is friends with the unquestionably coolest woman in my church, also a lawyer), a much younger woman (my kids' age) whom I also met in he park with her dog. So it is possible to find people for friends who aren't in your congregation, but it takes a long time.

I am very clear about not being friends with anyone in my congregation. My self-reflective question is "Would I go shopping for clothes with this person?" The answer is always no. But I admit it's easier for me, because I have Berry's Dad, who is not only my husband but my co-minister. Having each other for friends makes it feel less crucial to have other friends, although of course I NEED women friends.

I can't answer your conundrum about what you need, but I want to encourage you to have patience and keep looking OUTSIDE the congregation for new friends. Then the trick is to discourage them from attending your church, because then you couldn't be friends any more. That's another side to the dilemma, because you know that they would love your church and would fit right in.

Of course, you can always (?) make friends with women ministers of other denominations--not much chance they're going to join your church!

ms. kitty said...

Just for the record, LinguistFriend, I LOVED being a junior high school teacher and counselor. I had a great time-----that age group is so juicy and unpredictable and grateful for adults who don't talk down to them.

I used to do lunch duty every day and it was good practice for my preaching career! You've got a cafeteria full of 300 7th graders? You've got to figure out how to get across to them that NO, they must not throw food, NO, they must clean up after themselves, NO, they have to go outside now! YES THEY DO!

So give an extrovert and closet musical comedy star a microphone and an audience and what do you get? The kids get serenaded: "Tomorrow, tomorrow, don't come to school tomorrow! It's Saaaa---tur----day!" and boy, do they leave the lunchroom fast!

LinguistFriend said...

Ms. KK -
I stand rebuked, which I thought might happen anyway. My only experience in junior high was as one of the students. The school was segregated, the students' idea of fun was flushing lit cherry bombs down the toilets (they go off under water), and the principal's idea of fun was making them listen to his rendition of "Danny Boy". Perhaps you had a better situation, but it sounds as if you handled it well.
Actually, the best thing that I recall in junior high, other than learning Latin, was when the science teacher loaned me design diagrams for torpedoes so I could understand the propulsion and ignition mechanisms. That was fun, and potentially more exciting than cherry bombs.