Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Life of Work: Part 5C

It seems to me, in retrospect, that much of my work life, maybe much of my life, period, has been marked by times when hubris got the better of me and I assumed I knew things I did not know.  I was a child who did not like to ask questions but rather tried to figure things out for myself.  It got me into awkward situations time and again as I'd leap to a conclusion based on inadequate information and forethought. 

That was how I decided, at about age 11, that babies came because the mother took pills;  I had never asked my mother to tell me how it happened, but, in reading the book "Not as a Stranger", I noted an anecdote in which a weeping woman took pills and then cut up baby clothes into the toilet.  How I came to think that this was an instance of baby-making is a mystery to me, but I believed it firmly until a friend set me straight.  Even then, I was aghast!  How could my parents have done such a strange thing?

I think I have always been uncomfortable asking questions because I felt embarrassed if I didn't know something.  "Beginner's Mind" was an unknown concept in my growing-up and because I was touted as a brainiac in elementary and high school, I didn't want to reveal my own ignorance.  So I didn't ask questions much.  I've gotten much better at that, but I still am uneasy when I'm out of my depth knowledge-wise and I tend to listen hard, paraphrase what I hear and try to synthesize it for myself, but I still goof it up periodically.

Anyhow, lessons learned at Wy'east were of the hubristic variety.  I went in thinking I was going to be their savioress, their ticket to the big time, their crusader leading the way to huge growth and significant outreach in the community.  Wrong again!  They liked me fine initially, were charmed by my interesting sermons and ideas, but chafed at my insistence on being involved in every committee, every activity, every idea circulating.  Some of this chafed-ness was due to their own misunderstandings of ministry; they didn't think I ought to attend board meetings or have opinions about where we held services or help sponsor social justice programs.

I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do (and I was, to a great extent---I mean, isn't it obvious that ministers should attend board meetings?) but I had not considered the impact of my sense of surety about what the congregation should do.  I moved too fast, assumed everyone would love my ideas, and didn't consider the consequences of irritating long-standing congregational leaders who came to see me as an intruder and a threat to the way they had been running the congregation.  They felt that I wanted to control everything and that I saw myself as the centerpoint of the life of the congregation.

A congregation that has been on its own for several years, managing worship and governance and social action fairly successfully all that time, is not going to want some upstart minister fresh out of seminary to come and tell them how they should be doing it.  And that's what happened to me.

In the aftermath, I did some soulsearching and realized that I had learned a great deal, had recognized an old pattern in myself that needed attention, and came to some new conclusions:  a minister needs to work collaboratively with congregational leadership, especially if the congregation is new to ministry; it's important not to rush in with new programs and new ideas, better to take plenty of time and call everything an experiment;  if things go wrong and you get sideways with congregants, be transparent, don't be afraid to apologize (out of misplaced pride), and always keep reconciliation as a goal.

In a sermon I preached as we were dealing with the mess we'd made, I acknowledged to the congregation that I have some besetting faults:  my energy and enthusiasm can feel disempowering and controlling to those I work with or serve; I am often defensive when people want to give me feedback; and I am always "on" when with congregants , and yet I forget this frequently.

I made some promises to the congregation in that sermon:  I will remember the possible effect of my energy and enthusiasm on those I serve; I will listen with acceptance and won't offer explanations of my behavior unless asked; I will curb my tendency to be "flip" and will remember that a minister's opinions and even casual comments can have extra weight to a congregant because of the role.

As that final year lurched on, one deep pain that was never resolved continues to this day:  because of the conflict, which occurred early in the church year (September through November), many people who were advocates and supporters of my ministry disappeared because they didn't want to see the people in church with whom they disagreed.  I understood this at one level, but I felt abandoned by these former members who left not only the congregation but left me, despite my need for their support and advocacy. 

It was one of the strokes of luck during that last year or two that the FS was living with me in Portland, going to school and working.  He and I had many long conversations about conditions in the congregation and he was one advocate and supporter to whom I turned regularly.  How nice to have an adult child who has such understanding and perspective!  He helped me sort through my own feelings, made me laugh, and kept me sane.  Thanks, Mike.


Miss Kitty said...

It seems to me, in retrospect, that much of my work life, maybe much of my life, period, has been marked by times when hubris got the better of me and I assumed I knew things I did not know. ...

Me, too, Ms. K. As I've been reading your "Life of Work" series, I've started thinking that you and I have very similar personalities. It's neat (and otherworldly-weird, too) to read your blog and see the older me in your posts. If I really am a "younger Ms. K," at least I'll be really cool in another 29 years. :-P

You have a lot of courage and self-awareness to write these posts, and I admire you for putting them up for us to read. It's wonderful that your son has been able to help and support you during your ministry and struggles. Indeed, "How nice to have an adult child who has such understanding and perspective!"

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Miss K. I would be honored to be the incarnation of you in a different generation!

I hope we get to meet in person some day!