In the first week of my first call, I received a letter from a beloved seminary professor and friend. He wrote, “You will be good news to the people in those two churches.” It was the first time that I considered that ministry might include me being me and not just me doing church. In the course of my 10 years in parish ministry, I practiced the ministry of presence. I stood watch with families at the bedsides of loved ones who were dying. I spent the night holding the hand of a single mother who was giving birth alone. I sat with families at funeral homes and wedding receptions. Still, I never felt really useful. People would say thank you. They told me that my presence meant something. I didn’t see how.

Then I got to be on the receiving end of the ministry of presence. Out of the blue, my daughter Elly suffered two grand mal seizures. As we waited for her to wake up in the hospital, a friend sat with us. She held our hands and prayed with us. She came again the next day, bringing her mother and treats. They sat with me while my daughter had tests. When Elly got out of the hospital, we needed to watch her constantly for more seizures. A friend brought me dinner and shared it with me. Another came for a morning and stayed on through lunch. The friend from the hospital brought her mother, and ice cream, over to the house. I cannot remember much of what these women said. The words didn’t matter. I cannot remember their prayers—though we prayed together. What I do remember is the women’s presence. I held tightly to them and to those moments together. The new situation was scary and left me feeling lonely and alienated from normalcy. I looked forward to the presence of friends and family. Their presence was good medicine—good news—for me.

Our presence matters. We are good news to one another when we hang out through the messy stuff—the tears and bad words and unfixable situations. We are good news when we have nothing to offer but our availability. We are quiet support like the foundation of a house, present but not often noticed.

Paying Attention

At a recent workshop, the leader asked each of us to answer the question, “Who pays attention to you and why?” One of the participants spoke about a friend who was a gifted listener. “The first time I met her was at a busy conference. She stood right next to me and treated me like the most important person in the room. She gave me her full attention. I felt like royalty.”

In all of our relationships, one of the gifts we offer and receive is presence: being fully engaged in the moment. Like children at play, we become so occupied with the present that we lose track of time. When we experience fierce presence, we know that we have been seen, heard, and understood. Someone “gets” us. We feel valued.

Many of our encounters, however, lack this quality of presence. We are distracted or distant. Most of us are pretty good at faking presence. We say “uh-huh” into the phone as a friend recounts her day, all the while checking e-mail. At a conference, a colleague moves his head up and down while scanning the room for someone more important to talk to. At meetings we stare intently at each speaker, thinking about a problem at home or formulating our next comment. As a result, we move through our lives in a fog, only half aware of what has transpired over the course of each day’s conversations.

He had just graduated from seminary—full of hope and verve, feeling good about the interview with his church and ready to move into full-time ministry. A few weeks into his new position as pastor, I received a call. “This wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I’m seeing things that are disturbing which I didn’t pick up in the interview. What am I going to do now?”

We met and one of the first things this insightful man said was, “I feel like I’m subtly being asked to play a role in this church that is all too familiar to me. I think I’m supposed to over-function for others who are not really doing their jobs.” He was well aware of the frustration and resentment, burn-out, exhaustion and loneliness that are all a part of the territory of being an “over-functioner.” While he saw the need for psychotherapy to deal with the past which was re-surfacing, he also saw a role for a coaching relationship with me. Together we explored the congregational system and the patterns, talked about avoiding pitfalls, and identified ways he could grow, learn and use his many gifts for ministry.

As this pastor became steady and more assured about the ways in which he was responding to this congregational system’s desire for him to over-function, the system began to gradually and slowly self-correct. It began to respond to the “newness” that this pastor was introducing. He did not need to verbalize any of the pathology in the system or point fingers and humiliate others; he just had to focus on staying true to himself and his goal of being the best, most self-differentiated pastor he could be.

This sounds simple but, of course, it wasn’t. If this pastor had unconsciously allowed himself to get pulled into the role of over-functioning, the equilibrium in the system would have been maintained. Everyone would have continued in their familiar, predictable patterns. He probably would have become confused and frustrated and may have exited sooner rather than later—feeling disillusioned with his call to ministry and uncertain about whether he would ever choose to again serve in a parish setting. What a tremendous loss that would have been to this particular congregation, to this pastor and to the Church!

Sound familiar? Although this true story has been reviewed by the pastor and altered to protect confidentiality, this is not an uncommon scenario. We have all found ourselves in situations where there was a hand-in-glove fit between a system’s needs and our own familiar roles—a fit with both positive and negative aspects. Many of us are aware of the works of Edwin Friedman and others who introduced Bowen’s theory of family systems therapy into ministry settings.

We have known for decades that pastors are often under-supported. Ministry remains a lonely profession. Many ministry professionals still don’t avail themselves of the support they need for the great demands and expectations of the job or believe they are too busy or can’t afford the help of an outside professional. Some don’t even allow themselves to turn to the resources that are inexpensively available—a denominational executive or a more experienced pastor/mentor.

In recent years, coaching has become a useful alternative to psychotherapy and spiritual direction for corporate employees and now for ministry professionals—both lay and ordained. Unlike psychotherapy, which tends to focus more on diagnosis and on the past, or spiritual direction which looks at the state of one’s soul and one’s relationship with God, coaching is a way to strategize and navigate the current waters of professional or personal life—getting support, encouragement, new tools, strategies and even an appropriate dose of challenge.

Another, often overlooked benefit to coaching is that it may impact the entire system. While it is true that the system is more powerful than the individual, if an individual begins to introduce something new into the system and patiently remains steadfast as the system pushes back against that newness, over time things will likely (but certainly not always) change.

Sometimes the accumulation of changes will be major. In the case of this pastor, those who were not adequately functioning decided to leave on their own terms and those who needed to be held accountable began to be held accountable by the system in productive ways. Others even began to realize how the unhealthy parts of the system had negatively impacted them and eventually began to talk about the toll it had taken. Often, it was a mixed experience for this pastor to watch the reality unfold—to
watch the denial begin to unravel. On the one hand, he felt elated that something was happening and felt validated that his suspicions about the dynamics had been correct. On the other hand, he felt grief and sadness for those who had spent years feeling caught and trapped. Sometimes, it was even a bit frightening to experience the strength of these entrenched dynamics. Each new change also presented a new challenge for him as he pondered how he would respond next. On an even larger scale, the congregation itself seemed to wake up after a long period of stagnation and paralysis. Of course, not all of these changes were due to this one pastor, but I believe that he deserves a great deal of credit for patiently and consistently introducing something “other” into the system.

I have been very fortunate in my professional life as a parish pastor, chaplain, psychotherapist and consultant to have had some truly great coaches and “conversation partners.” I am deeply grateful for all the ways they have added color to my career, grounded me, believed in me and supported me through the joys and challenges of ministry. It is to all of these great coaches and to this courageous, pastor that I faithfully dedicate this article.

Copyright © 2005 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce go to our permissions form.

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