by Herbert Anderson

This article re-examines the attention to boundaries in ministry that has emerged in recent decades partly as a necessary response to the violation of trust in the pastoral bond and partly because differentiated leadership has been promoted as a way of diminishing debilitating congregational anxiety. 

Boundaries are necessary for ministry, but so are bonds. If, however, being a connected leader is as important as being differentiated, how are bonds established and maintained between minister and congregation that will make it possible for them to do the work of God separately and together? My proposal is this: leaders are lovers. Pastoral bonds are as important as pastoral boundaries because connected leaders are differentiated lovers.

There are many dilemmas confronting congregations and pastoral leaders in this time. Balancing between stability and change is a particularly perplexing challenge. When people who gather to worship say “it is good to be here,” they are usually hoping for stability more than change. On the other side, pastoral leaders are often discouraged because congregations are reluctant to change quickly. Honoring tradition and promoting nostalgia about the past are often interpreted by fearful people as a sign of fidelity. By contrast, pastoral leaders promote openness to an uncertain future and the willingness to be surprised by God as marks of vital faith. In order to survive, congregations declare their desire to increase membership even though they dread the change such growth brings. What kind of leadership will foster hospitality inclusive enough to penetrate the walls of separation among people and between generations erected out of fear? The emphasis ondifferentiated leadership that has dominated recent literature on ministry needs to be balanced by connective leadership in order to form and sustain vital faith communities. When so many boundaries have been erected to keep people safe or diminish diversity or resist change, how do pastors practice boundary crossing for the sake of a new and vital future?

The Dilemma

The current tension between fostering bonds and honoring boundaries is an unintended consequence of several factors. The professionalization of ministry with a greater emphasis on distance than intimacy is one. The emphasis on maintaining boundaries is also a necessary corrective to sexual misconduct among clergy. The emphasis on boundaries has made ministers more cautious about trusting or building the empathic bonds that sustain vital relationships. Moreover, the growing incidence of burn-out among pastoral leaders has resulted in a focus on self-care and clearer boundaries between one’s personal and professional life. Patterns of relating in ministry have also changed as more people in pastoral leadership identify themselves as introverts and more congregations think about themselves as a small corporation with the pastor as the chief operating officer. These patterns of practice have tilted the balance in ministry toward distance more than intimacy, boundaries more than bonds, differentiated more than connected leadership.

There are also larger forces affecting congregational life and ministry. Interdependence and diversity pull modern life in opposite directions. Glocalism, the unavoidable linkage between global and local realities, intensifies our awareness of dependence on one another. Simultaneously, the visibility of the world’s diversity in our families and neighborhoods and churches makes the cooperation that interdependence requires more difficult. In this new environment, inclusion is critical but complex and connection is inevitable but demanding. In this time when we are challenged by far greater diversity than we have previously had to live with, we need leaders, as Jean Lipman-Blumen has observed, who will “emphasize bothmutuality (a focus on common interests and values) and inclusiveness (the willingness to include even those very different from the rest, without requiring their homogenization).”1 This essaybuildson this understanding of connective leadership.

Pastoral ministry is not, however, simply about connectivity: it is a response to the invitation to love one another as generously as we have been loved by God. The biblical story is an account of God’s relentless pursuit out of love despite the human resistance to being loved. The “good news” we proclaim imperfectly is God’s extraordinary love, always creating and covenanting, always redeeming and reconciling, always seeking and holding. In response to the generous love of God, pastoral leaders are lovers who seek to embody the passion of God who broods over humankind like a jealous lover, longing for connection.

This extravagant and persistent love of God is mirrored in the work of pastoral leaders to love people with imperfect generosity. The lectionary Gospel text for my last Sunday at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, Washington after three years on the staff as the Director of Pastoral Care and Congregational Life was from Luke 6:27-38. It includes these words of Jesus: “Give and it will be given to you…for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” These words of Jesus could be a mantra for leaders who are lovers. I was astonished by the way my imperfect loving was received and returned because it is not always so. Loving people who may not love back is a particular challenge in the work of ministry. Pastoral leaders are free to love others without holding anything back when they are confident that they will not lose themselves in the loving. If you give generously, you will get back generously. Ministry is housed in that promise even though it is not always apparent.

Connected Leaders and Differentiated Lovers

Pastoral leaders needed for this time are both self-differentiated and able to connect authentically with individuals and communities of faith. Differentiation is about self-definition, clarity of goals, and the capacity to remain an “I” in the midst of “we”—particularly when a congregation (“we”) is overwhelmed with anxiety. Being a differentiated leader is more than keeping distance. The ability to be a connected non-anxious presence in the midst of the swirling anxiety fueled by a faith community’s response to diversity and change is the mark of a differentiated lover. In A Failure of Nerve, Rabbi Friedman defined differentiation as “charting one’s own way by means of one’s own internal guidance system, rather than perpetually eyeing the scope to see where others are.”2 But differentiation is not enough. We also need connective leaders, capable of walking with people through change and forming complex communities that recognize their need for one another in a diverse and interdependent world. In a world connected by technology but fragmented by diversity, pastoral leaders need to be able to build communities with permeable boundaries that include more than exclude. Being differentiated lovers and connected leaders are both necessary.

If pastoral leadership is both connected and differentiated, boundaries and bonds are paradoxically linked. In themselves, boundaries do not foster the compassion that nourishes the bonds necessary for building and sustaining faith communities. And yet bonds require clear boundaries to endure. It is difficult to be close to people if we need to assert boundaries often. If we start with boundaries, then we must keep asking how to nurture the compassion and empathy that connects us to others. If we start with boundaries, we will need to keep asking how to nurture the kind of pastoral bonds that have the potential for healing—lest we do no good. If we start with generating mutuality or if self-sacrificing generosity is our aim or if compassion is the focus of ministry, then we must keep asking about respecting boundaries—lest we do harm.

The aim of the process of differentiation is freedom for community. A leader needs to understand how groups function and how human systems evolve. A leader is also aware of irrational needs communities will have that prompt people to establish dependent relationships of deference to authorities in stressful times. Pastoral leaders in this time need to emphasize bothmutuality (a focus on common interests and values) and inclusiveness (the willingness to include even those very different from the rest without requiring their homogenization). Being a connected leader means loving the people you lead while remaining differentiated and integrating those two perspectives with a single-minded passion. The Law of the New Covenant is about love as well as self-differentiation that makes loving possible.

The feeding of the 5,000 as recorded in Matthew 14 illustrates the need to integrate boundaries and compassionate love in the practice of ministry. Large crowds had followed Jesus even though his intent was to be alone some place. As always, the Gospel writers give us a picture of the compassion of Jesus who is moved by the needs of the people who follow him. The disciples are protective of Jesus and want to set clear boundaries. Jesus ought not to feel responsible to feed these people who trailed after him, the disciples argued. That story brings together two absolutely essential and equally significant dimensions of pastoral ministry for our time: compassionate lovers and differentiated leaders.

Challenging Boundaries as the Work of Ministry

While boundaries are crucial to insure that distinctions are preserved and people are not violated, there is a sense in which the work of pastoral ministry includes challenging the boundaries we erect that exclude or separate people. A boundary, as I am using it here, is an invisible separation that preserves and respects and protects particularity between individuals and among parts of any human system. While it is crucial that boundaries are respected so that people are not violated or abused, it is equally necessary for the sake of community and human wholeness that boundaries are permeable. When the distinctions we make between race, gender, ethnicity, or class become impermeable barriers that separate people, violate human well-being, and impede community, pastoral leaders will challenge those boundaries in order to heal and restore the human family. When the boundaries people erect out of fear are walls that separate, the work of ministry is to encourage people to cross boundaries and live beyond their fears.

Almost everything about our lives in a technologized society pushes us away from each other. When we help people cross the barriers that fragment life, we invite them to be open to something greater than what can be felt or seen or touched. When congregational loyalties and denominational distinctions and religious differences become barriers that prevent people from coming together for the common good, it is necessary that religious leaders cross those boundaries for the sake of the whole. In the new globalized context, we will need faith communities that will challenge tribalism and establish permeable boundaries of difference instead of boundaries of territory. The desire to embrace transcends the boundaries that are necessary to preserve identity.

Challenging boundaries as a work of ministry is risky. In order to set aside a barrier that has protected us or a prejudice that has made the world seem secure, we wager some or all of our security. Barbara J. Blodgett warns us that entrusting ourselves to another can be a bumpy road. “Trusting others always involves risk.…Trusting other people always makes us in some way vulnerable to them.”3 People entrust each other with themselves or with things they value and this bonds people with one another. But this intimacy that is practiced in communities of faith also makes us susceptible to wounding and being wounded. Because of the level of intimacy that should exist in congregations, no church is completely safe. When abuse occurs, it must be punished. When violations of trust occur, they are honestly recognized. The way to minimize harm is to be ready for it.

At its best, ministry invites people to be integration seekers who transcend even the boundaries of time we erect between past and future. The phraseintegration seeker comes from Robert Larkin, an Episcopal priest and a practicing physician who has had considerable experience holding together what others might keep separate. He described integrating the several dimensions of his life this way: “Most people I know who do two or three vocational things talk about boundaries and barriers, I seek to make one part of me inform the other part. It is both an internal and an external dialogue. I want my medical practice to look different from those who are not ordained. I would like my preaching and my sense of sacrament to be informed by healing in ways that only a physician could come at the question.”For Larkin, tending toward wholeness and integration leads to boundary crossing was a way of life: “I don’t want my being a physician not to inform who I am as a priest; I want who I am as a priest to inform what I am as a physician. I want who I am as a human being, middle class, getting some grey hair now, not to be excluded from my emerging vocation as priest and my continuing vocation as a physician.”

His deep passion about vocational integration and personal wholeness is reflected also in the concern about the fragmentation of modern life: “I see in many ways reactions against fragmentation and not a trajectory toward further fragmentation. People are saying ‘No, I can’t take it any more, I am sitting in my house, I work from my home, I write to my girl friend, I have text-messages every fifteen minutes from my lover, and after a while you say ‘enough of it.’” What about sharing a glass of wine? This perspective, Larkin readily admits, is informed by his vocation as a physician. He encounters people who are facing a life-threatening circumstance and desperately want to make sense of sixty years of life in the next six minutes: “It’s terribly intimate because I am dealing with some the deepest, darkest questions of human nature and I must do it quickly.”Critical pastoral life moments also evoke deep compassion and require trustworthy bonds as pastors seek to help people transcend barriers that diminish and gather the fragments of a life into an integrated whole.

Building Bonds of Trust One Story at a Time

Pastoral leadership depends on trust and trust is built story by story as pastors listen to people tell about their lives. Being a trusted authority depends on how much we hear more than what we do or say. Careful listening breeds trust. And trust makes it possible to deepen the affectional bonds between pastor and congregation. To trust someone and to be trustworthy both depend on the willingness to risk being vulnerable with one another.

For four years, Pastor Jon Mackey listened to the needs, concerns, and desires of the people at St. John’s Church. When he first came to the congregation, he held several listening sessions to gather the concerns of different groups: the young adult group, the school parents, the governing council, and the pastoral staff. Pastor Mackey knew that his authority at St. John’s depended in part on how well he met their expectations. He understood that “they need to be liked by me” before they were willing to trust his pastoral leadership. When he buried three parents of children in the parish school, Pastor Mackey began to feel trusted. He was comfortable being the leader and equally determined to give that authority back to the people of St. John’s. Here is how Pastor Mackey said it: “I am not a good pastor because I am smart or witty or popular. I am a good pastor because the parish has endowed me with the opportunity to be their pastor. My authority is rooted in and born out of the community. When I am clear and the congregation is clear about my own authority, I can give back to them.”

Careful listening to stories of people helped Pastor Mackey understand the culture of the congregation and the particular needs of its members. More than that, he was a connective leader who understood the importance of building bonds with people he loved and served. Congregations receive their pastoral leaders, but pastors and other leaders must receive the congregation as well. Pastoral leaders take the people with whom they minister into themselves, hold them respectfully and lovingly, and send them out into the world. Reciprocal intimacy in pastoral work is always risky. When pastor and congregation entrust themselves to one another, it is a “unique sort of relationship because of the risk it incorporates.”4Relationships in congregations are aware of the risks of trusting while ignoring the awareness at the same time. For example, we overlook the risk of being changed in order to listen to the stories of others,

Doug Purnell succeeded someone who had been the minister of St. Ives Uniting Church in Sydney, Australia, for just four conflicted months. Doug himself had been downsized from a teaching job he loved. Both the congregation and their new pastor needed to be loved. He used his work as an artist to introduce himself to the nominating committee of St. Ives in this way:

I offer no big plans. I can only promise to live honestly, openly, and deeply as your spiritual leader. I will love the people given to my care. I will lead the best worship I am capable of. I will listen to the people of the congregation and the community. My understanding of ministry is like standing in front of a canvas with brush in hand but no preconceived plan. If I listen deeply to the paint, occasionally, just occasionally a miracle happens and something very new and unexpected emerges.

 

Doug Purnell and the congregation of St. Ives together fashioned a creative ministry inspired by his vision and sustained by his competence and an enduring bond of affection between the pastor and a parish that had given up on itself. Doug’s story adds the dimension of competence to the process of building an enduring bond. Members of Doug’s congregation identified his particular competence around the use of time, seeing a project to completion, and being able to help them vision a new future. For others, competence may include understanding others, setting limits without discouraging dreaming, or making a realistic strategic plan. Loving fosters important bonds, but loving is not enough. Pastoral leaders will be regarded as trustworthy if they are competent in the work they are called to do.5

Congregations and pastoral leaders who seek to embody the vision ofconnective leadership in which both bonds and boundaries regularly intersect to sustain vital ministries will inevitably experience the challenges of radical hospitality. When hospitality is deep enough and wide enough, it dismantles our consumeristic tendencies to reduce the other to a commodity to be used or dispensed with. There is also a reversal of visions and roles. What we thought was private becomes public and the guest is the host. The stranger-guest is not only welcomed but moves to the center and host is relegated to the margins. It is what Jesus did when, through fabled invitations, he wagered discipleship on fishermen, prophetic mission to a Samaritan divorcee, and teaching roles to children. Hospitality then becomes an experience of crossing boundaries for the sake of more inclusive bonds and communities of faith.

Eric H. F. Law has described the benefits of boundary-crossing for the sake of a more inclusive community in a very compelling way. It is a risky process, he suggests, that often moves us beyond the margins of safety as we have defined them. And yet a newly negotiated boundary for faith communities, in which there is time and space in which “to take into consideration another’s needs, interests, experience, and perspective,” will lead to a clearer understanding of ourselves as well as others. 6 It is the way of Jesus, who always invited his listeners not to be limited by fear in order to cross the boundaries that exclude. When we practice hospitality in such a boundary-crossing way, we welcome something unfamiliar and unknown into our lives that may expand our world and deepen our faith. We will also discover grace beyond safety.

Leading in the Face of Finitude

Congregations face an uncertain future. Declining membership and diminishing resources means that more and more must be done by fewer and fewer people. For some faithful believers, the changes in congregational life are like the death of the church they knew and loved. In reality, the church we remember is more often the product of nostalgia than the work of the Holy Spirit.

Because many congregations today are preoccupied with their own survival, I believe we need pastoral leaders who will turn our attention away from the fear of death and scarcity to a larger vision that transcends even our death. We need leaders who are lovers who are nonetheless comfortable with finitude and death because they know that is in the loving that treachery begins. They are finite leaders who will handle the unrealistic expectations of followers to effect immediate solutions to complex problems or provide an invincible shield against death.

Declining membership and an uncertain future are not the only signs of finitude and death. The existential paradox that is reflected in human patterns of boundaries and bonds or in leadership that is both connected and differentiated has been described as individuality within finitude. As Ernest Becker has described the human paradox, the human one “is out of nature and hopelessly in it…he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with towering majesty, and yet he goes back in the ground a few feet…to rot and disappear forever.”7 When pastoral leaders and congregations struggle to find a common vision, the unspoken conflict is often over the unnamed but inescapable reality of human limitation. In order to live honestly and creatively with finitude, we need pastoral leaders who can forge compelling visions that will carry people through besetting conflict and uncertainty.

Finite leaders do not wear a seamless garment. They understand that light still shines through a cracked window pane and coffee tastes just as good out of a chipped mug and a fractured church can still bear witness to the Gospel in a fragmented world. Change is so rapid that perfection is neither possible nor desirable. Being good enough becomes sufficient for faithful and effective pastoral ministry. One pastor said“I don’t have time for excellence. It may happen anyway by the grace of God but most of the time I find myself saying ‘that’s good enough for me’ because there are two more matters awaiting my attention.”

Unless the expectations of excellence in ministry are modified by a realistic assessments of pastoral competence and parish demands and the resilience of a paradoxical vision, it may become its own tyranny. God’s love has no limit: human love is finite. The expectation that pastoral leaders will embody God’s agape is often the source of disappointment for members of a parish and discouragement for clergy. The unlimited love of God is expressed through limited pastoral leaders. Pastoral relationships, like all human relationships, are impermanent and imperfect.

From a Biblical perspective, however, excellence is about one thing: love. At the end of I Corinthians 12, after outlining the variety of gifts of the Spirit and the many members of the body that must work together for the common good, Paul concludes with these words: “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way” (I Cor 12:31). What follows in chapter 13 of I Corinthians is a ringing testimony to love. David Bartlett has observed that the insistence on excellence in ministry is driven more by business models of leadership than a biblical approach to ministry.

When Paul writes to the Church in Corinth, excellence has to do with agape. And that’s a word the church has to keep saying: that leadership has to do with love, with the up-building of community and not always with strategic goals, charts, and managerial stuff.8

Despite all the complexities and disappointments of human love, social and relational wisdom must be added to self-differentiation as essential for effective ministry. Leaders are finite lovers. Every pastoral leader needs to be competent in connecting. This wisdom comes from recognizing the power of relationships and the need for human beings to be in community without losing particularity and identity. The complexity of life and faith requires both integration and differentiation. Noted University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has summarized this human task in the following way: “Just as we have learned to separate ourselves from each other and from the environment, we now need to learn how to reunite ourselves with other entities around us without losing our hard-won individuality.”9Connected leaders are diffferentiated lovers.

This essay grows out of years of conversation and collaboration with Edward Foley, OFM, around the larger theme of “Imperfect Excellence in Ministry.” I am grateful for his willingness to use some of the shared ideas in this text. The brief vignettes are adapted from longer interviews and used here with permission. 

Discussion Questions  

  1. Are boundaries honored in your congregation or ministry? 
  2. How can you further foster bonds in your congregation or ministry? 
  3. In what ways is your pastorate set up for both bonds and boundaries? 
  4. Interdependence among congregants and pastoral teams is inevitable. How might your congregation move to a healthier place? 
  5. In what ways can you be both connected to your congregation or ministry and still be differentiated as an individual? 

 

 Notes 

    1. Jean Lipman-Bluman, Connective Edge: Leading in an Interdependent World(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996), 12. Friedman, E. H. in Beal, E. W., & Treadwell, M. M. (Eds.). (1999). A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Bethesda, MD: The Edwin Friedman Estate. The focus on differentiation comes from a family therapist Murray Bowen via Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke and others. 

 

  1. Barbara J. Blodgett Lives Entrusted: An Ethic of Trust for Ministry(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 15. 
  2. Ibid., 18. 
  3. The Competent Pastor: Skills and Self-knowledge for Serving Wellby Ronald D. Sisk (Herndon,Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2005). 
  4. Eric H.F. Law, Inclusion: Making Room for Others(St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000), 42. 
  5. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death(New York: The Free Press, 1973), 26. 
  6. David G. Forney, “Church Leadership in the New Testament and Today: An Interview with David L. Bartlett.” Journal of Religious Leadership, Vol 7, No 1, Spring, 2008, 77. 
  7. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 221.  

 

 

 


Congregations Magazine, 2013-01-09
2012 Issue 4

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