|Selected Writings from The Center for Family Process Faculty|
Eyes bulging and hair bristling, the rector in the center of a popular John McPherson cartoon is not having a good day. Papers tower atop the desk, and ink fills each square inch of the calendar. So what does this crazed servant of God say into the phone? “Direct the youth choir? Uh . . . sure, no problem. What? No, glad to do it! Really.”
That cartoon is probably on a church bulletin board in your town. Maybe yours.
McPherson has captured the most common complaint that I hear from clergy—feeling stuck with all the responsibility. How much of your life as a priest is spent taking care of trivia? How often do you try to get others to do their jobs, but end up doing them yourself? Is this what you were really called to do? Where do you find the time and energy to develop your relationship with God and share that with your congregation?
Let’s look at an extreme (I hope!) example. Gene was a dedicated priest who often wound up doing everyone’s work but his own. So involved was he in every aspect of congregational life that he supervised the janitor, ordered supplies, and even kept the soda machine filled. When the choir sang during services, Gene would leave the pulpit to join them. He was wearing himself out, and his true mission—spiritual leadership—was suffering. Gene knew he was “doing too much” but couldn’t stop, in part because he was determined to please everyone, especially his bishop.
What finally drove Gene to seek change was his inability to deal with the church organist, a diabetic whose “attacks” often kept him from showing up—even, one year, at Christmas. Interestingly, the attacks only happened before or at church and never affected the organist’s regular job. Determined to help, Gene tried to lighten the organist’s load and kept a supply of orange juice handy at all times. Yet the attacks continued.
Gene saw himself as a sympathetic pastor pouring himself out for God’s people. But his frantic pace strikes me as overfunctioning, perhaps as a result of “helper genes” gone wild. Priests genuinely have serious responsibilities. But, overfunctioning is an anxious response to the system, a compulsion to jump right in, take over, and solve the problem. Like other helping professionals, priests tend to confuse serving those in true need with serving their own need to help. Holy though it may look, focusing on others can be an unholy way of avoiding one’s own self and responsibilities.
Overfunctioning doesn’t do much good for the others either. No two objects or people can occupy the same space at the same time. If you’re in the way, your employees and volunteers can’t do their jobs. They can’t fail, perhaps, but they also can’t try, succeed, or grow. People who don’t meet their responsibilities, moreover, have infinite patience. They will wait and see if you pick up the slack. The more you do, the less they do. And everyone is worse off.
Ed Friedman, as usual, put it well: “As lofty and noble as the concept of empathy may sound, . . . it has too often been perverted into a disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for the failure to define a position, and a power tool in the hands of the ‘sensitive.’” In contrast, I can’t think of a single story where Jesus chased after people to help them. To my way of thinking, He provided opportunities for healing and grace.
Back to Gene. To combat those “helper genes” that weren’t helping anyone, he temporarily ignored the organist and focused instead on his family of origin. He was the oldest child of a minister who, in turn, was the oldest child of a minister. Gene realized that much of his zeal for success and his endless appetite for responsibility stemmed from pleasing his father—or the bishop, whom Gene had transformed into a father figure.
Gene also noticed that his family always tended to organize itself around sick members; those seeming victims, he realized, were actually immensely powerful in terms of setting the family’s agenda and mood. Because the sensitivities learned in one’s family of origin often resurface in the workplace, Gene had been treating the organist as a sick relative rather than an essentially incompetent employee.
As Gene worked to define himself in a different way within his family, he became more adept at imagining and trying new responses to congregational problems. Encouraged by his coach, Gene actually increased the pressure on the organist, even suggesting that the organist could, if necessary, make music selections from his hospital bed! At the same time, Gene stopped mollifying choir members and lay leaders who were irked by the organist. Instead he said, “I don’t know what you’re going to do about him” and suggested buying a boom box and some Christmas tapes in case of another untimely attack. He also gave up singing with the choir and let the janitor tend the soda machine.
No longer shielded by Gene’s overfunctioning, the organist soon quit, and the congregation was able to hire a competent replacement. By shifting focus from his work to his family, Gene gained crucial insights that helped him modify his response to the organist. Both minister and congregation also benefited from Gene’s putting more distance between himself and daily congregational life. In exchange for taking less responsibility for trivial administrative matters—and that soda machine! — the congregation got a leader who was free to do his real work as a shepherd of souls. There’s hope for you too.