The ministry of absence

The death of a loved one. A financial catastrophe. The disappearance of a child. A sexual assault. The anticipation of a life-altering diagnosis. A journey into the unknown. These are some of the situations in which pastors and other caregivers are called to provide a ministry of presence – an embodiment of God’s love for those who are lonely, hurting, or anxious – because words are insufficient and our ability to do something is limited.

In the pastoral life, much emphasis is placed on this ministry of presence, and for good reason. Christians are people of the incarnation, in which God put God’s own body on the line so that humankind might feel the divine breath, touch the divine’s clothing, and experience the divine washing our dirty, smelly feet. Through Jesus God was born into the world, moved about the world, and was murdered by the world, yet came back from death to show off scars and cook fish on the beach for friends. Jesus was fully present to us, and in being so he demonstrated God’s own desire to be close to us.

And yet, we can’t always be present. Sometimes the reasons are logistical; time and geography do not permit. Sometimes the reasons are that we have multiple pulls on our ministry at the same time. And sometimes the reasons are that we have nothing left to give at that moment. At this point self-care becomes an imperative rather than merely a good idea. Many of us resist self-care, though, because of critical voices that come from within us and beyond us and because we follow a Christ who made time for others, even when he desperately needed to catch his breath. We equate self-care with selfishness, and we talk ourselves out of it.

It’s time to reframe self-care. Last week at Nevertheless She Preached, I was introduced to the concept of a ministry of absence by Jaime Clark-Soles, professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology. The term, however, was coined by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen believed that pastors had become so available that there was not enough space for the Holy Spirit to move in the lives of God’s people. In other words, parishioners have become dependent on pastors rather than on God, and pastors have become too eager to get their needs to be needed met by responding to every care request. Occasionally making ourselves scarce not only gives our bodies, hearts, and egos a rest, then, but also allows our people to strengthen their relationships with the God who wants good for them.

In a faith centered on incarnation and a vocation born out of that faith, how does a ministry of absence compute? The reality that Jesus is no longer physically with us provides a good start. He was raised from the dead, he had a few meetings with the disciples to boost their confidence for the work ahead…and then he ascended. He took off into the clouds before the disciples thought they were ready to discern and do on their own. They had a lot to argue about and figure out, and they did it with the help of the Holy Spirit. They likely wouldn’t have done it at all if Jesus had still been hanging around. For one thing, the Spirit did not descend until Jesus ascended. And Jesus’ presence enabled the disciples’ dependence, whereas his absence activated their boldness. That boldness built the body of Christ here on earth, through which the incarnation lives on, spreads the good news, and cares for the least of these.

There are times to minister through your presence, and there are times to minister through your absence. Prayerfully consider what your indicators might be that one or the other is called for, then go forth in faith that the Spirit will fill whatever space you do not.

[This post is the first of four upcoming reflections inspired by Nevertheless She Preached.]

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash.

It takes a village

Last week a seasoned minister I admire greatly asked me, “Where did you learn to put yourself and your work out there like you do?” He described my approach as┬áconfident without being arrogant, and then he used the J word: he said was jealous.

I was knocked back on my heels. While I was gratified to hear my presence characterized this way, I had no idea how to answer the question. After some silence and sputters, I replied that my output is the result of constantly wrestling with my crises of confidence.

It was an honest answer. I am a perfectionist by nature, and I am terrified of failing or being misinterpreted. (Actually, allowing myself to be seen at all, even at my best, takes a lot of prayer and deep breathing.) But upon reflection, I realized my response was a very incomplete one. My work and I, such as we are, are the product of many forces. I have two parents who have encouraged me relentlessly my whole life. I have a spouse who supports me consistently, prodding me to pursue the whims of the Spirit. I have a community of clergywomen – including my coachees – who show me every day what excellence in ministry looks like. I have mentor coaches who help me think through complex situations. I’ve had teachers and ministers and lay leaders galore who have shaped me and cheered me on. I have doctors who help me keep my anxiety in check. I have barre instructors who strengthen my body and toughen me mentally.

(I acknowledge that my network of people, access to good healthcare, and ability to take advantage of an admittedly bourgeois exercise routine are largely thanks to the systems and institutions I benefit from. So my colleague’s out-of-the-blue question was an opportunity to remember that as a person of privilege, it’s on me to work against inequities perpetuated by these same entities.)

In my own heart and mind, there are some personality quirks that affect the way I interact with the world beyond me. As an extreme internal processor, I don’t put anything out in the world until I have worked on it for a while. I have a stubborn streak that won’t let me quit, for good or for ill. And my love for my work and my belief in the power of clergy and congregations to do much-needed good drive my will and my creativity on a daily basis.

So yes, I do daily battle with my self-perception, but it’s really all these other factors that allow the persona you see – however you feel about her – to emerge. Thanks, friend, for the prompt to reflect and be grateful and for the reminder of my responsibility to push for opportunities for others.

 

 

On turning 40

I turn 40 on Friday. (Happy birthday to meeeeeeeeee!)

Some people dread this milestone. I get that. I see those “over the hill” birthday messages in the greeting card aisle at Target. I feel my age, especially when my child demands that I “run!” or “get out of bed!” I notice when I forget to take my regular dose of Miralax, a gift from God that I did not rely on until recently. I get frustrated when my Rodan + Fields reverse regimen doesn’t miraculously erase the dark spots on my face.

But.

I am really looking forward to this birthday. Maybe it’s because each of my decades has been better than the one preceding it. Maybe it’s because I associate a 40th celebration with my dad’s, which was a joyful/awkward party in his bird’s eye office with employees crowded around, balloons, cake, and a belly dancer. (I still have no idea who arranged for that belly dancer. It was a bizarre choice for my dad.) Or maybe it’s because I am finally comfortable in my own body, heart, and mind:

I feel more settled and creative than ever before in my vocational life.

That angst-producing question of whether Matt and I would have kids – and if so, how many – has been resolved.

My anxiety is at a manageable level, thanks to exercise and medication.

My parents and I are finally being honest with each other, which was a long time coming.

I get joy every day from noting my son’s emerging understanding of the world and his imagination around what could be.

I have claimed my voice as a citizen, speaking up for what I believe to be good for my community.

I no longer feel obligated to finish books that don’t hold my interest or that I want to throw across the room.

I don’t wait for others to confer authority upon me as a pastor, parent, or person.

I don’t expect my 40s to be easy. The realities of membership in the sandwich generation will no doubt set in soon. The realities of life in a very contentious time in the church and the culture at large show no signs of abating. The realities of physical changes (“this happens at your age…”) will bring more preventative procedures. And who knows what else is in store?

But I’m as ready as I can be. Bring it.

Creative Commons image “40” by Amanda Slater is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.