Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What I have learned: an integrated reflection

Self care as an act of self love through prayer

Spirituality for the Contemporary World has provided me the opportunity for reflection and the opportunity to gain key insights.

Ministry begins with me! That may sound like egocentrism, but it is really the very deep realization that to exercise a non-anxious presence and to care for others one must exercise care of oneself. I learned the importance of self-care at the end of my first semester seminary. When I realized that leaving a very unhealthy situation where I was placed in jeopardy was the very best thing I could for myself was to establish a boundary and leave the situation. I found myself in a new city with not many resources or at least where to find them. Fifteen months later I am beginning to see the value of this experience and how I am growing from it. What is the probability I might find myself in a new place in ministry and a bomb might be thrown my way? How do I center myself so I can take care of myself? So self-care comes first before you can take care of anyone else. This course has helped reinforce the insight.
In the past few months I have been seeing a certified pastoral care counselor. This relationship is now evolving into a relationship of life coach. My pastoral care counselor/life coach is a UU Buddhist. I surmised that his theology and spiritual practice grounded in Buddhism could help me as a Christian. He has helped me identify patterns in my behavior that I was not able to identify on my own. He has helped me see how I construct the world.
One insight my counselor/coach has reinforced that self awareness and the ability to present oneself begins with prayer. He suggested that I do centering prayer. I have tried Centering Prayer many times but fall victim to my monkey mind. He said that’s the point—your mind is always going to wander. You only can let go of the “monkey mind” through practice. By persisting in the practice of meditation, the process of meditation, however, can lead to insights.
As Marjorie Thompson points out “contemplative prayer has the quality of inner Sabbath.” Thompson additionally lends the insight that contemplative prayer “words fall away, and the most palpable reality is being present to the lover of our souls.” Being present to God, ourselves and others is greatly enhanced by the act of contemplation. This act of self care is also an act of self love.


I often view fasting from food as a spiritual discipline and a practice I have tried to be more intentional about during Lent, especially. However, Thompson also points out in Soul Feast that we need to fast from the excesses of a consumerist society. Even our most intimate relationships have often suffered from this consumer mentality: “enjoy while useful, but discard when no longer satisfying.” Fasting from so many things we consume can be freeing. I have quit smoking various times throughout seminary and feel the need for a once-and-for-all. I am going on Chantex, a drug that has proven successful in helping people quit smoking. I have tried many things in the past: hypnosis therapy, energy work with a treatment for addiction, Wellbutrin, cold turkey, the patch. Studies show that it takes 7 to 8 times to quit smoking successfully. I think prayer will also be helpful.

Ethics and Spiritual Care
In reading Lebacqz and Driskill'’s book, the idea of pastoral neglect on a myriad of issues from money, stewardship, feminist theology, and social justice suggest there is a whole lot of neglect. I find it interesting that when I was open to receiving the Spirit for the first time I was led to a spiritual community that did not neglect any of these issues but did engaged them and engaged them all well. There were testimonials from parishioners on how they practiced a healthy spiritual discipline of systematic giving and one parishioner in particular said that the first bill she paid every month was her pledge to the church.
While the skeptics might argue the church was just looking out for its treasury, I actually read these testimonials and they helped shaped my spiritual practice of giving. My priest suggested that to head anxiety off at the pass that we should make a practice of giving a gift whenever we feel anxious. I had a discussion about stewardship with my peers in the refectory recently and I am not sure my peers agreed for the need to talk about stewardship as a spiritual discipline. If Lebacqz and Driskill’s fin. dings are accurate, then only 25% of parishioners pray about their finances.

This church also delivered sermons from a feminist framework where I heard sermons about women for the first time. The male priests publicly stated that ordaining women to the priesthood was healthy. The church had three significant social justice ministries—refugees, clothing store for children, and a residential addiction/recovery program. This church is extremely healthy and attracts people and engages them in ministry because of its intentionality in living out its mission.

Now that I am in seminary and have seen how some other churches function, I know that my first church was and is exceptional. Many churches are in some state of neglect on any one issue or range of issues on the spectrum of money, feminist (and what about GLBT issues) and social justice. I wonder if this neglect is a function of only having so much time to do everything and just the average level of dysfunction you will find in most churches. You have to walk before you can run and nurturing a church into a state of health can take several years.

A key learning that I gleaned this semester was that we need to care for people in a diversity of social locations and situations in many churches. We may be confronted with caring for parishioners who se moral values and ethics are so different than our own. Providing pastoral care first and foremost means that people must feel loved and that they are treated with respect and dignity and seeking care. It is important to be able to withhold our personal feelings while being able to extend quality pastoral care to those who need it. Being at EDS has taught me to be more aware of the needs of those who are transgendered and the special gifts and life experiences they bring to a congregation. I have been exposed to issues around polyamory. But irrespective of my views how would I counsel a couple who wanted to enter into this sort of arrangement. I do not think that my role would be to provide advice but help the couple define their own theology around marriage, love, and sex to equip them to make their own decisions within the context of their values and to ensure that their most intimate relationships reflect the values of marriage: fidelity, trust, honesty, mutuality, reciprocity, and commitment.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A working definition of abuse in parish ministry

I appreciated the care and with which Lebacqz and Driskill approached the topic of spiritual abuse. They took time in critiquing various theories/theologies about what constitutes abuse by clergy. I also appreciated that they took the time to differentiate between what constitutes actual abuse and incorporated intention, judgment, and skill into their model of professional ethics. In light of what the guest clergy presenter shared with us in class, I am not certain the word ‘abuse’ would in fact apply to all the examples that were shared. In the first example, the use of the creation story where Eve is portrayed as the cause and source of the fall of humanity cannot be construed as abusive in and of itself according to the authors’ definition of abuse. The text is certainly misogynistic and I understand why a woman would feel that its reading in church was oppressive, especially if there was no sermon on the text to explicate its meaning and relevance in a post-modern context. Based on what we heard, there was no intention to harm on the part of the pastor. The guest presenter struck me as someone who has been trained in feminist theology and has gained heightened sensitivity about how the biblical text can be interpreted offensively and also impressed me someone who seemed like a caring and sensitive pastor. Further, the guest presenter has ongoing contact with this parishioner even after she left the church. This tells me there was a healthy relationship to the extent the parishioner must not have felt harmed by the pastor, but the scriptural passage brought up something in the parishioner’s psyche. Certainly, a sermon on this text addressing the problematic nature of text might have in fact been liberative for this parishioner. The guest presenter certainly demonstrated ‘regret’ just by labeling this incident as ‘abusive.’ This in my estimation was an oversight, an error in judgment that any male (or female untrained in feminist biblical interpretation) pastor could have made. He did indeed have the benefit of this training, which I suspect must have come out in some way for this parishioner to feel comfortable to have an ongoing conversation and still be in right relationship. I also say this as someone who has received quality and sensitive pastoral care from white, male, heterosexual clergy about the damage I sustained growing up Roman Catholic, around gender identity. This incident just reinforces for me the ongoing need and awareness to be intentional in all aspects of ministry, including liturgy. I’m curious if he had given a sermon on the text if a woman of an older generation and of a more conservative social location might have been offended by a feminist reading? How would that reaction be handled, certainly it is difficult to explain injustice and misogynistic nature of the biblical text if they do not understand institutionalized sexism and patriarchy? But this also seeks to reinforce that we cannot anticipate how people are going to respond. Just that we use care, express concern and exercise sensitivity when parishioners show discomfort, reflect on the situation and grow from it. I very much appreciated the sensitivity and concern the guest clergy presenter showed around the well being of his parishioners. How we define spiritual abuse incorporates many dimensions, especially the work of the Linns family systems and a process of shaming that can give rise to abuse. Lebacqz and Driskill cite that shaming can in fact be constitutive of abuse, but the situation is highly contextual as they indicated shame can be a positive corrective if done in a healthy, corrective way. The example cited by Lebacqz and Driskill was the need to confront (I do not use that term in a negative sense) a parishioner who came in seeking guidance about an extramarital affair. If the pastor did not sense regret on the part of the parishioner and a desire for continued involvement in the affair, the clergy providing gentle correction would not constitute abuse. But what if the standard were polyamory? I personally see marriage defined by values of monogamy and hold this as an important value. I do not discount that polyamorous relationships can be loving and nurturing—an ethic of friends, but I do not understand the desire for multiple partnerships. As the clergy presenter pointed out, he ran into counseling situations where he had to address a situation of couple who wanted to enter into a polyamorous relationship. He said that he did not understand it, but he had to preserve the dignity of the people who came to him for advice. He also could not project his value – monogamy—into the discussion lest they come away feeling less than loved. I think a discussion of monogamy and what commitment means is also appropriate. How does the church understand it? I mean did the parishioners who came to him take marriage vows that required monogamy, were these vows made in a church? Certainly, people who are in a marriage should have the right to recast their vows and I’m not sure how the community would view this. If the other party did not view a third party in the relationship as being unfaithful, how might God view the relationship? Is this then sinful or holy? Certainly, for someone to walk away feeling personally judged or shamed is inappropriate. But I’m not sure walking away thinking the clergy has fully blessed their relationship is fully appropriate either. But Lebacqz and Driskill rightly suggest to the people receive assurance their always loved by God. These are really good situations to talk about in a case study mode since it forces you to be intentional in developing a theological and ethical framework.