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What's a minister to do? Serve and carry


What's a minister to do when confronted with familiar roadblocks to effectiveness?

  • The recipient of ministry may be suffering in ways the minister has never confronted -- overwhelmed by the death of a child, perhaps, or suffering the ravages of a terminal disease such as Huntington's.
  • A stroke may impair a patient's speech to the extent that words are garbled or wholly different from what the person intends to say. The minister may not understand or know how to respond.
  • A minister may become defensive when called to serve a judgmental person whose views on political or church-related issues are poles apart from the minister's, and the minister feels compelled to defend his or her beliefs.
  • The ministerial environment may be clogged with distractions: noisy cats or dogs in a home, a chattering TV in a hospital room.

What's a minister to do?

Last October, social work specialists Mari Ann Graham and Curt Paulsen explored such dilemmas with BeFriender and Stephen ministers. Both groups specialize in ministering to individuals in grief and crisis situations.

Graham, who recently completed a workshop for BeFriender coordinators, teaches in graduate and undergraduate social work programs at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn. Paulsen teaches family practice in the social work master's degree program at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, and teaches spirituality of the family in the religion department. BeFriender Ministry sponsored the gathering.

Graham and Paulsen did not come up with packaged recipes to solve specific situations. Rather, they and the participants explored ways to deal with difficulties. Said Graham, "There's a mystery in helping people," and "our pain often serves."

Graham explains the difference between helping another, which can be counterproductive, and serving: "Helping is when you go in thinking you have lots to give and you're somehow going to help this other person." Then "you set up a situation of inequality, where you're up here and the other person is down there. You don't have to intend to do it," but the other person "can pick up on that instantly."

In contrast, "when we serve, we're serving from our weaknesses, our pain, our vulnerability. We draw from all our own experiences, and then our limitations serve, our wounds serve -- even our darkness can serve." Further, "our ignorance, our unknowing can serve people."

All these weaknesses "can keep us open and allow us to be present" to others, Graham said. "The more we allow ourselves to suffer," without being masochistic, "the greater our capacity to be with others."

Paulsen said ministers need not seek out suffering, for "we are assured that we will hurt psychologically at various recurrent times of our lives to the point of great pain, all of us without exception."

But, asked Graham, "do we really know how to suffer?" She noted that when people have a child born healthy and a house to go home to and a car to drive, they don't cry, "Why me? Why do I have a healthy baby and a house and a car?" Yet they cry "Why me?" if their baby has a birth defect or something goes wrong with the house or car.

"We live in a culture that teaches us not to suffer," she said. As Douglas John Hall has written in God and Human Suffering (Augsburg Fortress, 1986), that has three consequences: People have trouble accepting their own suffering; they lose their capacity to enter imaginatively into the suffering of others; and they need to blame or find scapegoats.

Graham talked about the need for imagination. "We've experienced some things, but we've not experienced what this person [being ministered to] is going through right now. We can only enter into it through imagination. I don't think we cultivate imagination nearly enough in our culture." In order not to recoil in disgust from another's suffering, we must learn to suffer as Helen Luke recommends in her book, Old Age (Parabola Books, 1987).

In Graham's words, Luke says the "why me?" reaction to suffering means one is lying under the weight and feels its heaviness, whereas constructive suffering involves carrying the weight. "When we do that, the burden is lifted somewhere else. It's as though some positive energy is released somewhere else because we are carrying" the weight. The Bible expresses the same idea: "My yoke is easy, my burden is light."

Luke writes that depression and self-pity are unproductive. So is replacing these with pleasant, happy feelings, which are "simply a palliative, laying the foundations for the next depression. Nothing whatever has happened to the soul."

When suffering is accepted, she says, "the pain remains, but it is more like the piercing of a sword than a weight." Along with acceptance, it is natural and right to hope for release from suffering, to seek appropriate help, support from friends in grief and rest from exhaustion.

"Nothing is too small to offer us an opportunity to choose between suffering and depression," Luke writes, and contends that "every time a person exchanges neurotic depression for real suffering, he or she is sharing to some small degree in the carrying of the suffering of mankind, in bearing a tiny part of the darkness of the world."

"We may be entirely certain that some burden somewhere is lightened by our effort," she says. "Close at hand the effects are immediately visible. Those around us may know nothing of what is happening, but a weight is lifted from the atmosphere, or someone we love is set free to be himself, and the sufferer acquires a new clarity of vision and sensitivity to another's need."

As for judgment, one participant in the ministers' gathering distinguished between two types of judgment -- that which is critical or negative and that which is useful as a red flag reminding us to be consistent with our own value system. Graham said the latter type of judgment indicates "what's right and true for me, and if I don't live consistently with that, I lose my integrity, my soul." The other type prescribes what somebody else should do and gets in the way of the minister's being present to the person who needs his or her ministry.

When judgments are not shared, one participant said, "I tell myself my insights are limited and therefore my judgments will be different." Another said, "I think I'm coming to see that judgment and compassion can coexist, but I need to choose which one I will live with at that moment of ministry. I almost have to make a positive choice" to extend compassion and not be judgmental.

Graham talked in "BeFriender language" about ministering when "assumptive worlds" collide -- when the minister's understanding of how the world does and should operate confronts persons or events beyond his or her individual experience.

A participant admitted she had to rethink the limits of her "assumptive world" to minister to a family that functioned effectively in a way she would have considered dysfunctional. Graham responded that to be effective in such a situation and be present to those being ministered to, the minister needs to suspend judgment and "be aware of the fact that maybe my assumptive world doesn't fit this situation."

Another participant said, "I think the question that is key to being present is to ask 'what is it like to be you?' " or to imagine what it is like.

Paulsen explained that compassion and judgment can coexist. "Can you think of anything that doesn't exist in pairs of opposites, like night and day, laugh and cry, men and women?" he asked. "Can we have electricity without positive and negative ions?"

"When we integrate opposites, that's where passion and sensuousness come from," he said. "If everything we see reminds us of ourselves and we embrace all sides of our nature, the challenge for us is to ask, Can we embrace [this experience] in any other way and turn our wounds over, let go?" At the moment of doing so, "we become sensuous in the right sense, we become passionate, we become powerful," Paulsen said. Illustrating how opposites function, he explained that "by way of humility, our self-centeredness is reduced. And let us thank God for that, because self-centeredness stands in the way of joy."

Similarly, "by way of loneliness, I think we experience intimacy in waves at those times when we least expect it." Also, he said, in moments of meaninglessness, "we all have to come to grips with our guilt: Things we've done, we wish we wouldn't have; things we haven't done, we wish we would have. I think guilt for the most part is healthy, because it drives us, pushes us. Without meaninglessness, we wouldn't know how to go toward meaningfulness. Without both the negative and the positive, we wouldn't know how to be creative. Without creativity, we couldn't have meaning."

One does not always realize when one is ministering successfully, Paulsen said. He felt he failed totally to help "the Smiths" after many sessions of marriage counseling. "I, in my own way, repented. I simply had not been enough," he said. Then, about a year later, "the Joneses" asked to see him, hoping "you can do half as much for us as you did for the Smiths."

Paulsen said what happens in ministry can be a mystery "beyond our comprehension. If we were ever to understand what occurs between us, it seems to me we would have lost something very precious."

Respect that mystery, he recommended. He told of talking with a ranger as they stood at the base of a mountain in Glacier Park that was 13,000 feet high and 100 miles around. A tourist asked the ranger how much the mountain weighs. "Bless his heart," Paulsen said, recalling the ranger's answer: "About 16 ounces to the pound."

Paulsen continued, "Let us never dare to think we should even know the weight of a mountain. Let us stand at the base and say, it's beyond me. But I know my wounds. And I know that what entered me [through my woundedness] is that which gives me strength for the journey."

Paulsen further recommended that ministers "let go, put ourselves in absolute trust. I don't think we do that unless we are in considerable pain or have learned by way of our own insignificance, our own inability."

"The letting go, the trust, is what gives hope," he said. If we were so self-sufficient that we did not have to trust, he contended, we then would be hopeless.

"There are times for the Christian church to quietly make a presence and say, 'When we are on our knees, we are the most hopeful in a society that doesn't understand that phenomenon.'"

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 1997