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Fall Ministries

Anger, a worthy ally, fuels commitment


Anger, one of the seven deadly sins, and conflict, to be avoided at all costs, are part and parcel of a lay minister’s life in many settings and can lead to resentments, burnout and even loss of one’s vocation. But they don’t have to, according to pastoral theologian James D. Whitehead and developmental psychologist Evelyn Eaton Whitehead.

The husband-wife team -- Whitehead Associates -- has worked 23 years as consultants in education and ministry for a number of graduate education programs, religious agencies and other nonprofit groups in the United States and abroad. They have long been associated with the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University in Chicago, and together have written 11 books on pastoral ministry and Catholic spirituality. The Whiteheads’ latest book, Wisdom of the Body: Making Sense of Our Sexuality, will be published by Crossroads in the autumn.

In early June, they addressed 250 lay ministers attending the 25th anniversary conference of the National Association for Lay Ministry in Hunt Valley, Md. Whitehead, the theologian, recalled the great hope that sprang from Vatican Council II (1962-65) and flowered in the ’70s and ’80s. He also pointed to signs of retrenchment in recent years, especially the documents coming out of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that found homosexuals to be “objectively disordered” and last year declared that Protestant churches were “not churches in the true sense.”

For lay ministers coming through all or part of the past 35 years, the choice to walk away and find employment in a more congenial environment is one option, Whitehead said. Another is to look again and to recall the tension rooted in scripture and in the church from the earliest disputes between Peter and Paul.

“Tension is at the heart of the world. We’re not going to overcome it. It describes who we are. It’s in the gospels and it will outlive us,” he said. While today’s laity may think they’re living in a world packed with perils and temptations, “our ancestors were right in the middle of the mess,” Whitehead said.

Christians are “not called out of a sinful world, but into it.” The old images of life behind cloistered walls, of celibacy above marriage and of the church as a lighthouse in a darkened world have given way to a newer understanding of the role of laypersons and their importance in the church and the world, he said.

The church of 50 years ago whose identity was “clear, austere and exclusive,” whose liturgy invoked pageantry and who viewed the sensual and sexual with “extreme caution,” bears little resemblance to today’s church, Whitehead said. While some have “terrific nostalgia for who we thought we were and for the old safe roles … the body of Christ is going to take a long time to adjust to all the changes.”

As lay ministers seek “a strategic presence” in a complex and changing church and world, Whitehead chose the image of leaven over that of lighthouse to best represent their place in the new church. Whereas a lighthouse is detached and afar, leaven is hidden in the bread and in our prayers, he said.

He thought lay ministers would do well to compare their work to leaven. “If it nourishes and means more life for some, then it’s good bread, not necessarily Catholic bread or even Christian bread, but good bread.”

Whitehead challenged the laity to look “more explicitly” at the social justice issues within their purview even when these situations are fraught with conflict. One of the most important jobs lay ministers can do is to empower people caught in complex structures and to do advocacy on their behalf. Welfare is a case in point, he said, noting that when the five-year limit on benefits ends, many recipients may find themselves with nowhere to turn. Lay ministers should help parishes to be a safety net in such times.

The theologian pointed to the bishops of the Northwest who initiated a dialogue with environmentalists, Native Americans and with the owners of the nuclear power plant on the Columbia River to safeguard the life of the river and of those in its path. “The bishops saw the river as a sacramental commons, a sign and symbol of life,” Whitehead said. By their action to protect it, they showed that “the common good is not good unless it’s common,” Whitehead said.

Often actions on behalf of social justice rise from anger and compassion, said psychologist Evelyn Whitehead. She called anger and compassion “mood swings in the heart of God” and mood swings, too, in the vocations of lay ministers. Their pedigree is not always negative though.

Instances of “justice anger” are very prevalent in today’s church, the psychologist said. They arise in the face of perceived unfair treatment of oneself or of people in one’s care. They are actions that attack one’s sense of decency and fair play or situations that show contempt for the values at the core of one’s own worldview, she said.

In such cases, anger arrives as a moral agitator. “Justice anger fuels our commitment to right a wrong,” Whitehead said, but it can misfire. She warned against misperception of an injustice or the false assignment of blame. Instead, lay ministers should clarify the situation that is making them angry.

However, not everyone in lay ministry is in conflict or angry. Peter Oliver, a pastoral associate in Edmonton, Canada, aged 37, and three years out of divinity school, said that young people are excited about working for the church, but could be driven out by all the talk of anger, conflict and burnout. These are people who have never known a pre-Vatican II church, never known a church without a shortage of priests and never known one without laypeople doing many of the jobs once done by priests and nuns. They don’t have the grievances of the older generations, nor will they assume their struggles, he said.

A lay minister’s goal is not to eradicate the anger, to become calmer or to walk away, Whitehead said. Rather it’s to “learn to walk with anger as an ally in one’s larger comment to justice.” The psychologist could view anger as an ally, because she saw it as a harbinger of hope. “Anger says things ought not be this way; it demands change.”

When lay ministers lose their anger, they lose hope and can descend into apathy, she said. Whitehead called apathy “an enemy of the gospel” and “a dangerous infection in the community.” When injustice “imperils our shared lives, we must be able to be aroused by these offenses.”

Of course, no one likes the way anger feels as no one wants to lose control, serenity or friends, she said. But anger is always assertive, always making a claim, indicting misdeeds and defending a right, even though assertive need not mean aggressive, she added.

To insure that justice anger does not move into aggression requires the right kind of anger and the proper community, she said. “Anger that serves justice is seldom the hot urgency of our rage.” Only a cool anger can sustain commitment over time and avoid the burnout that many lay ministers report. That is why community is so important, she said. It allows “ranting and raving in the protective custody of our friends.”

Anger as a reaction to injustice comes to help lay ministers respond to intolerable situations. When carefully cultivated, Whitehead saw it as sustaining over the long haul while plans get developed, obstacles overcome and modest gains are celebrated.

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001