The Role of Clergy: Caregivers
A priest friend of mine, a very competent minister, says he hasn't a pastoral bone in his body. He says this confessionally, almost ruefully. In fact, he cares very deeply for his people, that their spiritual needs are met and that they get the best care he can provide. It may or may not come naturally to him. But still, he knows it's his job to care.
As the church's influence in the world wanes, as parishes shrink and clergy grow more and more desperate to hold it all together, one thing remains constant: "Love one another, as I have loved you." You don't need an institution, with buildings and budgets and bosses, to do that. You don't even have to be ordained. You just have to care.
Here's my own confession. I never liked visiting hospitals, or seniors' homes. For one thing, I felt like a walking caricature. This is what clergy are supposed to do, along with having tea with little old ladies. In the days when I was young and full of zest, these settings constrained my natural exuberance. I had to "shake my sillies out" in the parking lot before going in to act the sage pastor I knew I wasn't.
But, like my priest friend, I visited hospitals and seniors' homes anyway. It never got easier, but I got better at it. More focussed--on them, rather than on me--quieter, providing "space" for us to feel God's presence. It felt like "work," more than some of the other aspects of my ministry. But it also felt like the very core of my vocation, as a priest, and as a human being.
And something else happened when I did my work as a pastor. It changed the tenor of my congregation. If people felt cared for, they were more likely to let down their guard and care for one another. It was infectious in that way, love begetting love. I suspect Jesus knew this when he gave his commandment to his disciples. They might not always know what they were doing. They might run up against insurmountable challenges. But somehow, if they loved one another, it would be enough.
It's hard to be caring when you don't feel cared for yourself. And many clergy don't feel cared for. They feel guilty in their frailty, weak in the face of adversity, and alone in their ministry. Sometimes it's the clergy who need to be loved by their congregation. But until they themselves can make love the foundation of their ministry, visiting the sick and comforting the sad, everything else will feel like a sham.
John and Paul both said it. The Beatles, not the apostles. All you need is love.
Next week: Christianity's Ground Zero