samedi, novembre 21, 2009

Column: Pastor hopes his story helps other clergy

After I wrote my first of two columns on troubled clergy and what can be done to help keep congregations and clergy healthy ("A disturbing trend among our clergy," Nov. 7, Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era, Page B5), I realized how helpful it might be to have a clergyperson share his or her own personal story.
While hearing from experts is important, there is both immediacy and power to a first-person account.
I approached five therapists, promising anonymity to someone willing to tell his or her story.
No one was able to find a volunteer.
In a therapeutically oriented society, where reality shows and public confessions are part of our cultural discourse, it seemed significant that these therapists didn't know one clergyperson willing to discuss previous ministry or personal challenges.
Finally, someone I know, currently active in the work of promoting healthier communication among individuals and in congregations, made the decision to open up part of his past.
His name is the Rev. Howard Friend, and he is an ordained Presbyterian minister, founder and lead consultant of the Parish Empowerment Network, and author of "Gifts of an Uncommon Life: The Practice of Contemplative Activism."
In one of his book's chapters, he examines the challenges he faced and how he and his marriage were changed by them. He offered his experiences in hopes that clergy in similar situations might find them helpful.
• • •
When one arrives at midlife, said Friend, "stuff comes up." Sometimes you don't know what you thought you knew for certain. "You are so busy with personal and career development, with making a name for yourself, that you haven't been reflecting on your life."
In his early 40s, Friend was pastor of a church in an affluent Philadelphia suburb — a church that was doing so well that it was studied by a national think tank. He had a circle of friends, a wife and children — and yet he was asking questions like "Does my routine make any sense? Am I making any difference?"
In some ways, Friend didn't suffer from the pressures that can sometimes burden clergy and lead to secrecy and misconduct. His congregation didn't have a blueprint for his family — it wasn't until college that his son knew what the term "P.K." (preacher's kid) meant.
"They knew that I had an obnoxious, off-color, rambunctious side."
While the congregation didn't elevate him to demigod status, he was aware that he had a unique role as a pastor.
"I felt that their demands that I be a role model were reasonable," he said.
And then he met a woman at a conference, someone who shared his affinity for psychology.
"There was something about her that was powerfully engaging. I wanted to be with her and talk to her." In addition, Friend said, he found himself physically attracted to her.
At this point, Friend clearly had a few choices. He decided he was going to tell his wife of many years and go into couple's therapy.
"It was a transitional time that became a transformational time."
Strangely enough, said the pastor, his therapist advocated that he continue to stay in touch with the woman he thought was so attractive. She lived in California, so frequent encounters were not possible.
That advice turned out, in the end, to be really helpful.
"I was drawn to her spiritual heart and depth," he said. "I came to see that she was an object of my projections, parts of me that weren't developed."
On the heels of this revelation, Friend decided to seek closer communion with the divine — on a 30-day retreat in the woods of the Canadian north. And when he came back, following up on the advice of his retreat director, he purposefully renewed and deepened his commitment to his marriage.
In many ways, Friend doesn't fit the "profile" of clergy who get into trouble. He and his spouse had made communication and growth high priorities, both individually and in their marriage. And when they found themselves in tumultuous times, they sought help.
The fruit of his own experience, and his work with hundreds of congregations, has led him to a few conclusions.
• Acknowledge that pastoring a church when so many are in decline is tough, he said.
• Be willing to look at your "shadow side" and find places where you can own up to it without having to act it out.
• Seek friends outside your congregation.
• And if you know that you are lonely, suffering from lack of self-esteem, depressed or impelled toward misbehavior — get help in finding a safe place to open up those broken places and let healing begin.

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