aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Professional dangers

When I was in seminary, we kept having "old pastoral hands" give us advice in chapel. Like, watch out for women, money, and . . . and I've forgotten what the third thing we were always being told to watch out for was.

But the real danger to the souls and careers of clergy comes from getting blase about "boundary crossings." Allow me to explain.

Let us suppose that you have a dangerous stretch of bog to cross, like the Grimpen Mire. There are tufts of solid ground scattered randomly about the soft places that will swallow you up. Guides are available to help you cross this bog, from one side to the other. To do this, they must memorize where all the firm spots are.

Once in a while, some Guide will get careless. A careless Guide is soon a dead Guide -- and likely the party he was guiding will be lost, too. Also once in a while, some Guide will delude himself into thinking that he discerns a larger pattern in the bog, and can guess where the firm spots will be instead of relying on rote memorization. But the penalty for thinking you are smarter than the bog is that the bog doesn't know how smart you are, and pretty soon you will make a misstep -- and down you go.

In the real world, certain professions share a priestly character. The ordained ministry, doctors, lawyers, and some others act as Guides to ordinary folk who are in a boggy place. They don't know how to get over from one place to another. Someone with special training needs to guide them, show them where to place their feet.

These priestly Guides go through special training and have many experiences that give them knowledge not available to ordinary folk. But the fact that they have that special training and those experiences desensitizes them to what ordinary folk feel in their life-bog. The physician who cuts up dead bodies -- or who cuts open live ones -- must overcome a certain repugnance, must cross back and forth between the realms of life and death -- in order to be useful to his patients. The lawyer must be able to argue the law pro and con and treat it as a plastic thing in order to advise his clients. The pastor who has wandered through the hinterlands of hell and the marches of heaven with many souls must not be overcome with either horror or wonder as he guides those in his charge.

Any of these can make a misstep. Guides are only human, after all. But the great danger -- the moral danger -- of each of these professions is arrogance. We become so desensitized to what we see all the time -- but what those we guide see only once in a while -- that we get careless. Or we become arrogant, at ease with our ability to function in this special environment, and we think we see a pattern that we can follow that applies to those of us in-the-know, and not to the poor mortals who can only step from tussock to tussock.

Thus, the doctor who is overconfident of his ability to function in the shadowy realm between life and death may become too quick to pronounce which side of that boundary patient X should be on. He who has no trouble advising his patients in tortuous decisions may come to think that all his decisions are right. The lawyer who is too used to making the law read as he wishes for a client may come to flout it in his personal life. After all, isn't the law whatever he can make it be? And the pastor who becomes jaded applying the prescribed ritual fixes to those who come to him for counsel may get sloppy in his personal life, thinking that he perceives the larger pattern (rather than Xt), or that since he is always telling people that God loves them anyway, that HE is always OK with God and can therefore do what he pleases.

We who guide others need to remind ourselves that we, too, will become lost w/o guidance. We need the ordinary rules of behavior, as well as the rules of professional conduct, to save us from our own carelessness and arrogance. Pastors must especially beware the loss of their personal faith. No doctrine, said C.S. Lewis, seems so trite and unbelievable as the one you have just successfully defended -- because it seemed for a moment to actually depend on you, instead of God. And therefore, either it is a fraud or we are above that doctrine we have just espoused. And we who convey the grace of God to others must beware of granting ourselves plenary indulgence ahead of time in order to sin w/o fear or shame.

Clergy need to worship, need to pray, need to find for themselves what they offer to others. If need be, they must even neglect those who clamor for their attention in order to feed their own souls. Jesus ran from the crowds into the desert, because he had to sustain his relationship with the Father. Do we think we are made of hardier stuff? And we should pray for each other. The pastorate is a lonely job; you work out of contact with your peers and your parishioners too often see you only as the "God-person," not as a fellow sinner in need of love and grace. And time and again, we need to confess that we do not have the answers, the power, the grace, the life -- that all we know is where a few firm spots are that you can put your weight on, and those we found only because we were guided to them ourselves.
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