Post Author: Emily Elspeth Mitchell
“Doesn’t it suck,” my colleague commented to me, “when people call us in a panic because they didn’t read their email from weeks ago and now they want us to fix their problem?”
Yes, it does suck. One of my growing edges as a pastor is learning how to prevent other people’s anxiety from engulfing my day. One of the unspoken and unrealistic expectations placed on a pastor is that a parishioner’s predicament should automatically become the pastor’s. Of course, we have many real and pressing crises in pastoral ministry, such as someone moving to hospice, getting into a car accident, receiving a grim diagnosis, etc. But I’m discovering there are also situations facing folks that don’t need to be escalated and intensified by the pastor.
In this identified growth area, I draw inspiration from my sister. This spring, my niece, who is 9 years old, wanted greater independence. She was tired of her mom telling her what to do. My sister and niece agreed to a week-long trial in which my sister would refrain from giving directives, which ranged from feeding the cat to taking a bath. Before the experiment began, my sister said, “Just so we’re clear: with this arrangement, your emergency doesn’t have to become my emergency.” For example, if my niece forgot to pack her lunch the night before school, she might be in a panic in the morning and go to her mom, expecting her to be similarly panicked and hence find correct change so that she could purchase a school lunch. But no, my sister said: the consequence would be that my niece wouldn’t eat lunch that day. Happily, my niece never neglected to pack her lunch; it seems that she had sufficient internal motivation. My sister is not ready to endorse this parenting method to anyone else: there were pros and cons to letting a 9-year-old completely determine her priorities in homework, chores, and personal hygiene. Nevertheless, my niece’s attitude improved substantially, and my sister was pleased by how much their mother-daughter relationship improved.
I am struck by my sister’s philosophical approach, exemplified by her phrase, “Your emergency doesn’t have to become my emergency.” I am impressed by my sister’s fortitude and honesty, and I wonder about the possibilities and implications of my adopting such a mindset in pastoral ministry.
Here’s my case study: early in the week, I sent out an email to church parents, and apparently one of the moms did not read it. On Wednesday, I repeated the information that was in the email to the daughter, and some time afterwards her mom texted me and I responded via text. On Friday, the mom texted again. Friday is my Sabbath, and I try to rest from church communications, but I had my phone on me and I figured it was only a text so I texted back. An hour later, she called me. My text had not appeased her. I picked up the phone call, and we talked. She was in emergency mode. I proposed some possible next action steps, which satisfied her, but throughout the conversation I was resentful of her request and her interrupting my Sabbath for something that was a small issue of personal preference.
I know I made mistakes. I could have waited to respond to her text until Saturday. I could have not answered the phone call at all, or if I picked up, I could have started the phone call with, “Today is my Sabbath; can we have a conversation tomorrow morning when I next see you and your daughter?” These options would have been ways of subtly communicating that her emergency didn’t have to become my own.
Brene Brown has said that the most compassionate people are the ones with the best boundaries, and that statement makes sense to me. It certainly explains my lack of compassion that Friday! I lowered my boundaries, and I put on the impression of being a pastor/problem-solver extraordinaire on the phone. I played the part of sympathetic listener, but inside I was impatient, thinking, “Come on! This shouldn’t be such a big deal.” If I had come to the situation in greater health and rest, I could have shown kindness to the mom, seeing her as someone who just wanted what is best for her daughter.
“Your emergency doesn’t have to become my emergency,” my sister told her daughter directly. In our context, perhaps people would be shocked and react negatively if we were that blunt. Because of our role, people may want us to function as the comforter, the therapist, the obstacle-remover; they may not expect (nor want) us to be the truth-teller and the authority figure showing them tough love.
Despite their uneven expectations, I am learning that my primary responsibility is not to get yoked to their anxiety, and it’s not to protect them from ever feeling the burden of consequences. My primary responsibility is to point to Christ. Jesus is the one who invites the weary and burdened, which includes parishioner and pastor alike, to come to him.
As I think about other people’s perceived emergencies, amplified by their anxiety, I have a couple of aspirations: to take deep breaths and remain a non-anxious presence; to maintain healthy boundaries; to identify what expectations of me as a pastor are reasonable and which ones are not; to find grace for myself and for others, acknowledging that all of us are humans who are limited and who can get worked up and fearful in an instant.
More and more I hope to take Jesus’ yoke upon myself and learn from him. I pray that, as I refrain from burdening myself with everyone’s heightened sense of emergency, I will find the ease of Christ’s yoke and the lightness of Christ’s burden. May it be so for you as well.