Post Author: Name Withheld
I’ve understood the concept for years, but I never knew why they were called alligators. I never bothered to ask, either, until I finally had one of my own. Ancient symbolism for alligators follows that they have big mouths, but do their best to remain hidden. In modern church contexts, this term is used for someone who employs gossip, lies, and slander because of a personal vendetta they have, directed toward a particular leader, often a clergyperson.
This is a love story about my alligator and me.
She took me by surprise, to be honest. I’ve heard stories about clergy and their alligators, about clergy being driven out of a church, or out of the ministry altogether, because of the harm their alligators have caused. And while I certainly assumed it would come to pass at some point in my ministry career, I foolishly felt that serving a relatively healthy congregation, being relatively self-differentiated, and having both decent boundaries and a solid support system would somehow grant me immunity.
You know, as if none of those things were true of all those other pastors.
My alligator took me by surprise in the depth of emotion she was able to raise in me. They teach us in chaplaincy that the results of stress can manifest in the physical body, and they’re not wrong. I was surprised by the size of the pit in my stomach, surprised by the weight of the veil that shrouded everything – even the stuff that had absolutely nothing to do with her, or with the church.
Let me be abundantly clear: She is rude, and verbally and emotionally abusive. She will not listen to reason. She is not very self-differentiated and she has terrible boundaries.
And yet, it’s not all bad.
I’ve noticed that on the days when I’m doing my part really well – when I’m able to hold good, firm boundaries, when I’m able to be particularly self-differentiated, when I’m able to say (and actually believe) that this is about her, and not about me – on those days, she actually helps me to be a better pastor, a better wife and mother, and even, perhaps, a better human being.
Just before I realized that she was even an alligator at all, much less mine in particular, I had been struggling mightily to stay on top of my to-do lists. It felt like I was the Associate Pastor of Triage, with no room to dream big about where God might be trying to lead this church. I was tired and stressed out. I was only half-present in meetings, half-present with my family, half-present in preaching and leading worship. It was the middle of Lent, which I should know by now is when everything falls apart.
Then my alligator snapped, and everything changed.
It changed for the worst, to begin with. Her constant presence behind-the-scenes meant that even the victories of ministry felt subdued. Her biggest snap followed my proudest moment; my most significant contribution to the programming of this congregation since my arrival. Her snap cut short my celebration. While the other confirmation kids and their parents expressed deep gratitude for the workshop I had put together on human sexuality, she used false accusations and below-the-belt hits to disguise her opposition to the topic as opposition to my ministry in general.
A few days later, I offered her an olive branch between services. I was preaching a difficult sermon that day. Several people commented positively about it, and I was feeling buoyed and brave and big enough to reach out. She tore that proverbial olive branch to shreds, in a loud voice in front of several parishioners, two minutes before I walked into worship to preach that sermon again.
And it wasn’t only at church that I could hear her voice in my head. It was at home, too. It was out in the world. I bought groceries wondering if the other shoppers could tell that I wasn’t as confident in my professional abilities in that moment as I had been the day before. I colored pictures with my daughter wondering if she would still pretend that she was “going to work now, to preach,” if she knew how I really felt inside. I made dinner knowing that my husband knew the whole story, but wondering if he could tell how much I was letting her get to me. I felt small and vulnerable, like walking the middle school hallways the day I got my period for the first time – I was sure the people around me could tell that something had changed, and I was sure that I didn’t want them to know.
I am not a patient person. My threshold for irresponsible communication and emotional abuse is very low. It didn’t take long before I had simply had enough. And then, somehow, everything changed again, but this time for the better.
Now, it’s enough for me to simply know that my alligator remains, lurking and scheming in the shadows. Her presence there keeps me on my toes. Her focus on irrelevant and inaccurate details and her drive to shift my attention away from what I believe God is calling me to do has lit a veritable fire under my butt. My boundaries are tighter than ever, and I’m a better pastor for it. I pay more attention to the integrity of my ministry, because I know she’s watching. The next time she questions my professional and pastoral abilities, I want to be able to stand firm in the knowledge that she doesn’t have a leg to stand on. I’m focusing more on the big picture, because getting overwhelmed by the endless minutiae of ministry leaves me stressed and vulnerable, and I’m convinced she can smell it, the way dogs can smell fear.
At home, I’m more present with my family. I have a better understanding of the dangers of putting all my happiness eggs into the church basket. I never realized how many I was keeping there until my alligator stomped all over them. I’m sure, now, to leave her fewer to work with.
My alligator has also made me more aware of how tempting it can be to toe the line of self-righteousness. She reminds me how easy it is to offend someone like her, and how difficult it is to regain that trust once it’s lost. She reminds me to err on the side of being pastoral rather than the side of being right. It’s one thing to call an alligator an alligator, but even the alligators need to feel like someone is in their corner.
The days when my alligator makes me a better pastor, wife, mother, and general human being happen frequently, sometimes, and other times they feel brutally few and far-between. And while I consider this to be a love story (of sorts) for now, I don’t mean to romanticize the damage that such people do to their clergy and their congregations. It may be that, at some point, the days when she helps me in these ways are simply gone. There may come a day when the only love I can muster up for her is in recognition that she, too, is a child of God.
In the meantime, however, I will do my best to hold fast to what is good, and to not repay her evil for evil. For now, she is my alligator, and I will do my best to love her for it.
The author, a Young Clergy Woman, serves as the associate pastor at a mostly white, upper-middle class, suburban congregation, which regularly tosses stereotypes about white, upper-middle class, suburban congregations to the curb. Her parishioners take her breath away with the depth and breadth of their theological questions, their sincere care for one another, their radical hospitality, and their strong desire to be Christ for others.
Image by: Kim Seng
Used with permission