A few weeks ago, my better half ended up in the hospital for four days. His appendix burst in the middle of the night, and, as he is prone to doing, he was being tough. All of this resulted in the fact that we didn’t really get him to the hospital as quickly as we should have. Still, it all worked out as well as could reasonably be expected. They got him into surgery, fixed him up, and sent him home as quickly as they could, given the moderate risk of infection with a burst appendix.
It was scary and stressful, and I’m still not over the shock of realizing he and I might not be invincible after all. It was also the first time that I have been on the receiving end of my congregation’s big-hearted approach to pastoral care. I’m still reeling over how strange and wonderful that felt.
See, I’m the minister–right. I’m the giver of pastoral care, not the receiver. I am the font of comfort and the number one resource in my congregation for compassionate nods-of-the-head and hugs-only-when-appropriate. I am the pastor, and since I never remember my local priest comforting my family very much when I was a kid, I’ve seldom (if ever) really known what it was to be pastored to in a time of trauma, which is why I was confused this week, if honored and grateful at the same time.
When hubby was in surgery, I was sitting on the floor of the only place in the hospital with reception grasping a cell phone in each hand while talking to our parents and family members, giving them updates and generally just trying to hold it together. As I sat on the floor juggling these cell phones and wondering if I even had it in me to cry, one of my more wonderful congregants walked up to me.
Here’s where the story gets surprising. When I saw her, my first thought was not “Oh, how lovely that she’s come to see me,” but rather, “oh crap there’s one of my congregants and I haven’t showered in a couple of days and am not really able to talk to her like a minister right now and I’m sitting on the floor in the pajama shirt I was wearing when we fled the house at three am and she’s probably got some relative in surgery and I didn’t even know about it and I hope she’s ok and, deep breath I need to get off of these two phones and talk to my congregant.”
I thought all of those things in about two seconds flat. It took me a good ten minutes to realize that she was actually there to see me. That’s right. I assumed she had her own traumas or issues to attend to and just happened to be here, in the surgical waiting area for ten solid minutes, for reasons utterly unconnected to my suffering husband. While my husband was in surgery. I found it inconceivable that someone might be there to see me.
Once I figured it out I was touched and so glad that she had come, not just because it turned out to be lovely to have some company in that difficult time, but because it taught me something about myself and the nature of ministry. Reflecting on it, the mental block that kept me from seeing her generous offer of care was strong. There is, apparently, a good bit of my self-identity as a minister connected to my role as care-giver, and I couldn’t move very smoothly from that role to another one.
As leaders, pastors, people of faith–how do we manage to be both caregivers and care receivers? How do we let the good work of the church not only emanate from us but come back to us? People forget at their peril and the peril of their congregants the fact that a minister is never not the minister. It’s when people forget that fact that the really bad stuff happens. Those in ministry do no favors to their churches when they let their professional boundaries and ministerial identity slide away. It’s not a costume you can take off or a role that can be shed like a snake’s skin on Friday night and picked back up on Sunday morning. Even sitting on the floor unshowered and frightened in a pajama shirt with the man I love in the operating room, I’m still the minister.
And yet, there are times when the minister must allow for the possibility of being cared for in appropriate ways by the people she gives her love and labor to. It needs to cross our minds that the good people of our churches may just be there for us when we need them, that even the minister with good professional boundaries and a strong sense of her own calling can stand to be on the receiving end of God’s love as manifested in the love of a church community. That is, after all, what a church community is for.
Hubby’s fine, by the way. My congregation is busily taking good care of others among us who are in need of care. I’m left both surprised by my response to their compassion and infinitely grateful for it.