It Was Fear That I Saw

Photo Thanks to Matthew Wiebe

Photo Thanks to Matthew Wiebe

I’ve seen the look in too many people’s eyes. And I don’t say that as a pin of honor or badge on my lapel. It was a dreadful thing when I first started seeing fear so regularly. There’s nothing like the naked, bold, and startling fear in the eyes of a person who watched the slow-coming death of someone they love. Love makes us hold tightly. Love, often, is the enemy of surrender. And I thought about it when a woman asked me, in a way, about my own loves.

When I first started in ministry at Sweet Holy Spirit, my role was primarily administrative. Aside from some relatively small amount of pastoral care, I functioned the way an executive pastor functions, looking at costs, praying about meeting budget, managing operations, getting to know a staff, decreasing that staff, trying to compensate the staff based upon the unique and faithful expressions of ministry’s vocations. I brought an attorney on retainer, developed relationships with insurance agents, learned about wage demands from the IRS, and became a master at explaining differences between exempt and non-exempt employees.

Being an executive pastor who was in the seat when the pastor was away was more responsibility than I was ready for. It aged me. It still does in a way. And I remember seeing fear in those days. But it was a different fear. It was a fear of missing marks that were mostly set in the wide generous room of a large church. I had my own fears. But in terms of the real fears of others, I was hardly exposed to much. I was the person who kept at the overarching system so that the good folks in our church could come and hear the words spoken. But I hardly had enough time with those folks, those listeners. They would have taught me differently about different fear.

When I came to New Community, I came, in part, because it was twenty times smaller than my home church by my conservative estimate. I would be able to pastor in a classical way, and that vision is one that I’ve been able to live. I’ve been in homes, around tables, having conversations and not just at the office or even in my study at home. I’ve been able to search the lives of others at their leadership and invitation. I’ve seen more fears in the eyes of our people.

And still, my church is “relatively young” church. I find myself over the years putting up three or four fingers when I tell people how many times I’ve visited hospitals for the people of New Community. It’s relatively young, I tell them. People don’t ask the pastor to come to the hospital when a baby is born, and twenty and thirty-somethings don’t generally get hospitalized and require pastoral visitation. Where I preached twelve funerals a year (as part of a staff of ministers) at SHS, I’ve done almost as many weddings during some of my ten years at New Community.  Fear looks differently in those congregational contexts.

When I started working as a chaplain, I started seeing fear differently. In the medical center, I saw it all the time. I see it all the time. I can see it daily if I choose. Unfortunately, there is always somebody (perhaps a somebody in 900+ beds) negotiating with fear.

The good thing about being a chaplain who is also in the supervisory education process is that you’re always doing action, reflection, action. Always working in that CPE model of learning. In fact, you have to stop yourself from doing it. At home, in the congregation, in conversation with people who know nothing about this model of learning. Stop being shaped the education and be. Still, it relates to how you see yourself.

You become a process person, loosening your grip on content and becoming more interested in what’s happening, what’s taking place, what process we’re in, rather than the superficial and low-hanging surface of what’s merely explicit. Process is hardly ever explicit. And fear is the same. You have to see it even though it’s facing you.

That’s why relationships falter because it takes a therapist or a spiritual director or a guide who’s outside the dyad to say, “Hey, what’s happening here?” or “This is what I’m seeing.” or “If you keep in this direction, where are you headed?” These aren’t content statements but process ones.

You begin to see your own fears. You make friends with some of them. You give grace to them, gifting them with new understanding because the words behind and under those fears are understandable. They are real just like the fear.

Estimates of Your Leadership

Skitter PhotoLast month I had the opportunity to visit my mentor and father-friend, Dr. Johnathan Alvarado, on the occasion of his 50th birthday. His wife, Dr. Toni Alvarado, invited a collection of colleagues, parishioners, friends, and extended family to a party. I stayed for the full weekend as we celebrated him. I had the chance to represent those who JEA have mentored over the years—in my case, nearly 25 years.

The weekend and the writing of my reflection ahead of it gave me an opportunity to bring to mind all the things which he’s been to me, to my marriage, and to my family. His (and their) exemplary ethic in the practice of wise, enduring, faithful, intellectually responsive, and Spirit-led ministry mark me in my attempts to do similarly. I’m part of the fruit of his life. I’m part of the estimate of his leadership.

Bishop Alvarado shares me with other people who’ve mentored me. He and they are regular parts of my growth. As I described his impact upon me, I couldn’t help but visit my own ministry, teaching, and service to the world. I couldn’t help but question my own family life when I heard his daughter (their youngest) speaking so lovingly about her dad.

Bishop Alvarado esteems others well, and to participate in a public affirmation of his life was splendid. To review–even in my own life–how his life mattered and how his effort provided a currency for our own development as a person was of double benefit. It underlined my sincere appreciation that he is alive.

Listening to earned tributes has that impact on a person. You hear and you want to emulate what you hear. I want the estimates of my leadership to sound and look and feel like those did in December. I want to be the husband, father, leader, pastor, educator, caregiver, and writer who loves well and is loved well. I want to see the estimates of my leadership as I lead and to count them worthy.

“I’m Still Scared”

The first day or so into my residency I heard my supervisor utter from the corner a response that I scribbled into my calendar. I swipe quotes from people like free gifts, and his words were a little gift to me–a gift I’ve looked at and played with ever since.

We were gathered as interns and residents and going through the initial orientation to life in CPE at Northwestern Memorial. We were just starting our adjustment into life as chaplains at the area’s premier academic medical center. Some of us had never been in a hospital setting for CPE. A few of us had been in 3 or 4 hospitals before to serve as chaplains.

I don’t remember who said they were scared. I couldn’t quote them if I did for the confidences we keep. But I’ll out my supervisor since I won’t name him. The person had said in a sigh that they were afraid, and he said to the comment, “I’m still scared.” We had already heard a bit about how long he’d been in ministry, and his reaction in those three words, together, were a life raft.

It was an immediate frame of vulnerability and risk and strength, his words.  I’ve thought about the many reasons to fear in this ministry.

The ministry of serving others in a congregation brings fears. I know that as a pastor who has served in churches for close to 15 years. The same is true for the role of a chaplain in a medical setting. We should fear. We should name our fears. They are real and they are credible. We could really muck things up.

And, of course, fear isn’t the only feeling in the room. There are other emotions. And all of them, like voices in a chorus, will be heard. Tenors and sopranos and every other important voice needs to be respected as it sings.

I’ve heard the fear with each beep of the pager. I like to tell my colleagues that the 3 to 4AM hour is my golden hour when I’m on-call. I’ve always been paged at that hour for, at least, one trauma. But with each page, with each shift, the fear gets smaller.

I can see how it works now. I know a lot about what will happen. Of course, there is the long spectrum of surprises that comes with any interaction. I don’t know how it will go with that next person who’s in crisis. That’s the beauty of it for me. The beauty of seeing what will be said, seeing how I’ll listen better, seeing how God will move between us.

But the fear part, the part of me that didn’t know what to expect is schooled by these first 4-5 on-call shifts now. I know what it looks like for a response team to descend upon a quiet floor when a patient is “crashing.” I know the frenetic, nervous space filled by firefighters and police officers and nurses while respiratory therapists are working to help a gunshot victim breathe. Those fears are decreasing.

Yes, I’m still afraid. This feels especially true this morning, after the night we’ve witnessed in Missouri. But I’m less afraid. And that feels like a part of the goal for life and for CPE. To be less fearful. To have those fears respected and known but less in control.

I’ll go to the next patient visit with less anxiety. I’ll feel more like myself as I sit with someone whose loved one just slipped away after the ventilator has been removed, after their breath has left their bodies for that final time.

And though, like my supervisor, I’ll still be afraid, I’ll be stronger, and I’ll be more in my skin as a less anxious presence. At least those are my hopes as I finish this on-call shift, as I walk out of the hospital and face the rest.

Nudge Toward Self-Scrutiny

I’m reading Pamela Cooper-White’s book, Shared Wisdom: The Use of Self in Pastoral Care and Counseling. It’s essentially a book about countertransference and it’s good use in the pastoral ministries of care, counseling, and psychotherapy. I grabbed the title as one-to-read at the beginning of my residency and mostly because my previous clinical supervisor in Urban CPE suggested that I continue to explore the notion and practice of “use of self” in my work.

I hadn’t read Cooper-White’s work before I heard that direction from my supervisor. When we started our residency, we were given the option to choose one book to read and review in place of one verbatim. So, I’m reading Shared Wisdom in order to relay what findings I’m seeing and how they relate to chaplaincy in particular and to pastoral ministry in general.

I’m not going to review the book here. I’m 90% through it, but I want to finish it before commenting deeply on its high significance, even for ministers without any real introduction to pastoral care literature, psychodynamic theory, or the variety of approaches to pastoral counseling. The book is a great introduction to all those in my view, though it doesn’t intend to be exhaustive in that introduction.

I want to pull one quote that I think will grab at the book theme and intention. It’s context-less, which I’m generally against, but it does stand on its own and communicates a few things about the total work (It’s from pgs. 173-174):

Not only is none of us immune to the occurrence of unanticipated enactment moments in deep therapeutic work, but I would venture that none of us is immune to at least occasional seductive desires to be the omnipotent healer. While this probably does not constitute an entrenched, predatory charaterological pattern in most practitioners, the very dynamics that often draw individuals to pursue caregiving professions virtually guarantee an intensification of unconscious impulses along a healer-healed axis. Grandiosity may not only appear in the guise of being the special healer of our patients. It may also appear in the form of overestimating our capacity to contain and analyze all the possible meanings that can arise when enactments do occur. As Arnold Goldberg has stated, many enactments may not in and of themselves constitute anything overtly unethical in the moral sense. However, we must acknowledge our limitations in being able adequately to process these enactments and to contain the energies they generate.

Cooper-White is doing a few things here worth capturing:

  1. She reminds us that enactments happen.
  2. She pushes us to question our self-understandings as leaders, particularly of the omnipotent sort.
  3. She says what most don’t know: certain kinds of people go into ministry and we generally have certain impulses.
  4. She uses the word grandiosity which in itself is a nudge (or a wall) worth lingering with.
  5. She writes about limitations and the notion is deeply theological, anthropological, and ethical.

Why Pastors Should Take CPE (1 of 2)

I’ve been writing this post in my head for more than a year. That doesn’t mean it’s good as much as it’s something I’ve been mulling over for a while.  I’m taking a series of units of clinical pastoral education (CPE) at a Chicago hospital.  I took a unit last year at a different site, Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly. And my thoughts are coming out of those experiences as well as loving theft of smarter people who’ve said things about the same.

Here are some random thoughts about the early reasons to take a unit in CPE. My next post will comment on the content and group work in ways that keep the right confidences:

The requirements are minimal. You do need a theological background, so you have to be friends with graduate theological education. But if you’re in the work of that or if it’s behind or under you, the steps to enrolling in CPE are doable. Getting in tends to be an extremely hospitable process, one where you are lovingly and graciously asked significant questions that will in themselves be an education.

The requirements aren’t minimal. In a sense, just by going through the application process, you know that people around the table, in your peer group, have taken the decision to attend very seriously. It takes recommendations and essays and answers to fairly deep questions to get an interview for a site. But you know that everyone has answered, or been pushed to answer, the same strong questions.  Once you start serving in your site and doing group work, you’ve joined a group of people who are generally good at making and staying with commitments.

CPE is a continuing education. Most people are familiar with CPE as part of a seminary education, but because I was working at a church during seminary, I didn’t take a unit in CPE. I didn’t have the time. The beauty of CPE is that you can take it at any point. And pastors need structured continuing education in theological reflection, in pastoral arts, and in group dynamics. The education provides for those.

Choosing gets easier. You have to choose your site, where you want to “do your unit,” where you want to learn. Part of that choice is in your experience of the interview with the potential group leader/clinical supervisor. This person will become either a very poor influence in your life over the months you’re learning or someone you “esteem among rubies.” In my case, my clinical supervisor was a critical reason I kept going forward to get more units. Her way and expertise with teaching us and me were outstanding. You should pray to have a supervisor like Sister Barbara at Urban CPE.

Praying gets harder. If you’re lucky, you’ll sit in a group with people as different from you as a new morning. That alone might shock you into transformation, growth, and learning. All of you being ministers, all of you won’t come from the same ministerial background. Welcome that for what it’ll do to how you approach God. You should find yourself using a broader range of words for God, expanding beyond your well-crafted experience of God, and, thereby, deepening in the way you’ve created that range and that craft. But praying may take longer. You’ll integrate yourself in prayer, listen to feelings and how they make their own prayers, and you’ll be heard differently as you pray for others in the intimate homes of people unfamiliar with your way of doing ministry. You may become a bit more humble.

We need feedback. As a pastor, I spend time telling people what I think, and I spend time helping people reflect on what they think. I needed an education that would come alongside me post-seminary which would enable me to regularly reflect on my practice of ministry and, as importantly, give me feedback. My experience of the pastoral care part of leadership is that you don’t get feedback normally.  Building a vehicle for it was important. Once you go through a group or two, you expect feedback, learn how to hear people, and learn what it feels like to be heard.

Supervision is a gift. Clinical supervision is a weekly meeting with your supervisor, a pastoral educator who has had–by the time they sit with you–years of post-seminary training in listening, group work, paper writing, grief, chaplaincy, and teaching. She’s been to therapy in order to sit with you. He’s been through what you’ve been through at least half a dozen times. So, when you close the door of your meeting room and talk about what you’re learning as you serve in your clinical area, you’re receiving something precious.

The education is somewhat tailored. You develop your goals for CPE. There are common outcomes because the education is accredited through the ACPE. There are standards to meet, but you determine how and whether you meet them. The grading is first very interior because the focus, from application to post-unit evaluation, is on you and what you need. My interview at Northwestern was an inviting time of discernment last summer. The first question they asked me was, “What do you need from us today?” Blew me away.

Pastors doing process notes change. Ministers do a lot and we could even do more than we think. In other words, we could do what we do and not think. Process notes are an essential part of CPE where you write weekly reflections to 5-6 questions. You write out of your experience at your site, thinking through what you’re doing, interrogating your experience. Over time, you read your notes, see your growth, and you change. You add the language of the noted question to yourself and begin to monitor whether an interaction is illuminating. If your supervisor comments on your notes, it’s increases the amount of wisdom you’re gaining.

We start asking better questions. On my current process notes template, our supervisor has this question, “Where did you meet God this week?” Can you imagine answering that weekly for yourself? Before you lead a meeting or close the study door or leave for your Sabbath or give a benediction or counsel someone, knowing that that question is waiting for you is framing and powerful and internally shaping. When we asked good questions, it turns us into good questioners.