"For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many...the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
-Paul, 1 Corinthians
Periodically, whenever talk about the seemingly disparate components of my professional life surface in conversation with other religious professionals, there is an inevitable pause:
“So, you’re a pastor AND a marriage and family therapist…how exactly does that work?”
In a world of growing professional and educational specificity, this isn’t an unfounded question. Lawyers typically just lawyer stuff (I guess?), accountants count things, doctors do paperwork for health insurance companies, therapists therapize (this is a real word that I’ve trademarked), and pastors, well they pastor (and get on Facebook in the middle of the work day, just as the LORD intended).
Due to the structure and breathless pace of our working life together, there isn’t typically enough time to cross train across professional modalities, thanks to things like student debt, paying your mortgage, and progressing in your “career” (whatever that word means in 2018). So, when someone like myself answers “yes, and” to the question of what “I do” to someone I’m just meeting (or someone I’m related to who is quite worried about my future), it’s unsettling, and confusing, and seems almost beyond comprehension.
For most of our working life, we are and will only be one thing, maybe in different places and for different people, but always the one thing.
Now, before you get the idea that I’m somehow trying to convince you to quit your current job, go back to graduate school, work at a grocery store for a while with a masters degree, and then start working two jobs simultaneously, I’M NOT. Instead, I’d simply like to invite you to see the thing you live in and work with constantly from a different vantage point, or from a different profession, or from a different world*, even.
*NOTE: Or, maybe just the same world, but because of the tilt and the spin and the exhausting circumnavigation some of us have foolishly undertaken, it’s never the same place (even if we’re standing together).
The quote I opened with is from a fella with whom many of you are likely familiar, his name is Paul (formerly Saul), and he’s attempting to convince an early Christian community in the town of Corinth (a place just east of Lexington, I think) of the rather modern concept that people are never self-made individuals developing in isolation from other people, relationships, organizations, and institutions. According to Paul (not to mention a few scientists, therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, economists, educators, doctors, and pastors a couple of thousand years later), humans are both intimately shaped by and intimately shape other humans with whom they have regular contact. In fact, there’s so much shaping that takes place, some researchers we now call “systemic thinkers” began noticing that it was far more helpful to understand families or organizations or institutions as unified wholes, rather than simply a loose affiliation of discrete individuals.
This line of thought even led some therapists and doctors to begin treating families as if they were a unified person, with a unique way of speaking, thinking, relating, and understanding human life. Which means that when a family brings in a “problem member” with a substance abuse issue, or continued truancy, or an eating disorder, a systemic clinician never treats the identified problem person in isolation from the larger system that produced the behaviors he or she is exhibiting. Instead of being a dangling participle at the end of a normally well-functioning family sentence, the “problem member” is an incredibly incarnate image of where a family system’s dysfunction has come to rest, and is uniquely configured to produce.
Or, as one of my therapist friends likes to say: “no one is estranged on their own.”
Essentially, for these early pioneers in systemic thinking, a family is a person and a person is a family, which sounds quite a bit like what St. Paul is getting at with his “body talk” just a couple thousand years earlier. Except that as “just a pastor,” I was never taught to think of organizations as families, or bodies with a unique way of making sense of life, collectively. As “just a pastor” I was introduced to concepts helping me “deal with difficult people,” or “congregational distress,” or how to respond to “EMAILS IN ALL CAPS FROM PEOPLE WHO HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS ABOUT SOMETHING I DID (OR FAILED TO DO),” but rarely was this insight connected to the ways in which my own pain had been shaped and cultivated by systems of which I had been a part long before people called me "reverend" and expected me to know God's real email address.
Several years (and professions later) I realize that it would’ve been much more helpful to have someone read 1 Corinthians with me as a way of showing me that the responses I was receiving from one “difficult” person (or group of difficult persons) was reflective not of a singular failing of someone who really "needs to talk to a professional” (which could still be true), but of an entire system that has helped produce the incarnation of problem behaviors in this one "problem" person.
Or, as one of my pastor friends likes to say: “It’s important to first understand that the organization you’re in is a well-oiled machine singularly calibrated to produce the exact things you are currently receiving.”
So, before asking that one person to leave or to “seek help immediately,” your time as a pastor might be better spent asking questions about what exactly your "body” is calibrated to produce in the actions of your least healthy members (I like to think of them as the “in-grown toenails” of your community). In my experience, it’s never helpful to ignore in-grown toenails, nor is it effective to dig at them repeatedly until they become infected and swell up and require the help of a medical professional (or (gasp) a “consultant”). It’s best to survive the initial discomfort (rather than cutting your foot off in anger), thoughtfully treat the presenting issue, and to then spend time analyzing the raw materials that worked in concert to produce your throbbing big toe. Otherwise, there will be no end to the pain, or to the substance abuse, or to the eating disorder, or to the stonewalling, or to the problem people; most of the time, the issue just ends up changing its name, and email address, and identity, and toenail.
So, if you’re a pastor charged with caring for a body, perhaps it might be time for you to dabble outside your professional wheelhouse for a bit; to learn about families, or the economy, or the arts, or literature, or history, as a way of gaining enough distance from your current distress to ask better questions about what's happening and why it's happening. Questions that typically involve treating your faith community as if it were a person (rather than a loose affiliation of individuals or a monolithically intimidating institution), and thinking of them as a unified whole precisely engineered to give you exactly what you currently enjoy and currently loathe about being together.
Perhaps it’s time to give acute focus to the “weaker members” of your tribe, not to pander to or co-dependently enable them, but to understand that when one member of the body suffers, EVERYONE suffers, and everyone then reorients themselves around the suffering they’re experiencing. Because, as St. Paul mentions, when “weaker members” are heard, are honored, are understood as a product of something bigger than their own unique dysfunction, EVERYONE benefits, and everyone then reorients themselves around the grace and peace they are experiencing together.
It isn’t terribly easy or convenient to do this kind of professional work (as I mentioned before: sometimes lawyers just get to lawyer stuff), in fact it will probably be the hardest thing you'll ever do, namely because it forces you to come face to face with the systems, families, and bodies that produced you and the ways you uniquely respond to the world in moments of pain and peace. This kind of work also invites you to face your fallibility, the end of your expertise, and the growing edges of mystery and failure consistently tied up in following a crucified rabbi from the 1st century in a world where Facebook sells your vacation plans to Russian oligarchs.
You might say, being able to withstand and patiently redirect "a body" that has been and will be in motion far longer than you’ve been alive, is of the expressly miraculous variety, primarily because it usually results in the death, resurrection, and only much later, sometimes-sainthood of everyone who endeavors to try.
If you thought you could be "just a pastor" without probing the mysteries of what it means to be alive, to have a pulse, to dance whenever T.Swift gets played at the reception, to split up, to give birth, to die, and to be able to add to the conversation about why any of this matters at all to people just trying to pay down their student loans, I know both a good book and a decent therapist who can disabuse you of that idea rather quickly.
I can even give you his card if you like.