For clergy, relationships with members of our congregations are woven with joy and heartache. We are professionals, trained for a vocation, like accountants, therapists, and electricians. But by the nature of our vocation, our relationships with the people we serve is broader and deeper and honestly, more complicated, than other professional relationships.
Articles frequent Facebook and online journals about clergy-congregant relationships - how to have appropriate boundaries, what to do when boundaries are crossed, and whether or not clergy can truly be friends with their parishioners are common topics. Most of the topics focus on the disheartening aspects when relationships go south.
But I don’t want to ignore the joyful aspects, either. After all, many clergy relationships with their congregations are positive and life-giving. The people who serve God with me in the church are the presence of Christ in so many ways, and I give thanks for them.
I’m thankful for members who come to church to worship God and to be present to love and serve their neighbors. Their faith and commitment to ministry inspires me, especially when I’ve had a long week with way too many meetings. Seeing so many gathered on Sunday to pray, to worship, and to be together to receive Holy Eucharist is a salve for the wounds of the week.
I’m thankful for members who bring me lunch or remind me to eat lunch when I’m up to my eyeballs in meetings, pastoral care, and funerals. I have a tendency to skip lunch, and I deeply appreciate those members who remind me feeding the body is necessary for feeding the soul. And even though I may roll my eyes, I really do appreciate the regular lectures on healthy eating.
I’m thankful for members who offer me their friendship while always understanding my role as priest. The boundaries of the priest friendship are slightly odd, but I’m deeply appreciative of those who accept me in all my roles.
I’m thankful for members who keep me honest. Hearing that salvation does not depend on me, nor am I only responsible for the mission and ministry of the Church is truth.
I’m thankful for members who realize I am a priest and not a therapist or a life-coach.
I’m thankful for members who realize as rector of a church, I will sometimes have to say, “No” to an idea they have because I’m the rector of a large group of people, but the “no” is not saying no to them as a person or to their value to me as a person.
I'm thankful for members who say "Yes!" to ministries that are new and a bit scary, but are what God calls us to do as we love and serve.
I’m thankful for members who realize I am a flawed human, and who speak to me personally when I’ve acted in a way that has been hurtful to them. Their honesty and vulnerability invites me to grow as a person of faith, and their witness that relationships are filled with good times and hard times almost always deepens the bonds of Christian love. To be part of reconciliation and to realize people are here for the long haul is the presence of deep and abiding grace.
I’m thankful (however hard expressing the gratitude is in the painful moments) for members who have hurt me with their words and actions. Recognizing my limits and speaking the truth in love isn’t easy for clergy. Most of us hate disappointing others, and we all too often bury our personal pain in too much food, alcohol, or other unhealthy behaviors. These moments invite me to grow, to change, and to deepen my own understanding of mercy and forgiveness.
I’m thankful for members who give me permission to be human, when I need to cry or be angry or simply feel overwhelmed, and don’t try to fix me or even worse, use it later as a weapon against me. To have members ask, “Are you okay?” as a real question, and know they can hear, “No, but I can’t talk about it,” and have them respond. “Okay, do you want some chocolate.” Seriously people, that’s caring for one another.
I’m thankful for members who invite me to movies, and accept my crazy schedule when I have to cancel - and still invite me the next time they go, even if it means seeing Star Wars months after its release.
I’m thankful for members who recognize I put so much of myself on the altar, to honor my own soul I will always have parts of my life I choose not to share with the church, and they support these healthy limits and affirm me when I have a personal life.
I’m thankful for members who pray for me and for the ministry of the church I serve.
I'm thankful for members who take the time to teach me the finer points of being a Kentucky basketball fan (both men's and women's teams) and who cheer for Alabama as their college football team.
I’m thankful for the many fellow children of God who, by their love and their lives, help me become the person God created me to be. We are, indeed, in this together.
Now, cue Bette Midler's Wind Beneath My Wings and enjoy reflecting on those who are part of this beautifully messy community of faith in God with you.