The Pastoral Covenant

A case study we looked at in class today has got me thinking.

I know we’re trained as clergy to observe pastoral confidentiality, and that that’s part of the implicit covenant between us and our parishioners when they come to us for advice and counsel.

We are also expected to listen empathically and to represent God’s love to them. For non-theists, same general idea. Love is love and we’re expected to be in loving relationship with our people.

All good so far. Everyone knows those things.

But what about, for lack of a better word, chastisement? Or maybe I’ll say “spiritual correction?” Do we expect that these days? In the more liberal churches, I mean?

Here’s what I’m thinking. If I go to my minister and confess something I know is unethical, do I not, at some level of my being either expect or even secretly hope that he or she will bust me on it? I don’t mean in a judgmental, punishing way, but in an honest and theologically clear way? I think I would. If folks think of their clergyperson as someone they can tell anything to, that’s great! If they think their clergyperson will listen attentively to everything they say and never venture an opinion about it, I don’t think that’s so great.

In the case study today we looked at today, a female pastor (and D.Min. student) went to her seminary dean — a minister with whom she was friendly– and told her about the wonderful relationship she was having with a married man in the community. There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the gist. In this situation, the roles are very blurry — of course, the woman receiving this troubling information wasn’t the confessor’s pastor.
In trying to work this out (“why did she reveal this? what should the other minister have done?) the class considered Jesus’ question, “What do you need from me?”
Some folks thought that the woman needed attentive listening and understanding.
I thought she needed that, too, but also the proverbial smack upside the head. I figured that if she went to a minister with this confession, she must on some level be ready to hear a dissenting opinion on her decision to carry on a long-term affair. I figured that it would be most UNloving to deny her that, in fact.

Which led me to think about the unspoken covenant between parish ministers and their parishioners — isn’t part of the reason we join a church and stay with it to become well-known and loved by our pastors? And doesn’t part of the strength and mutuality of that relationship come from knowing that our pastor cares enough about us to actually try to help us stay healthy, whole and out of trouble?

I hope we haven’t lost that. While I don’t condone clerical shaming and judging, I think we’re like the tough old auntie on the porch who, when she sees you come home way past curfew, smelling like gin and with your shirt on backwards, whaps you upside the head with the magazine she’s been reading and says, “Girl, what ARE you thinking?” Then she pats the step next to her and you sit down and spill it all out how you’re seeing that bad boy Mickey Santelli on the sly, and she listens and goes, “mmmm hmmm” and when you’re all done she says, “Well, I just know you can do better than that, honey. And the next time you want to sneak out with ole Mickey, you just come see me and we’ll find something more productive for you to do with those hands of yours.”

Do clergy feel that they can be, not just listeners, but honest responders? Or is that too, I don’t know, authoritarian these days?