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?

26 Replies to “The Pastoral Covenant”

  1. I think pointing out to the woman that she could potentially cause a lot of pain because of her actions is appropriate whether the advice-giver is a friend, relative, therapist or clergy.

    The question is, who will she (and he) eventually hurt? She could hurt her lover’s wife, his family, his children, him.

    Maybe more importantly in this conversation, since she is the one coming for advice, she could cause great hurt and damage to herself. Whether it’s when he doesn’t leave his wife for her or if it is all found out one day, there is great potential to cause herself pain and damage, both personally and professionally.

    Maybe that is what the minister should focus on, while bringing in the other people in on the periphery of the discussion.

  2. Hey PB,
    I hope we can use our spiritual authority and honesty that way too. But my practical experience is actually that people come in and tell me something that is troubling them and they already know the answer. If I listen and ask good questions, the smack themselves on the forehead and say, “What am I doing?!”

    That may not always be enough and I hope I will honor them with the gentle but firm truth. But so far, so good!


  3. Evangelicals often speak of what you are talking aobut as “rebuking in love”, and they think it is part of their duty in religious fellowship to kindly but firmly correct one another when they stray. I assumed the phrase must be Biblical, but I did a search and didn’t find an exact match.

    I did find these verses, though:

    “Whoever winks the eye causes trouble, but the one who rebukes boldly makes peace.”
    Proverbs 10:10

    “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life,
    but one who rejects a rebuke goes astray.”
    Proverbs 10:17

    “A rebuke strikes deeper into a discerning person
    than a hundred blows into a fool.”
    Proverbs 17:10

    “Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise rebuke to a listening ear.”
    Proverbs 25:12

    “Whoever rebukes a person will afterward find more favor than one who flatters with the tongue.”
    Proverbs 28:23

    “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools.” Ecclesiastes 7:5

    “Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”
    2 Timothy 4:2

    “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.”
    Revelation 3:19

    Perhaps the verses most applicable to your example, however, are these:

    “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.
    Well meant are the wounds a friend inflicts, but profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”
    Proverbs 27:5-6


    “Whoever corrects a scoffer wins abuse; whoever rebukes the wicked gets hurt.
    A scoffer who is rebuked will only hate you; the wise, when rebuked, will love you.”
    Proverbs 9:7-8

  4. On this theme, see the movie “You Can Count on Me” (with Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, and Matthew Broderick). It’s the only recent movie I’ve seen that shows a contemporary minister in a pastoral visit that struck me as realistic. (Actually, I also liked the depiction of a minister in “Italian for Beginners.”) I thought the minister in “You Can Count on Me” was very true to mainline Protestantism today, but I was frustrated by the minister’s unwillingness to be more direct. Other friends thought the minister’s empathy in the film was more effective in helping the person in need than a clearer answer about the “moral” choice from the minister.

    I would certainly hope that a minister would be direct in helping me see that I was rationalizing or justifying a bad or morally compromised choice.

  5. I got that. My response was hypothetical. Not sure why you are directing that comment to me. Last comment I’ll be posting here. Thanks.

  6. You mean liberals believe in “spiritual correction?” 🙂

    I know you probably know this better than me dear, but the New Testament says that if one member of the body believes another member of the body had wronged them in some way, they should go to that member and try to work it out. If that doesn’t work, then that member is supposed to bring in one or two others to help try and work the problem out. No matter how private somebody might want to keep a thought/action, once it is out in the open, constructively criticize away.

    It’s all in one’s intent. If one is correcting out of love, no harm done.

  7. Not to be obsessive about terminology here, but I believe you used “confessor” incorrectly. That would refer to the individual “receiving” or “witnessing” the “confession,” not the one who “confesses.”

    Now, coming from the Roman Catholic tradition, there are a whole host of issues that may not be present in other faith traditions. There is a fine line between pastoral counselling, spiritual advice, and confession.

  8. There is a term I learned recently called the Pastoral Perspective. That as an objective party with specialized training we bring a certain truth to the table and I feel that we are called to speak that truth in love. I read a book in seminary that talks about this very issue. It is called, “The Pastor as Moral Guide.” by Rebekah Miles. It gives ways for the Pastor to deal with morally sticky issues with parishioners through such things as active listening, thoughtful and inquiring questions.

  9. @Tom, thanks for pointing that out. We don’t have confession in my tradition or anything like it, although of course it’s human nature to want to unburden oneself of morally troubling struggles and to share them. I think I’m just really wondering right now what the explicit or implicit understanding is in the liberal church — when someone comes to their pastor, do they and the pastor feel like they can go into “spiritual correction” territory or not.
    My sense is that a lot of pastors wouldn’t dare, for fear of seeming too old-school priestlike. I’m just really curious.

    @Ann: not sure why you freaked out there, got hostile and defensive and ran. You seemed anxious to offer lots of advice about the situation so I thought I’d be clear (in case I wasn’t) that it was a long time ago. The question I asked was about spiritual admonishment, not about how to handle that old situation. Guess you didn’t want to engage with the question I *really* asked. Hmmm. Isn’t that interesting.

  10. When I have been in one of these kinds of confessional situations, I have often asked the one confessing, “Why are you telling me this?” Every time it has boiled down to someone wanting me to tell him or her that this relationship or situation was just plain wrong and that he or she was hurting self and others. I have no trouble telling someone that her actions have consequences. . .

  11. A wise colleague tells me that one of the reasons why people like to tell their minister of their problemmatic behaviors is that they have figured out that we can be counted on to enable it. We will not tell them they have to change. We will listen to their rationalizations and try to see their side of the story. We will affirm their good intentions.

  12. We Episcopalians theoretically have the sacrament of reconciliation, and moral theology is important to us historically at least, but putting this into practice and really claiming the authority we have as spiritual leaders is a challenge. So much of “spirituality” is very consumer driven these days, and after all the consumer is always right. This is one of those places where we are very countercultural, particularly among people raised by “anything goes” Boomer parents. (My bias is showing there, I guess).

  13. I was engaging with the post, in my own way. Perhaps I did get defensive upon reading your comment. I felt like you were implying I didn’t understand your post. Perhaps because I didn’t speak in minister-speak?

    Now you are accusing me of something quite serious…

    Guess you didn’t want to engage with the question I *really* asked (regarding the role of spiritual admonishment.) Hmmm. Isn’t that interesting.

    What are you implying with that comment? That’s a serious charge for sure. Or maybe you are feeling a little defensive now. It happens.

  14. As I live and breathe, I tell you I have been the recipient as pastor of such information and, well, let’s just say it was a learning experience…that backfired!

    A parishoner took me out to dinner to tell me that he had decided to ‘get serious’ with the woman he had been dating. “I’ll never find another woman like her,” he said. I encouraged him to pursue intimacy.

    Here is what happened: he broke up with her. I thought it was a lover’s spat and encouraged both of them to patch it up. She became furious with me, informed me that she was a virgin when she met him and now, thanks to me — a minister! — she had been used. Then she threatened to tell everyone we knew the private conversations we had about my difficulties with the minister. She did, including a few greatly embellished stories.

    The end result? I was run out of town. He is still a pillar of the church. I (thankfully) was ordained in another denomination.

    Liberals without church discipline are vulnerable to exactly this kind of stuff. Bishops come in real handy when stuff spins out of control!

  15. Further to Philocrites’ comment on “You Can Count On Me”:

    1) If you haven’t seen it, it’s a truly great American drama. Its title might seem a bit cloying, but it’s revealed in the film to be a serious moral provocation — what does it really mean to be able to rely on someone, or for someone to be able to rely on you, and how are those things different from love?

    2) The minister in the film is actually played by the writer-director of the film, Kenneth Lonergan. If you know that, the main character’s frustration in her interactions with the minister is particularly poignant: we all wish we could ask the writer-director of our own universe some questions, and it’s frustrating that we don’t get the straight answers we think we deserve.

  16. My sense about the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent in the Episcopal church is that is that people who request it froma priest probably expect the priest not to agree with their behavior. I’ve always liked the “All may, none must, some should” approach to Confession. However, because it’s a “none must” situation, I think anyone who approaches a priest for it probably desires the “counsel, direction and comfort” mentioned in the rubrics. Even the title is clear. You’re expected to come to the Sacrament with repentance already on your mind.

  17. As a person who never seeks advice from ministers my input is probably moot, but I’d say the first thing the minister should do is ask questions. Why not be upfront? If the behavior concerns the minister, it seems reasonable to ask the parishioner “are you telling me this because you want me to respond?” or something along those lines.

    By the way – I’ve been meaning to ask you, PB – have you seen Matchmaker on A&E? That Patty Novak lady reminds me of you (but she’s older, and nowhere near as fashionable). She’s so straight talking! One of my friends and I decided she would be our inspiration for “telling it like it is.”

  18. I would hope that any of my trusted confidantes, whether friends, family, or clergy, would not be afraid to “speak the truth in love” if I needed it. I’m not sure what the difference is between spelling out to someone that she risks hurting herself and many others with her behavior and counseling her that she’s in moral jeopardy. One is more explicit than the other. From the teaching perspective, the more explicit message is more likely to be effective with most people.

    The question I’m left with about your original question about “chastisement” and Kim Hampton’s comment about “correcting in love” is this: what if they don’t take your correction?

    The tradition in which I was raised practiced “disfellowship” of persons who did not responded to the correction Kim described. Some churches might call it excommunication. In other words, we have decided that your behavior makes you unacceptable to stay in our fellowship. Even as a child, I felt like this contradicted the message about not judging. It was used sparingly but publicly, and on those who might be embarrassing to the church and were dispensable.

    Perhaps it’s the uncertainty about where to draw the line justly that leaves liberal pastors and their parishioners uncomfortable with “spiritual correction.” If we are sincere about encouragement to spiritual growth, there must be a place for honest pastoral assessment and feedback. I’m not sure it’s something many join a church seeking, but it is a legitimate role for any pastor.

    As a practical matter, though, if I were a pastor, I would ask directly whether the person was seeking spiritual or moral advice or just a listening ear. If they decline advice, I think that even a liberal pastor should have the option of referring the person out and saying, “I can’t counsel you on this matter because I don’t feel like it’s morally neutral.” Isn’t that within his or her right of conscience?

  19. Excellent points, ya’ll, and I obviously need to see “You Can Count On Me” again (I remember that I liked it, but not much else).
    @HS: I haven’t seen “Matchmaker” but I’ll look for it.
    @Frog Princess: I agree that it’s always a good idea to ask right out what someone is looking for: a neutral ear or an actual honest response? In the case I cited, I believe the minister said something like, “I have to tell you that if you tell me any more, I will feel obligated to report this.” Which certainly shut down conversation altogether. She feels guilt to this day that she didn’t choose a different approach.
    @Ann: I “accuse” you of poor listening skills, nothing more. Since so many people find the topic of spiritual correction/admonishment uncomfortable to deal with, I was not surprised that at least one respondent would prefer to give advice about the 25-year old case study than to answer my question.
    I actively moderate this blog and try to keep us all on topic because the conversation is always a lot richer when I do. There are many unmoderated blogs. You may prefer those.

  20. @Frog Princess: You raise an excellent point about the freedom of conscience in tension with the expectation to spiritual growth. What if someone doesn’t take well-meant pastoral guidance? In our tradition, they’re free to do so. We only “excommunicate” in the case of extremely disruptive behaviors, and I know of only about three cases in my lifetime. My sense of the pastoral covenant isn’t based so much on “thou shalt” but on an obligation to honesty, even at the cost of comfortable fellowship. What I am exploring here is whether that obligation is understood and affirmed by clergy and laity alike, and BETWEEN CLERGY (an important factor i forgot to mention earlier). Clergy need to be “busted in love,” too!!

  21. I have a journal from the first minister of the congregation I currently serve (now UU). 1678-17something. In it, he lists the confessed sins of people who came to him, as well as the dates on which they appeared before the congregation to repent. Adultery, fornication, theft… I didn’t see any murder, but then my eyes get a little crossed as I try to make out the handwriting. The congregation then voted on whether they could re-enter the covenant, which was the centerpiece of membership.

    I don’t advocate a return to that, but it’s sobering to see how far we’ve come from it.

    I am firmly convinced that unless people directly ask for my advice or opinion, I can safely assume that they are coming to have help in sorting things out. Usually just the act of saying things out loud that they’ve been holding in secret gets them 90 percent of where they need to go. There are a million ways to ask questions or encourage thinking in a certain direction that can help people arrive at what they need to. And as many have already mentioned, people have usually judged themselves much more harshly than I ever would (I haven’t had a confession of the kind of adultery named in the case study — yet). Maybe the unremorseful people are simply having too much fun to bother coming to see me 🙂

  22. Hafidha, I’m not saying I’m for it. I’m just saying it makes sense for the person in stocks to do the chalice lighting, that’s all. They’re already up there, and it’s not like they’re going anywhere.

  23. LOL! You big wisenheimer.

    I once did a sermon called “The Confession of Mary Beacon” after a 17th century confession of fornication we found in our church archives. That led to a spate of other confessions of fornication. We couldn’t figure out if the minister was just really into getting people to unburden their souls or if this little part of New England was particularly sexy or what. Fascinating stuff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.