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Friday, May 14, 2004


When we were in divinity school, a good friend and I came up with our Top Ten Pet Peeves about seminary. I wish I knew where the full list had gone — we wrote it up sitting on the porch drinking Miller Genuine Draft one muggy summer day — but I do remember the pet peeve that annoyed me most: Sociopastoralism, the compulsion to transform every social interaction into a display of "ministerial presence" and invasive concern.

My favorite instance of sociopastoralism came in the aftermath of a "candle of joy and concern" I lit one Friday at the Unitarian Universalist student worship service. My grandfather had just died, and being a good UU I decided to share the news with my community. After the service, one of my classmates — a woman my mother's age — came up to "comfort" me, wrapping me in an interminable hug. At first, I thought, how kind. (Being a minister-in-training myself, I always gave people the benefit of the doubt.) And then, as the hug continued, I thought I'd try a little pat-n-release. No luck. The hug continued. So I tried the squeeze-n-release. Still stuck. It slowly dawned on me that this hug wasn't about me: It was about her, being "ministerial." I had to verbally thank her, while patting and squeezing, to bring the unwanted hug to an end.

That's how I learned not to participate in "joys and concerns" unless I wanted to be part of the drama of publicized compassion, a tight little circle of earnest care-givers and care-seekers that does not happen to encompass all the real needs for compassion in a congregation. How can this be? Many people are like me: They want the people they know and trust to join them in celebration or sorrow, and they really want other people to maintain a respectful but kind distance — not aloofness or unconcern, but some acknowledgment that going to church together doesn't transform us all into intimates. The church helps us expand the circle of those we can genuinely care for, but I'm sure many people are like me in not seeing a worship service as a soul-baring cozy-fest with 100 or more best friends.

Which brings me to Matthew Gatheringwater's insightful essay, "Red Rover Religion" (May 7), which begins:

As we entered the chapel, it became clear that we were expected to link hands with the people in front of and behind us. Someone was singing near the front of the line and others began to join in the song but I didn't know the words or the tune. The line of people slowly spiraled into a double circle of chairs facing a central altar. As they stopped singing and sat down, I thought, "This congregation has literally just curled up around itself, facing inward."

Ah, comfy church! For more — much more — on what's wrong with this style of liberal worship, see David Bumbaugh's essay, "God, Worship, and the Tyranny of Intimacy" in the Journal of Liberal Religion. In a nutshell: Our artificial forms of intimacy actively repel newcomers, seekers, and strangers. They are the opposite of welcoming.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 14 May 2004 at 5:11 PM

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May 15, 2004 10:25 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hey Philocrites,

What you describe has such a ring of truth. Two experiences from seminary:

1) Elbow touching. When I first arrived at HDS, I began to notice that a large number of people, when I spoke with them would speak to me in subdued tones and reach out and touch my elbow during the conversation. Kind of creepy.

2) During my first year I sat down at a table in the refectory with someone who was studying. They look up from the book and ask me this seemingly out-of-the-blue question about my relationship with my siblings. I later found out the person was about to go to their counseling class where they were talking about sibling-dynamics. "Oh," I thought, "So they weren't interested in me, just in testing whatever counseling theory they had just learned."

Even though these experiences were off-putting at the time, I've grown to see them in perspective. At a Professional school, one goes through the process of both learning a skill set and developing a professional identity. And in seminary, there is (at least there was for me) this powerful process of examining your own growth into that identity and painfully questioning whether you are really there yet. Unfortunately, the only way to do this is to practice. And with practice comes the ability to let go of self-conscious cycles (How do I be a minister?) and begin to encounter the other respectfully (What sort of response/attention/acknowledgment would work for that other person?)

Like any other professional school, seminary is kind of a big laboratory. Sharing about your grandfather was kind of like sneezing in a medical school or saying you were hungry at a culinary institute. The ethics of experimental learning in medical school has been written about extensively. Seminary is similar, I think.


May 15, 2004 10:45 AM | Permalink for this comment

Very true! I should have added that I watched most of my colleagues grow into real competency as ministers, and that most of the ones who remained "sociopastoral" did not make it very far in the end.

I often felt that going to seminary is like putting on a very awkward garment and trying to make one's body fit into it. After a while, the best ministers-in-training realize that the garment will gradually adjust to fit them.


May 15, 2004 11:01 AM | Permalink for this comment

Oh this is good and it reminds me of a funny--but not fun--experience. I was about to see the MFC and was understandably nervous. The seminary near the interview site had lined up chaplains for the day...I guess to sit with us, soothe us, and hold our hands. Well I needed and wanted none of those things. I wanted to sit quietly, alone, and ponder my fate.

But these weren't any chaplains. My experience with them led me to coin the phrase "attack chaplains." Every few minutes they would approach me. "Can we pray with you?" "Is there anything you need us to do?" and, I kid you not..."How about a group hug?!"

I nearly snarled and attacked myself. Luckily, I'd brought my best friend along and he intervened before I had to explain to the MFC why I had seriously injured a colleague in the waiting room.

Scott Wells:

May 15, 2004 11:16 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm getting a good laugh. I think all of us went through formation at about the same time, so much the funner it is.

1. I remember consoling my MFC chaplain for his awkwarness in the job. (He's turned out pretty well in the ministry, btw.) Probably helped focus me because I was feeling pretty Klingon that day. (An ENTJ will, you know.)

2. The Pastoral Elbow Touch is something I reserve for the arthritic elderly, or perhaps, on occasion, for a crisis with someone I don't know well, and where I'm not sure where to begin. With peers, esp. in seminary, I think it translates (a) "Your kinda hot, but I've read Marie Fortune, so maybe we can be friends." (b) "Let's pretend we payed attention in Intro to Pastoral Care, and make fun of the drips." (c) "Gott im Himmel, who did your hair?"

(C) may be the gayest of the responses, but in the general metrosexuality/androgyny of seminary is still a general possibility.It might also an appropriate use of the P. E. T.

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