Avoiding Toxic Relationships

Working within a framework of pastoral and congregational health and wholeness, the pastoral-congregational relationship can be nurturing and encouraging when enough participants are seeking discipline in the spiritual life. However, when there is a conspiracy between the pastor and church to run the congregation as a small business, pastoral relationships can easily become distorted.

What is healthy pastoral self-care? According to Lloyd Rediger in The Toxic Congregation, most of us think we are modeling time and commitment and energy to ministry when what we are really doing is mostly neglecting self care, making ourselves vulnerable to mind-body-spirit breakdowns while missing the chance to show parishioners what they really need: someone to show them a sane, balanced life-style. He then defines the clergy syndrome as such: depression, burnout, role confusion, boundary violations, addictions.

Most clergy have learned to cover these afflictions very well and in fact the danger is not that they exist, but that so many seem to be functioning normally without ever seeking help and health before breakdowns in wholeness occur. On the positive side, wholeness is utilizing the best resources in four ares: modern medicine, psychology, alternative therapies, and spiritual salvation. Wholeness is relational, functional or purposeful, corporate, transforming, and NOT perfection.

The best part of this chapter on Clergy Self Care and Detox are the prescriptions given:

1. Guidelines for Health (how we eat, exercise, drink water, think freely, and pray),

2. Self-Observation, which is more about improving ourselves, our unhealthy behavior and thinking. Be comfortable observing yourself, and how we are thinking about what we are thinking. The spiritual discipline of meditation can help us, Rediger maintains, in self-observation. When used honestly, few skills are more helpful.

3. Energy Management, where a way to name your energy drains and sources is offered. How to discern whether you are functioning from a deficit or surplus is also critical and makes good sense.

4. Ethics of Consequences, where no matter what we claim, actual consequences of our behavior are always the reality check. Here we ask what consequences we have on others and the world, as long as ourselves.

5. Boundaries is the ability to place limits of time and our role as pastor. Decision making is an essential skill for setting appropriate boundaries.

6. Pastoral Presence where inner peace is the result of the spiritual disciplines. Listening actively and good facial expression is part of projecting peace to anxious, stressed out others.

7. Persistent Training of Leaders, since untrained leadership, according to Rediger, is one of the most vulnerable aspects of congregational health or sickness.

8. Mentoring is important since being alone is one of the major factors making clergy vulnerable to the syndrome of burn out. Finding a mentor that works for you is the important thing: who can help with your role as well as your person?

9. Don't Do Dumb Stuff like betray a confidence, injure or confuse. First do no harm.

Rediger talks about toxicity in a system in terms of control issues of a group; dysfunction seems to be more about diverse agendas and general role confusion. The exercises in the appendices are also helpful. One of the best ideas I came across was from chapter 6 (Instruments of Peace). Here is offered a membership vow renewal which I found interesting since UMC's do that every time a new member joins. But making the renewal the main focus of a worship or series of worship gatherings would be helpful, I imagine, when inviting the unconnected member back into active participation. The process offered for grievances is worth a look as well.

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