"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Being Honest about the Pathologies in Parish Life

I've sent off some interview questions to my friend Bill Mills about his wonderful and welcome new book, Losing My Religion: A Memoir of Faith and Finding (2019). When I hear from him, I'll be sure to post his thoughts.

I've been recommending his book to my friends in parish ministry, and to those I know in seminaries as well. It is a very important book especially for these latter to read--those preparing for parish life need to know what they are in for, and this book offers just those sorts of invaluable insights in deeply personal ways. It is at its most admirable in its refusal to romanticize parish life, or to gloss over its sometimes deep pathologies which often do lasting damage to clergy and their families.

Bill is very forthright in acknowledging at least one particularly painful attack, and in describing the struggles he had afterwards, putting me in mind of D.W. Winnicott's famous article, "Hate in the Countertransference." Equally commendably he acknowledges his own need for help in dealing with it, and this brave acknowledgement is encountered perhaps too infrequently among clergy schooled on the "just offer it up" mode of coping. Why clergy feel this is how they must cope is a mystery to me. In saying that, I am aware that I have long been influenced by Henri Nouwen's notion of the "wounded healer." And perhaps even more I'm aware of, and find value in, the practice still insisted on by those training--as I once thought I would--to be psychoanalysts: you yourself must be in analysis, and have a supervisor with whom to work out the hostility and pathology you receive in the transference from your patients and parishioners.

But this is not a scandal rag retailing only naughty bits. Like all good books, it is aware of both lights and shadows; and like all Christian stories the "light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not." The book ends with both deep Christian hope, and deeply hilarious human experiences. It is, in many respects, a very Winnicottian approach to parish life in showing the importance of the "good enough" approach that avoids the temptations to become liturgical fanatics or perfectionists in other areas.

If you are yourself thinking of, or already enrolled in, seminary, or know someone who is, you need to read this. If you have clergy among your friends, send them a copy of this book. It's a cliché, but you and they will both laugh and cry as you read this book.

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