Visit our new site at

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Ask the Matriarch: Being Grounded, Being Imperfect

I have been working as a College Chaplain for a year now but I was just ordained. Suddenly, ministry seems more real and much more frightening. My greatest fear is that upon ordination suddenly my "congregation" is going to expect me to have the collective wisdom of a 2000-year-old religion at my fingertips, and the lifestyle of a "perfect" Christian, to boot. So my question is, How do you stay grounded? By which I mean, how do you find a place between the savior complex and the complete failure complex from which you can continue to learn what it means to be human and still offer guidance to others who may want to see you as either the perfect saint or a complete sinner? --The Newly Reverend K

First, notes from Peripatetic Polar Bear: You ask the hard questions. I have the following for you. First, relax---most colleges with whom I am familiar would run screaming in the other direction if they thought you had the collective wisdom of 2000 years at your fingertips. Colleges are big fans of the hermeneutic of suspicion!

How do you find that perfect balance? Here are some things that have worked for me.
  1. Remember where you come from. Keep up your friendships with those who remember you from waaaaaaaaaaaaay back before you became eligible for the clergy parking places at the hospital. Divinity school/seminary friends are good for this, as are those friends that are from outside the church. These folks will help you keep it real. Be sure, though, that you make it a priority to nurture these relationships. Take every single day off coming to you. Leave town. If you have to choose between gas for roadtrips and food, go for the gas. (Okay, I'm maybe exaggerating a little bit there.) Cultivate your hobbies that don't involve religion! (Editor's Note: I was extremely tickled to find that Newly Reverend K and I have much in common on this front!)
  2. Make continuing education a second priority. Most college chaplains don't get the same amount of continuing education money as pastors do (grr), but don't let lack of funds keep you from CE events. Find the cheap ones, Apply for scholarships (almost every group has scholarships for minimally salaried people--and most chaplains are minimally salaried), go to the nearby ones, use your own funds (tax-deductible!), but don't skip! At continuing education events, you will find a community of other pastors who will challenge you and support you. Again, a place to keep it real.

The greatest gift you can give your students is the gift of your imperfect but lovely self. Let your faith shine, and your doubts, your power, and your foibles. You have the best job in the world. And you are exactly what they need.

And RevAbi offers... What great questions. Congratulations on now being ordained. You have answered some of your own questions by realizing that people in our congregations do expect us to be perfect, have all the answers, and that there are those who are just waiting for the moment we fail, sin or fall. Not all, but some. Knowing that will serve you well, but don't let that rule you.

I think the next step is to ask yourself do I have a tendancy to be a "savior"? Do I expect myself to be a "savior"? Was I the "savior" in my family? Answering those helps one be aware of ourselves as Pastors. But also you need to ask the same of yourself of being an "absolute failure." And do you expect yourself to know all the answers as well or was it expected of you? You might want to do this with a spiritual director, mentor, pastoral counselor or just a trusted someone who knows you well.

We know in our head that we are not perfect saints or absolute failures, but we can certainly feel that way. If it makes you feel any better, I still struggle with those expectations I put on myself, and the feelings. I just make sure I have someone to struggle with me, and help me with them.

It is the same as being expected to know the answers to every darn question. I just don't think I can know everything, but I sure feel my anxiety when someone starts asking me something. Here is what I have learned to do:
  • I congratulate them for seeking to know and having the questions.
  • I ask them what do they think; what have they come up with already?
  • I might point them in the direction of some resources they can do more research for themselves.
  • I also, have had occasion to say, "I don't know, but that's a good question. Let me do some research and get back with you." Or, "You know, that is just one of those unanswerable questions; why don't we struggle with this together. That way you are not totally responsible—but they are, and learning to be responsible for what they think become part of their journey and spiritual walk.

Just think you are entering a new phase of your development too. It is healthy you are afraid and have so many questions. That is part of the spiritual walk and journey. You are right on target, stay with your feelings, and your questions. Read James Fowler (see below). And get someone to walk with you down this path you are on, someone you can trust.

Abi's Reading Room James W. Fowler's relevant books:
  • Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development
  • Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian
  • Faith Development and Pastoral Care

Additional Reading:

There are also a variety of theories on Faith Development other than James Fowler's: Check out Faith Development Theories

And last, definitely not least:


  1. Totally unrelated ... but for a week no new posts have shown here on Rev Gals but it's been stuck on Friday Five (UK edition) I really was beginning to think I'd been left behind :)

    Did anyone else have this problem? (not being left behind, but having no new posts for a week?) ... I'd have blamed it on Tallinn but it was the same when I got here at home.

    Yet there were 60 comments on the Saturday rave up - so it seems that some at least got the message through nice and clear.

    anyway hugs and blessings to you all !!!

  2. Lorna, are you using a feedreader or looking directly at the site? Try clearing the cache. I've noticed Blogger has been particularly "off" this week in terms of reloading pages.
    Hold down the shift key while pressing "Refresh."
    How were you able to find the comments without seeing a new post?

  3. Several times my feedreader showed "no new posts for three days." Yeah, right! Of course when I went directly to the site new comments were there.

  4. Songbird--do you think it might be a bug having to do with our posting those entries as drafts first?

    With all the frustration we've been having with blogger lately, I'm beginning to have second thoughts about recommending it.


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.