Is it the pastor’s place to console, or is it the pastor’s place to challenge? Should ministers emphasize comforting the afflicted, or afflicting the comfortable? In the piece that he wrote for Bearings last week, Adam J. Copeland pondered these questions when he asked, “What’s the Point of a Pastor?”
It’s a great question—and one that has stuck with me all this week. I even have encountered it in my dreams, which have repeatedly transported me back to a certain summer several years ago. For three long months during that hot, humid season, I served as a full-time chaplain intern at an urban hospital.
As I began my chaplaincy, I possessed no inkling of how the experience would change me. I did not understand how important it would prove in terms of my own spiritual development and formation for ministry, or how much it would teach me about the power of human connection. All I knew was that the prospect of sitting with people during some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives both engaged and terrified me. The tension sometimes proved difficult to hold.
My supervisor that year was a kind, quirky Jesuit priest who somehow managed to understand my questioning, angsty Protestant heart. The moment I met the man I’ll call “Father Dan,” I recognized his intelligence . . . and I soon learned that he possessed more than simple garden-variety book smarts. As we worked together, I experienced his knack for intuiting which particular clinical placements would challenge each of his supervisees in the most growth-inducing ways.
Perhaps because Father Dan sensed that cancer confused and scared me, he assigned me to the hospital’s oncology unit. Not six weeks later, I stood weeping in his office, trying to stanch my tears as Dan gently explained that “Brian”—the cancer patient with whom I had spent so many hours—had died.
For the very first time, I experienced the demise of someone who had been entrusted to my care. Because Brian’s passing marked a major milestone in my formation as a minister, I always will be bound to him. That said, my grief in the aftermath of his death surprised even me. My feelings seemed inordinately strong. Perhaps even excessive. I did not understand why I felt so sad.
After all, Brian and I had known each another for less than a month, and our relationship had been quite contradictory. On one hand, it had been intimate and intense, like most relationships forged in the crucible of crisis. On the other hand, it had been distant and opaque. We had managed to engage in dialogue about Brian’s spirituality and difficult family dynamics. But our conversations never seemed to achieve any sort of final resolution that allowed him to make peace with the most painful aspects of his life. So when Brian died, I was haunted by self-doubt. Had I truly been of help to him? Or had he just put up with me because he had been trapped in a treatment chair? Had our visits eased any of his anxieties? Or had he died encumbered by worry about his family and the state of his soul?
Looking back upon the situation, I recognize my younger self’s inclination toward naiveté and self-reference. A man had died . . . but what kept me up at night was heartache over the fact that Brian and I never experienced the picture-perfect endings we had hoped for. Brian hadn’t been granted the additional years of life that he so desired. And I hadn’t been granted the ability or power to bring about a family reunion that would have allowed Brian to die in peace. I lost confidence in my ability to offer spiritual consolation and counsel. I felt as though I had failed.
If ever there were a time to ask, “What’s the point of a pastor?,” it was then.
What was the point of Father Dan’s ministry, when he purposefully placed me in a situation that he knew would, in all likelihood, force me to confront my own shadows of self-doubt and grief? Surely, by assigning me to the oncology unit, he understood that he was “afflicting the comfortable.” Surely, he understood that he needed to challenge me in order to help me rise above my own limitations.
And what was the point of my ministry, as I sat with Brian that summer? There we both were, confronted with the stark reality that he was dying. The doctors knew it. The nurses knew it. And, deep down our bones, I think that Brian and I both knew it, as well. But neither of us wanted to say it out loud; both of us desired to hold onto the shadow of hope, no matter how faint.
Week in and week out, Brian voiced big plans to reconcile with his family members. Week in and week out, I encouraged his theoretical proposals, only to be left fumbling for comforting words a few days later when Brian told me that the plans hadn’t come to fruition after all—often due to his own lack of action. Because Brian believed that he had already caused his loved ones too much pain, he was wary of burdening them with discussions of illness and death. He wanted to believe that he had more time for reconciliation than he actually possessed. And, if I’m honest, I found it easier to go along with his optimistic fantasies than to force him to confront the gravity of the situation.
Would things have turned out differently if I had possessed enough courage to override my own fear of death, recognize my own experience of denial, and straightforwardly announce, “Brian, you are dying. You only have a few weeks left to live. If you desire to reconcile with your family, you need to take action, and you need to do it now”?
In the face of such undisguised honesty, would Brian and his family members have worked harder to arrive at a place of peaceful understanding? I’ll never know the answer to that question. All I do know is that when push came to shove, I chose to focus upon comforting Brian, rather than challenging him. I convinced myself that Brian intuitively knew what was best for him, and it seemed as though he needed to believe in miraculous cures and unlimited opportunities for relational healing. Who was I to rob him of his hope?
Looking back on the situation, I still have lots of questions. And they pretty much boil down to this one: During moments of distress, with all their typical complexities and contradictions . . . during moments of disorientation, when people I care for are bumbling through, both blessed and burdened by their own competing insights and illusions . . . do I comfort, or do I challenge?
Do I challenge a much-loved child to do something that seems scary to him, but that I know is safe? I don’t want to cause him discomfort, but I know that it is important for him to learn to overcome his fears.
Do I challenge my counseling client or church member to modify her unproductive ways of dealing with anxiety? I understand that the prospect of forsaking her habitual coping mechanisms seems unnerving, and I don’t want to hurt her, but I know that she’s capable of caring for herself in healthier ways.
Do I ask my spouse to change, or do I accept my beloved as-is, knowing that such acceptance is one of the greatest gifts I can offer in a judgmental world?
To expand upon Adam Copeland’s question: What’s the point of a parent? A counselor? A partner?
And while we’re at it, what’s the point of God? Does God call us to comfort and love the world as it is, or does God challenge us to make it a better place?
Of course, that’s not an either-or juxtaposition. Rather, it’s a both-and scenario. We are called to wholeheartedly and compassionately care for the world as it is . . . and to simultaneously love it so much that we strive to improve it. That’s quite the paradox, but it seems slightly less confusing when we remember that God both loves us exactly as we are and challenges us to step up to the plate and grow.
When Father Dan assigned me to the oncology unit that long-ago summer, he ministered to me by loving me enough to place me in a situation where I would need to ask tough questions, to deal with difficult feelings, and to face my own failures and successes.
In so doing, he taught me about the one thing that seems to mediate what is surely a false dichotomy between challenge and comfort: faith. The point of faith, I’ve come to learn, is trusting that God’s love and grace will allow us to move forward into challenge even when (especially when?) we’re not entirely comfortable.
Perhaps garnering up enough nerve to walk into the middle of life’s unsettling complexities is what faith is all about. And perhaps, as we try to take up that walk, we are called to challenge, encourage, and, yes, even comfort one another—not necessarily because we are ministers, or parents, or counselors, or partners (although some of us may be one or more of those things), but because we are human.