01 June 2012

Kindness & Indifference

“There is no right or wrong in the trivialities of everyday life.”
                                            --Dr. Abraham Low, MD, Psychiatrist

“One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”
                                            --Old Saying, Source Unknown

I have never been really sure how it works, but I do know it has been a regular source of both pain and frustration throughout the 34 years of parish ministry since ordination.   As a parish priest, one of my great joys was doing the pastoral work of being with the sick and suffering and doing pastoral counseling & spiritual direction.  In doing this work, I have endeavored to be both present and deeply attentive to the persons in my care.  How is it that one person can emerge from that experience deeply grateful for the time, kindness experienced, and what was accomplished.  Then, another person, under similar circumstances will express frustration with “our priest’s indifference and distance.”  

Over the years, I have tried to come at this dilemma from a variety of places.  The most obvious is to ask the question:  What am I doing wrong?  That question is deadly insomuch as the questioner is assuming that something is wrong, and that the person providing the information wants the questioner to be like the accuser believes he/she should be.  In fact, unless one is simply without the needed skills, there is no wrong being done.

Some days may be less effective than others.  A headache, or not feeling well, can surely be a distraction to the important craft of attending to the pain or problems of another.  The sheer weight of parochial responsibility is enough to be an occasional distraction.  Such things do happen.  My first year as Rector of my last parish was accomplished "solo."  I was the only priest on staff for a very large parish for fifteen months.  I remember a funeral at which I officiated being so tired and distracted by two other crises, that -- even by my own internal observation -- I was less than adequate.  The family was right to be critical in their assessment of my leadership in that situation.  I personally do not know a priest for whom this has not happened at least once.  Fortunately, I was able to call an Associate, spread things out a bit and get a bit more sleep at nights.

Another approach to the issue is simply the personality of the priest.  Most parishioners do expect their priest to be "on" and available at most any time of the day/night.  It isn't a fair expectation.  Without balance of family, work and rest, nothing can be done well.  Taking a (required) regular day away from work each week has been critiqued as "Father doesn't care enough to be there when I went to the office looking for him/her."  When one tries to be available at all times, very unhealthy things can happen in a family or to the health of the priest in question.

In terms of personality, the greatest percentage of clergy in the Episcopal Church are introverts.  From the work of Dr. Carl Jung, a team created the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in the late 1940s.  This instrument has been revised a number of times and is considered one of the best tools for helping individuals assess their personality types.  The research revealed that their are four scales:  Extrovert-Introvert; Sensing-Intuiting; Thinking-Feeling; Judging-Perceiving.  The combinations of the four scales means their are a total of sixteen personality types.  Each one is unique and none of the types are better than the other.  It is simply the way we are "hardwired."

I was a trained Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) consultant for a number of years (it got too expensive to be re-certified each year, so I dropped it and used a less technical instrument called the Kiersey Sorter for the balance of my parochial career).  I have taken the MBTI a total of 26 times over the past 35 years.  It has not changed but a fraction of percentage points.  My Type is INFP.  [Introvert-iNtuitive-Feeling-Perceiving]. It is a good type for folks who are counselors, therapists, teachers, philosophers, contemplatives or researchers. 

Each of the scales run from 0 in the center of the scale to 49 on either end.  When one does the statistical analysis  required with the full MBTI, each type has a number associated with it. Zero means one is comfortable in either direction.  Zero is extremely rare.  One shades to one side or the other.  The higher one goes on either end of the scale, the more one manifests the description of that type.  I am an introvert, and I have tested from 39-42 on the Introvert side of the scale....that is a major Introvert!

MBTI scales are actually measures of energy.  For me to be extroverted requires a great deal of energy.  I can do it and maintain that posture for a good long while.  I am practiced at it.  But, there is a price to be paid...fatigue.  After a typical Sunday morning (sociologists tell us that a priest working on a Sunday morning from about 7am to 12:30pm is the same as a nine hour weekday period of work), I would go home and take a two hour nap.  It is the only day of the week I would nap....unless I had been up much of the night before with a pastoral emergency.

Earlier I mentioned that most priests are introverts.  This particular type (especially the combined Introvert-iNtuitive...IN), is well suited for the kind of disciplines associated with meditation, contemplative prayer and doing the work of theology.  To be connected with the divine at that level, one must be comfortable with one's right brain. You can go online and search "left brain-right brain" to get a more complete physiological and psychological discussion of how the two hemispheres of our brains function.  Suffice it to say here, the right brain is the intuitive, wholistic, synthesizing and subjective area.  The left brain is the sequential, rational, analytical, and objective area.  Again neither of these are right or wrong.  If there was a right or wrong here, we would only need half our brain.  Anyone want to let go of one side or the other?  [Just kidding here, but some people can get possessive of their particular definitions].  We do, however, generally favor one side or the other.  In our culture, we are more left brained.  That has been very true since about the time of the writings of the rationalist philosophers and  since the middle of last century (after World War II) in our generations of American culture.  

Personality type doesn't explain everything, but it is a huge help in understanding function.  A priest who is Introverted and intuitive "reads between the lines" very quickly in a situation -- seeing both the reality and the possibility involved in another's critical events.  For me, I can listen to another person's "story" and get a strong sense of what is underneath the objectified pain, anger or hurt.  That's the intuitive person's gift.

That is NOT to say that extroverted priests are not good at their craft.  They are excellent.  My very best friend and colleague, Paul (died three years ago), was extroverted and intuitive.  He could read a situation but had to use different tools to extrapolate the data.  He gathered energy from his external environment.  I would go deep inside in those moments.  Paul was a wonderful, delightful and highly skilled priest.  We were great friends.  We also talked to each other a lot during difficult moments -- giving to each other the gifts of our types that were lacking.  We had an ongoing, mutual consultation.  Example:  One time, I was hurting deeply over a painful situation in which I was being told that I was indifferent. When Paul listened to the details, his immediate response was, "forget about it, they'll get over it."  Because he also used analytical logic to deal with issues, he would not see himself as being the problem.  Sometimes, however, when he was in a situation, I would be telling him that he needed to exercise a bit more sensitivity and insight to get behind the problem.  That is always a risky journey.  The work I would do to gain appropriate professional distance and he would do to become more insightful left us both exhausted at the end of our situations.

An extroverted parishioner wants immediate answers that are logical, externally validating, and is reflected in the appropriate demeanor of the attending priest.  This last evaluation means that the parishioner usually projects the pain on the priest who (in the parishioner's eyes) must reflect back a similar degree of pain or indignation.  An introverted priest will listen carefully (while using spiritual tools to go underneath) and name the pain underneath.  I remember a parishioner some years ago, who expressed great anger and indignation regarding something that had been done during a liturgy.  As the parishioner completed the diatribe, I simply asked, "of what are you really afraid?"  I wasn't being "flip" or indifferent.  Deep-seated fear literally jumped out at me as I quietly and carefully listened (while others were leaving the church and not getting a hug or handshake from their rector..that's another issue).

My hope in retirement is to be a vessel for helping relationships achieve more understanding.  By standing outside the vortex of daily pastoral ministry, it is easier to see both ends of the spectrum and provide the kind of guidance that will provide insight to the extrovert and boundaries for the introvert.  

I haven't reflected on the parochial problem of ownership.  This is huge and is not limited to any denomination.   Even with the protection of the canons of the Episcopal and Roman Catholic traditions, this causes great pain.  Next time.

Love and Blessings,


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