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The Intimate Pastorate
Reflections Of A Pastor

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 270

"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the Church." 
Ephesians 5:31-32 (NIV)

Paul On Christian Intimacy
 
Paul's Letter to the Ephesians is the classic exposition of genuine Christian intimacy. This intimacy, based on and rooted in grace, is one which truly energizes and enables true love to occur. Of course, the greatest evidences of this intimacy for married couples consists in wives submitting to their own husbands in everything "as to the Lord" and husbands loving their wives "just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5:22,25).
 
A closer reading, however, gives way to the profound recognition that the intimacy to which Paul is really referring goes beyond marital intimacy. His words "but I am talking about Christ and the Church" (Ephesians 5:32 NIV) direct the reader to the real core of this discussion of intimacy. It is the intimacy shared between Christ and His Church.
 
Ecclesiastical Intimacy?
 
Is there "ecclesiastical intimacy"? Indeed, there is. It's an intimacy which, though not inappropriately sexual in nature, is one which is shared at many levels. This intimacy is shared most obviously between husband and wives as they love and sacrifice themselves to each other.
 
It is also shared between believers in the Body of Christ (and also extended to unbelievers). Paul's exhortation, "Submit yourselves to one another in reverence to Christ," describes how Christians are to relate--intimately--to each other.
 
This intimacy is most importantly shared between Christ and His Church. This relationship, described with appropriate, coventantal sexual overtones in Scripture (e.g. Song of Solomon, etc.) is based on Christ's initiating intimate act of taking on our flesh and dying in our place. By means of baptism, we are incorporated--intimately--into a saving relationship by which we are forgiven even the most hidden sins and loved in the most intimate and everlasting manner.
 
Indeed, is a more intimate connection possible than being made one in and with the Body of Christ?
 
The Intimate Pastorate
 
Given the multi-dimensional levels of intimacy above, perhaps it is not inappropriate to speak of the pastoral relationship to the Church as another dimension of this intimacy of fellowship.
 
Though this intimacy does not include inappropriate types of intimacy (e.g. sexual or other inappropriate relationships), out of "reverence for Christ," it exudes love, sacrifice, and submission. Indeed, it is the essential foundational basis for the pastor-congregation relationship. Of course, the ultimate goal of this foundation of intimacy is as Paul stated,

"to make her [i.e. the Church] holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant Church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless." Ephesians 5:26-27 (NIV)

Thus pastoral intimacy is based on Christ's initiating intimate grace and directed toward the perfect intimacy of holiness with God and the people of God throughout the world.
 
The Pastorate: It's Intimate!
 
There's no two ways about it. Effective pastors and Christian leaders minister within the context of an intimate Gospel relationship with God and the people of God.
 
Many of the dynamics characteristic of intimate relationships are dynamics experienced during the intimate pastorate. The joys and memories as well as the piercing sorrows, the agonizing rejection, the loneliness and the pain of betrayal are just some of the indicators of the intimate pastorate.
 
Another indicator of this intimacy is the hurt given and felt in the normal course of the intimate pastorate. The Mills Brothers once sang, "You only hurt the one you love."  Where there is love, there is pain. The only reason the pain of ministry hurts so much is because there is so much love--intimate love--by those sharing that love.
 
Other frustrations indicating the intimate pastorate are those times when frustrated ministers bemoan a congregation's lack of growth. Like Professor Higgins in "My Fair Lady," the intimate pastorate expresses itself. "Why can't a woman be more like a man!"  In the Church the "man" is Christ. The "woman" is His Bride, the Church.
 
Isn't that the goal of the intimate pastorate...to minister the Word of God so that by the Spirit's action that "woman" will be more like the "man" Christ? Isn't it when the main goal of this intimate ministry pastorate is frustrated that those emotions associated with intimate relationships surface--loneliness, rejection, withdrawal, fear, vulnerability, etc.? Indeed these pains and sorrows cannot betray their true origin. They originate in failed intimacy and resonate in the deepest recesses of the heart.
 
Infinitely Deeper Intimacy
 
The experience of the intimate pastorate goes far deeper. And that's what makes it such a struggle. When asked "What's the most difficult thing about making movies?" actor Tom Hanks replied,

"The first day on the set is the most difficult. It's like being in kindergarten on the first day of school. Nobody knows who they are and you don't know who you are either." (Source: NBC Today, December 14, 1998)

Perhaps that is what makes it so difficult for pastors and churches in their first years of ministry. They are trying to establish an intimate relationship. They are working through the fears, the risks, the trust issues, trying to find--or remove--inappropriate relational masks, and dealing with the additional perils of building an intimate relationship.
 
As in other intimate relationships, things can--and do--go sour in the intimate pastorate. There can be abuse--verbal, emotional, spiritual, and physical. Dysfunctional and unhealthy forms of intimacy can result in rejecting loving, sacrificing submission and, instead of loving each other out of reverence for Christ, the intimate pastorate can become trapped in a quagmire of irreverent torture and ceaseless misery-making for the partners in intimacy.
 
Pastoral Intimacy: A Paradigm Of Congregational Health
 
When the pastorate is described in terms of ecclesiastical intimacy, a whole new paradigm for congregational health emerges. This "Intimate Pastorate" helps to explain why churches, as other intimate interpersonal relationships, are plagued with pain.
 
This paradigm helps to explain why some churches, like individuals, can grow, adapt and thrive toward endless healthy transformation. It also explains why others, like individuals failing in their deteriorating intimate relationships, can't be changed, altered or honestly addressed without major disruptive consequences.
 
For pastors and Christian leaders, this paradigm helps to place spiritual Christian ministry in the context of what pastors and Christian leaders (to the best of their ability) know best: the human experience. When Christian leaders begin to evaluate their ministry experiences in light of the warp and woof of sometimes perilous human relationships, this paradigm provides a handle by which they can more readily--and continuously--re-evaluate and clarify the intimacy needs of the ministry partnership.
 
The "Intimate Pastorate" paradigm also helps leaders on a very intimate, personal level. It helps leaders to relate their own developmental issues, childhood needs, and family dysfunction to the needs of control, autonomy, recognition, acceptance, abandonment, safety and/or risk taking.
 
Finally, this paradigm clarifies which criticisms, abuses and betrayals will bother us and which will not. It helps provide a psychological framework from which to evaluate failure, understand loneliness, and recover from the pain.
Breakdowns In The Intimate Pastorate
 
What are some of the indicators of intimacy crises in the pastorate? Breakdowns can be categorized in terms of physical, emotional, spiritual and personal or organizational. Some examples of each are provided in the following table. Of course, a breakdown in one area will affect or spill over into other areas of intimacy.

Table: Intimacy Stressors

Stressors Physical Emotional Spiritual
Personal Illness, disability, change in mental function Anxiety, loneliness, depression, rejection, disappointment Loss of faith and vision, spiritual lethargy, doubt one's calling
Organizational Shortage/Loss of Limited Physical Resources (manpower, land, finances, inadequate facilities),  Physically limited membership, physical isolation from others Experiencing or giving rejection, rebelling against authority, unresolved grief issues, fight/flight conflict styles, etc. Loss of faith and vision, loss of spiritual greatness, unable to inspire spiritual growth, inability to recapture the organization's "faith heritage"
Other items threatening intimacy may include:
 
1) Fear Of Rejection:
 
When it occurs intimacy is threatened by a preoccupation with imagined shortcomings or weaknesses.
 
2) Uni-Dimensional Self-View:
 
If one can only see oneself and not the big picture of broad interplay of intimacy being built and destroyed between oneself and others, one will tend to be more vulnerable to deep disappointment.
 
3) Unwillingness To Assert Trust:
 
Everyone wants to be trusted. If one unjustly withholds trust, they demonstrate that they are unable or unwilling to allow the fellowship of intimacy to take hold.
 
4) Disallowance Of Disclosure:
 
Keeping secrets mitigates against intimacy. Certainly there are appropriate ways for handing various kinds of information. However, when the primary congregational dynamic is one which disallows and discourages disclosure, intimacy is threatened. Indeed, without disclosure, ministry intimacy is impossible.
 
5) Domination Of Defensiveness:
 
The desire to survive can manifest itself as an unhealthy, anxious presence. The fact that individuals attack leaders and others in the Church indicates that leaders must be eternally vigilant for intimacy-threatening dynamics. Reactive responses such as defensiveness, retaliation, victimization, projection of blame, avoidance of accountability, flight, fight, etc. virtually always threaten congregational intimacy.
 
The more these defensive intimacy dynamics dominate, the greater the threat to the growth of healthy intimacy. As they continue to be repeated, their effect intensifies to levels which may resist, sabotage, and destroy those who attempt genuine pastoral intimacy interventions.
 
6) Virtual Elimination Of Empathy:
 
What are the clear-cut signs of intimacy in a congregation? Are the people involved, reaching beyond themselves, engaged, and caring of those in and beyond the ministry walls? Or are there varying or intense levels of avoidance, withdrawal, and/or ambivalent behaviors?
 
If the latter is the case, the best intervention is clarifying the feelings by helping various parts of the congregation to put into words their own feelings. As the ambiguity gives way to a clearer vision of caring, factors helping intimacy arise to the next level may appear.
 
7) Breakdown Of Boundaries:
 
Boundary breakdowns threaten intimacy by threatening trust, empathy, space, and other essential aspects of intimacy. Antagonists frequently threaten these boundaries. Pastoral behaviors ranging from being too rigid or too flexible to being inappropriately distant or close to members also threaten the development of the healthy intimate pastorate.
 
Goals For The Intimate Pastorate
 
What can pastors and other Christian leaders expect in their intimate ministry to the Body of Christ? Geraldine K. Piorkowski in her book, Too Close For Comfort: Exploring The Risks of Intimacy (New York: Insight Books, 1994), identifies and explores the various challenges of intimacy. Many, if not most, of these issues also challenge the intimate pastorate.
 
1) Establishing Loving Christian Fellowship
 
Robert Sternberg, Yale psychologist and researcher, described three components of love: intimacy, passion and commitment. Intimacy, he wrote, is "those feelings in a relationship that provide closeness, bonded-ness, and connectedness" (Sternberg, The Triangle of Love, New York: Basic Books, p. 99).
 
2) Providing An Atmosphere Of Personal Growth
 
Intimacy, according to Piorkowski, includes, among other things, a desire to promote the welfare of, high regard for, sharing of one's self with, and mutual understanding of the loved one.  It is interesting how, of the three kinds of intimacy--physical intimacy (sex, hugging, and touching), affective intimacy (feeling close), and verbal intimacy (self-disclosure)--that the physical aspect is the least important in marital relationships (Toldstedt/Stokes, "Relation of Verbal, Affective, and Physical Intimacy to Marital Satisfaction," Journal of Counseling Psychology 30 (1983), pp. 573-580).
 
3) Enhancing The Freedom Of Healing
 
Psychoanalyst Douglas Ingram defined intimacy as the "experience where one most feels like oneself." The self-disclosure required for this experience is potentially perilous. The breadth and depth of this self-disclosure is directly related to intimacy. According to Social-penetration theory, this self-disclosure is the most important part of intimacy.
 
Christian spirituality has this freedom "built-in" via confession and absolution. When individuals are free to confess their faults, their fears and their failings, they are open to the freedom of healing and intimacy. Properly understood and practiced, public and private confession followed by the unconditional absolution of grace, is perhaps the most essential practice for sustaining the intimate pastorate.
 
4) Ministering To The Intimate Self
 
Much anxiety is harbored in the intimate, private recesses of the self. Emotionally laden issues and vulnerabilities often fail to be exposed to the light of healing. In congregations and ministries dominated with the fear of being attacked, betrayed, rejected or made to feel guilty, various social masks often suffocate fellowship. These masks of power, pride, arrogance, competency, etc. often result in intimacy-damaging dynamics: tensions, skirmishes, divisions, conflicts, and outright schism.
 
When effective ministry to the intimate self is accomplished, individuals can, in the safety of confidentiality, deal with those "ghosts" which prevent the more joyful, spontaneous, creative and playful child from emerging. And, on further reflection, is it not those ghosts which so often plague the Church?
 
5) Recognizing Needs For Closeness And Separateness
 
Congregational associations and resignations are not simply "coming on board" and "jumping ship." They are actions of intimacy. Every individual has needs for closeness and separateness, for community and autonomy. Healthy intimacy thrives on it. Healthy spirituality has practiced it for centuries.
 
Not surprisingly, unmet emotional needs from childhood can be the energizing motivator behind the relative proximity or distance individuals demonstrate in Christian fellowship. Thus individuals may shift their associations, alliances and groupings based on the degree to which they are willing to deal with their  intimate fears of vulnerability. The recognition, expectation and acceptance of this critical human need can be a helpful building block in the development of the intimate pastorate.
 
6) Providing Safety For Development
 
Perhaps the greatest fear of intimacy is the fear of fragmentation. They don't want to fall apart. They may want to grow...but don't want to fail. Since the fear is so great, many fail to take the risks of growth, of clarifying relationships through self-disclosure, criticism, analysis, sharing, forgiveness and trust.
 
If any organization should be safe for the development of the entire self--emotional, spiritual, etc.--shouldn't it be the Church? Since each one of us is in the Body of Christ, our attachment to Christ is the best "safety net" we can have for development.
 
Scripture lists virtually countless affirmations of the safety that Christians experience in their walk of faith. These affirmations are intended, among other things, to nurture an intimate spirituality with God. The intimate pastorate will recognize, affirm, and ensure safe passage of those desiring that special closeness with God and others.
 
The Greatest Goal
 
All of the above, however, will be fruitless unless it occurs in the context of grace. Biblical grace, founded on the Gospel, is rooted in the sense of intimate bonded-ness to an unconditionally loving God. The fact that He knew us and loved us first means that risking intimacy and full disclosure to God is not destructive. Indeed, it is the critical stage to spiritual growth and essential intimacy with God and ourselves.
 
For this reason, the absolutely essential first step toward an intimate pastorate is to let the Gospel predominate. Legalism and its destructive spirit kills churches, organizations, and  individuals by killing intimacy.
 
If Christian leaders desire to recover the intimate pastorate, there must be an essential change in the intimate relationship between pastor and congregation. More importantly, there must be a change in the intimate relationship between Christ and His Church. This change must showcase the Gospel at every level of fellowship, in every individual...including the pastor.
 
There's promise in the intimate pastorate. It's where the health is. It's where the Gospel is. It's where God is.
 
Is it where you are?
 
Thomas F. Fischer

Topical Index    Articles 1-49    Articles 50-99   Articles 100-149   Articles 150-199   
 Articles 200-249    Articles 250-299   Articles 300-349   Articles 350-399 

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:04:11 PM