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Congregational concierge

Pastors need to fight the impulse to fulfill congregants’ unrealistic expectations. In order to do that, they must understand that they are players in a number of powerful systems that reward such behavior, writes Nelson Granade.

Illustration by Jessamyn Rubio

April 27, 2010

“Where are you? You are supposed to help me crack my pecans,” said the voice over the phone. Pastor Bob was caught off guard.

The Christmas Eve call was from 87-year-old Wilma, a member of his congregation. He could tell she wasn’t asking a question. She was making a demand. But for the life of him, he couldn’t remember making this commitment. Why would he?

When I heard this story at a clergy conference, it struck home. No one has asked me to crack nuts on Christmas Eve, but I’ve experienced my share of unrealistic pastoral expectations. Why in the world do some congregants expect such crazy things from their pastors? Perhaps it’s because we leaders -- and the institutions of which we are a part -- have colluded with our congregations to teach them that our purpose is to serve them.

Many pastors have become congregational concierges. Though most of us can’t afford to stay in a hotel with concierge service, we know what they are. We might as well have a desk in the narthex with a sign that reads, “How may I help you?”

It’s tempting to blame our congregants for making extravagant demands. It is more productive, however, to look at our own role in the system. How have we contributed, knowingly or unknowingly, to their expectations that we are the congregational concierge?

Part of our desire to serve comes from a natural need to feel good about ourselves and our work. There are, however, also negative forces pushing us toward over-functioning. We fear that others might think we are uncaring if we say no to any request. Worse yet, we fear we might lose our jobs if a majority of our congregation decides we are uncaring.

Yet if we jump at every whim, we feel resentful. We lose the joy of ministry and become what we were trying to avoid -- uncaring.

Likewise, our congregations suffer when we over-function in our pastoral care duties. Congregations need leaders who can cast a vision beyond themselves and encouragers who can help the people claim their own role in the church’s ministry.

We can’t stop everyone from making unreasonable requests. But, with skill and experience, we can come to understand that bizarre demands often disguise legitimate needs. Perhaps our pecan lady is lonely. Maybe she is a widow whose husband always cracked the pecans because of her arthritis. Perhaps the previous pastor was also lonely and enjoyed the Christmas tradition. Who knows? But is it better pastoral care to run to crack pecans with her or to explore the possibility of an underlying need and its source?

The pastor and the needy congregant aren’t the only actors in this drama. We need to recognize that we are players within a variety of powerful systems. We sometimes forget that we are dealing within our needs, the needs of our families, and the needs of our church members (who are also in multiple systems). On top of these local systems, our larger ecclesiastical structures can also contribute toward the creation of congregational concierges.

Inexperienced pastors are often called to, or placed in, smaller congregations. We learn our patterns in these smaller systems that often value one-on-one care. Later, we move to larger congregations with other demands and values. Unfortunately, we sometimes continue to function in the ways we learned in those first ministry settings. The result is often burnout or conflict.

Ecclesiastical systems also contribute to creating congregational concierges by what they reward. Systems like stability, so calming the system with care is rewarded. Whether we serve in congregational or hierarchical systems, we begin to feel as if everyone is our boss. In congregational systems they can literally fire you. In hierarchical systems they can make you wish you were gone. How can we say no to anyone? If we don’t jump to, they can make us wish we had.

So how do we move from being concierges to being leaders? The first step is to recognize that the problem lies both within us and within the larger church and congregational systems. By doing so, we can take responsibility for our own care and for our role in the system.

Pastors need to realize that they bring a mixed bag of emotions and needs to ministry. Both past experiences and future hopes color how we act in the present. If we can recognize and meet our own needs in healthier ways, we will be less likely to act like congregational concierges. Therapy, support groups, judicatory resources or coaching all can provide needed supervision and support.

Similarly, if we can help those in need examine the needs underlying their demands, we will actually do them more good. Certainly there are crises, but not every call is a crisis. Setting boundaries around our time and priorities helps us be less reactionary and more intentional. Simultaneously, it is important sometimes to say to a needy parishioner, “I believe in your ability as God’s beloved, wonderfully created child to deal with this.”

On the congregational level, we can strengthen the system by strengthening ourselves. If we can move from being the one who has to provide all care to making sure people are cared for, we can begin to break co-dependent patterns within ourselves, the congregation and the larger ecclesiastical systems.

Though hostile calls with unrealistic expectations can tie our guts into a knot, they can also be opportunities for leadership. By openly discussing expectations, we give the congregation an occasion to examine its values and priorities. Clarifying the role of the leader clarifies the direction of the congregation.

As I listened to the rest of the pecan-lady story, I was pleased to hear that the pastor didn’t respond like a congregational concierge. Despite his anxiety about displeasing a matriarch of the congregation, he didn’t go running. He explained that he was unaware of the expectation and that he was at home with his own family.

Though his story ended there, I wonder what else he might have done. Perhaps he could have talked with her a few minutes, making sure she felt heard and helping her examine the anxiety underlying her perceived need. Maybe he could have helped her find other resources. And perhaps he could have set up a time for a follow-up.

But surely if he had run to crack pecans that night, he would be cracking them every Christmas Eve.