Unordained in the Diocese for the Sake of Porcupines: Some Thoughts on “Detachment” in Ministry

“I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” was how I started the conversation with my […]

Josh Retterer / 1.22.18

“I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” was how I started the conversation with my buddy’s wife. And yes, I was quoting Zoolander, but it was the perfect description for my experience of being friends with her husband. I felt awkward talking to her about it, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. I remember we were sitting outside their home, and I was fiddling with a leaf plucked off some landscaping, making my own ersatz fidget spinner. That particular habit has proven to be a fantastic way to discover which plants cause me contact dermatitis. Quite a few as it turns out.

His wife’s response surprised me: “Now you know how I feel!”

The best way I’ve come up with to describe that particular friendship is that it was as if God had asked me to go hug a porcupine, and keep on hugging — even as I was yelling, “Ouch!” Instead of a magical redemption story where this person’s quills melted away under the steadfast application of said embrace, the proximity only seemed to allow them to pierce me even deeper, eventually leading to the end of the friendship. Later I discovered that I hadn’t been the only one who had experienced similar issues with this person, but that didn’t make it any less painful.

I’ve had this happen a few more times over the years since then. It’s as if God continued to ask me to hug a little longer, and get “porcupined” a little deeper each time. I don’t pretend to know the purpose those relationships had in my life or theirs. I do know God is clearly playing the role of the Peanuts character Lucy in these scenarios, holding the football, convincing Charlie Brown — me — to try to kick it, just one more time. “Good grief!”

One of the reasons I find myself in positions like these is because, in whatever little group I’m in, I often end up unwittingly filling the role of unordained chaplain. In other words, all the crappy parts of being professional clergy with none of the perks! This is also one of the reasons most of my friends are in some type of ministry; they are among the few groups of people who can understand the positions I find myself in. Helping people walk through their problems and crises can keep you up at night — I mean literally; from the phone calls, active concern, or just from the psychic toll it takes over time. I reached out, a few years ago, to a professional counselor to get some advice on how he dealt with it in his own job. He said each night he left the problems in his office and didn’t carry them home — employing a certain professional detachment. When I attempted this technique myself, I found that I failed ten times out of ten. I bring this up, because I have been hearing this idea of ‘detachment’ in ministry popping up lately, as being good, nay, even vital! Yeah, I just said, “nay,” you heard me.

Let me state here: healthy boundaries are good, and unhealthy co-dependency is something to be aware of and avoided, but for some reason, at least as described, this idea of a “professional” detachment seems at odds with someone involved in the cure of souls. There’s just something about it that has never sat right with me, because to be engaged with another person, listening, encouraging, and being open involves a vulnerability that risks being “porcupined.” Don’t get me wrong. As someone sensitive to that type of pain, my hand has hovered over the relational eject button any number of times, and a few times I have pressed it. Generally, though, my hand has been stayed, and I don’t think that was me doing the staying. Out of curiosity, I asked the Reverend Dr. Paul Zahl what his friend, our favorite psychologist, the late Dr. Frank Lake, may have had to say on the subject. More from Lake in a minute, but I was particularly fascinated by PZ’s reply:

Frank would certainly say that the imperative or counsel that one should leave one’s problems on the office desk when you go home at night is not doable, except maybe for a period. In other words, that counsellor is “whistling Dixie,” for it cannot be done! Better, leave yourself, or your ego, somewhere; and act from out of a New Being.

Where we erect unhelpful relational barriers in order to avoid potential (or realized) pain is a good diagnostic of where our ego is in the way. Ministry can be the perfect venue for that discovery. Case in point: the infamous Paul and Barnabas split in Acts 15. In the middle of their very first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas’s young traveling companion, John Mark, made like a hockey player and got the puck out of there when things got a little too real. Just plain booked.

Needless to say, Saint Paul did not find this endearing, and when Barnabas wanted John Mark to come along for the next trip, Paul laid down the law — ain’t no way! The life of a missionary is hard enough, no need to make it harder recreationally. After a game of red rover, Paul picked Silas and headed for Syria, and Barnabas took John Mark with him to Cyprus.

I’ll be honest. Depending on how recently I’ve been, uh, porcupined-over by someone, I tend to side with Paul on this one; and yet, there is a part of me — deep down — that is drawn to the grace Barnabas displayed towards John Mark. I mean, just imagine; John Mark had to live with the knowledge that he broke up the most famous missionary team, well, ever. In those days, you couldn’t say Paul without saying Barnabas, but you could now — thanks to John “Yoko” Mark! Nothing about the situation seemed like a win.

Years later, something had changed. As well as being mentioned in a few of the epistles, but particularly in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, John Mark comes back on the scene:

Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11)

While this is remarkable in and of itself (and, thank God, Barnabas hadn’t employed professional detachment!), in the previous verse, Paul talks about being abandoned by Demas, and yet he still asks for someone who had rather infamously abandoned him in the past. I think this had less to do with any new-found utility in John Mark, but rather, a change in Paul. I also would suggest that it takes a John Mark to reveal that need for change in a Paul.

Dr. Frank Lake picks up on this idea of mutually dependent transformation in the abridged version of his amazing book, Clinical Theology:

As psychotherapists or as clergy we have reason to be grateful to those who attend on our ministrations, for obvious reasons. It is when our unsolved and unconscious personal deficits are compulsively seeking for satisfaction through the practice of our profession that an unhealthy collusion of neuroses is certain to occur, with harm to the patient or parishioner which is neither obvious or easily definable. It is remedied only when the would-be helper himself declares his emotional bankruptcy and goes for help. When he, too, becomes realistically dependent on help outside himself, whether from man or from God, then he begins to be able, from a firm dynamic base of personal openness, honesty, and eventual well-being, to pass on to others the kind of help which leaves them free and ties no apron strings to him as a helper.

Mockingbird friend, Pastor Mandy Smith, shared a story of how this has played out in her own ministry:

It may seem overly simplistic but the way I choose to pray with someone makes all the difference to me. When I first started as a pastor, after intense pastoral conversations, I finished with a pastoral prayer, the prayer of a strong person for a weak person. And I walked away carrying the burden of their situation. But eventually I learned a different way to pray and I think it’s healthier for me and for the person I’m pastoring. Now when I pray in these conversations, it’s the prayer of two limited people who need the Father. I often joke that it’s like we’ve just vomited all over the table and now together we’re asking God to clean it up. It gives me permission to say ‘I care about this and at the same time it’s too big for me. We know you can handle it, Father.’ And it’s a way to direct the person I’m meeting with towards the ultimate source of their strength too. It’s been amazing how I’ve found the weight lift from both of us as I pray so that, while I certainly care for the person involved, I don’t feel entirely responsible for their situation.

Christ’s one-way love is all the more amazing when we realize how painful it is when we try to imitate it — painful to the point of impossibility. Just as Paul needed John Mark, I need my porcupine friends to show me I can’t, but He can. We can all be eternally grateful Christ will never, ever, detach Himself from us!