How non-attachment might have improved my ministry

When I think of the number of moments when I felt emotionally spent, overwhelmed, despairing, and even resentful in my first five years of ministry, it makes me ache a little for my younger, more enthusiastic and foolhardy self. The last two years went a little bit better—for me if not for my congregation—and the main reason is this: I took a course (a Landmark Education course on communication) that helped me finally start to embrace non-attachment.

The average Buddhist will roll their eyes as they read this. So will my more learned and sage ministry colleagues, because it will seem so obvious to them.  The fact of the matter is, though, that most of my role models in ministry at the time fit into one of two categories: passionate and constantly in motion, or mellow and gentle. And a few of the pastors I knew were resigned or complacent. I knew congregational transformation in a very small congregation that had not had strong leadership for a long time (and had some history of resisting strong leadership back when they had some fight still) wouldn’t happen with mellow, and it definitely wouldn’t happen with complacent. But passionate, that I got. Constantly in motion was where I lived. I was going to cheerlead, bully, or solely through my own vision, passion and action help the church be transformed.

It didn’t work. And rather than list all the reasons it didn’t, I find myself thinking what my ministry might have looked like if I had been able to practice the principle of non-attachment as a core element of my ministry from day one.

To clarify, non-attachment is a principle most regularly associated with Buddhism. It’s not the same as not caring or detachment. It’s about recognizing what’s in your control and having peace about that. To pull a quote from a lovely article on the subject, As Master Kuang-ch’in said, “Non-attachment does not mean indifference or carelessness, but rather you should do your best and not worry about the results.”

I would argue Jesus offered the same model in a couple of instances. Most obviously, he said as he sent his Disciples into the wider community, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” But also, one of my favorite passages is when Jesus tells the rich young ruler that another way to spend eternity with God is to give away all his possessions to the poor and follow Jesus. The passage is clear that Jesus shares this information BECAUSE he loves the man. The rich young ruler turns away sad because he has many possessions. Jesus does not cajole or temper his message or anything—he recognizes the man’s agency.

And yet, ministry today, which often mixes the preservation of crumbling facilities and the deep desire by pastors to preserve the comfort and meaning that long-term members have to their experience of church while creating space for a new generation who experience God in ways almost antithetical to those currently in the church…well, talk about navigating a lot of attachments. And pastors bring our own attachments as well. Many of us who feel called to congregational transformation are fierce about our ministry in ways that can unintentionally harm people or foster up co-dependent relationships between pastor and church (or continue co-dependent relationships, since many parish ministries are co-dependent by design). We also sometimes suffer from Superman syndrome that can morph into martyr syndrome, but that’s probably another blog post.

So what could non-attachment have done for me as a pastor these past seven years?

1)      Non-attachment calls on us to recognize our ability to do great things, but it also suggests we can’t control others and shouldn’t try to do so. I bet I would not have burned out my long-time members and disappointed my newer members if I had only taken responsibility for my own actions instead of demanding they join with me or promising them that the whole congregation would eventually jump on board and we’d experience paradigm shift. I have longterm members who have expressed feelings of fatigue and newer members who left due to a sense of false expectations about what was really going to happen.

2)      Non-attachment invites us to love without needing to be loved back. I will confess that part of my ministry was plagued by a sense of “Don’t they know how much I do, at so little compensation, with so little affirmation, at so much personal cost?” I wonder what our relationships might have been like if they had been less conditional on my part, if I had been able to adopt a spiritual practice of purging myself of resentment and loving people where they were for who they were without needing a specific type of love back.

3)      Non-attachment allows us to focus on doing and not necessarily on outcome. There’s a Quaker expression I love to use: We are called to be faithful, not successful. I had a lot wrapped up in being a “success.” There was a real pivot point in my ministry as I look back on it. I had called on the congregation for an all-hands on deck, experiment like crazy, promote the congregation to the community campaign. I made huge banners to hang outside. I created a rotation of worship styles, including one Sunday a month that was a completely child-friendly service. I went to community events and made overtures to neighbors about joining. At one point our worship attendance increased from 10 to 40, with ten kids up front during children’s moment. We had 55 on Easter. And I watched longtime members move seats so they wouldn’t have to deal with noisy kids sitting near them. And I watched visitors stand awkwardly waiting for someone to say more than hello. And I realized that my desire for us to “succeed” in this way was resting solely on my shoulders—a lot of my faithful longtime members weren’t really comfortable with the kind of people we were drawing. My focus had been on growing the church at least as much as on providing spiritual nurture for the people coming to join us, and more than on helping my own congregation discern who it was they wanted to spiritually grow with. As a result, this new community hinged completely on how much I alone was willing to minister to all of the needs of the new members of the community. Within 6 months we were back down to 15 or 20. And now I realize that a spiritual practice of non-attachment might have had me and us walking a very different path around being faithful together, with honest conversation about the costs of faithfulness.

4)      Non-attachment allows us to fully claim our own needs, so long as we recognize the other person’s right to say “no.” A really significant element of the “nonviolent communication” movement, I’ve found this teaching (which I learned from the Connection Action Project and their Simple Practices for Complex Times) very important, even as it challenges me constantly. A lot of the congregational transformation proposals I brought to my congregation would, I suspect from lots of training in the area, have worked amazingly well. (In fact, a lot of them were recently clumped together in a great blog post my colleague Tami shared with me.) But I had a visceral need for them to say yes to everything I brought to them. Those ideas were my babies. I had worked and researched and studied and surveyed so much that I had a big stake in their answer. And the funny part is, because I was so desperate for a “yes,” I don’t think I fully claimed what my needs were within the equation, because I was trying so hard to get the yes. I didn’t share what my feelings or dreams or hopes or hurts were. I shared information and intellect. And if I’m being honest, I probably didn’t respect their no very much, which is pretty patronizing for someone who does anti-oppression work for a living.

5)      Non-attachment doesn’t mean we stay with things that aren’t working. Jesus modeled for us that we can wish others well when the path they have chosen and ours do not intersect. This is the hard part to reflect on for me, but if I had followed the spiritual practice of non-attachment, if my “success” with congregational transformation hadn’t informed my sense of self-worth so much, if I hadn’t pushed for “yes,” if I hadn’t bullied and cajoled so much, if I had been more honest about my needs and more accepting when congregants couldn’t meet those needs, I might have realized sooner that my presence with the congregation wasn’t helping them or me. I might have stepped down sooner, and the congregation might have been able to get sooner to the critical conversations they are now ready to engage in now.

I know many people I love will be quick to point out that God had a purpose in me being at my congregation for the whole seven years I was there. And I want to be clear that I do not begrudge any of my time with a really amazing collection of people. And also, on a really good day, I recognize that the reason the congregation is able to engage in the conversation about looking to a brand new model of ministry is partly because of the work we’ve done together. (It’s partly because we’ve thought about those issues together over the years and partly because they’ve seen that even with a really dedicated and passionate minister, the old model of pastor-driven ministry doesn’t work for them anymore.) And I also believe it took seven years for the congregation to really give birth to the Oakland Peace Center, their lasting legacy.

But as I get older and maybe wiser, I know this thing people have been trying to teach me for so long: I can only fix me. I can offer options to others, I can rally those who agree with me to create change, and I can offer information and process that might end up moving others, but in the end, I cannot find all of my meaning and sense of self-worth in outcomes.

My pastor growing up once said to me, “Jesus died with a handful of women at his feet his only remaining followers. I pastor a church of 1600. Would you describe me as more successful than Jesus?” I inadvertently sacrificed a lot of my own happiness and that of my congregants in my tenacious pursuit of congregational transformation. And for the first five years, I held them too tight and too fiercely. The last couple of years since my Landmark course haven’t been easy, and I know some people have been sad or angry that I haven’t pushed for worship changes or board engagement or bible study as tenaciously as I once did. And I know there is a palpable sense of abandonment that is part of the process of grief. But I think my relationship to the congregation has improved markedly (if not theirs to me) as I’ve let go of the need to succeed and been able to stop resenting a congregation for not being who I thought they were supposed to be. I don’t know that I’m shaking the dust off my sandals, but I’m doing a much better job of honoring who they are and accepting that it’s okay if our paths aren’t the same.

I’m still a work in progress, and my experience may vary a lot from other pastors. But for me, it is changing my relationship to ministry and also to life. I hope that my slowly growing relationship to engaged and passionate non-attachment will bless the Oakland Peace Center, that I may learn to hold less tightly and allow a little more sunlight and love into our work together.

Comments (9)

  1. Paul S. Fraser

    Sandhya, I was there in 2007 when you spoke at a workshop (“track”) on congregational transformation at the General Assembly in Fort Worth: when so many of us went back home and set out to “transform” our congregations — even if it killed us, or them. I will want to dwell upon your clear and articulate descriptions of non-attachment further, but it strikes me that you may be describing what I would call mature, adult behavior: not responding out of our emotions of the moment, nor responding directly to the emotional responses of others, but holding back and listening deeply for the meaning, the truth and the genuine passion and need within the other person. That feels like a mature and disciplined attachment, but if it’s called non-attachment by those who teach this approach, I am for learning more.

  2. Scott Budlong

    Another great and honest article that cut to deep issues of clergy health. As you know, I have been out of local, congregational ministry for over a year and a half now. I would add that I started my Masters of Business Administration which has been a very new and positive experience. If I could add to what you have already said so well, it would be this:
    The church is a declining market. I’m not trying to be mean, it just is. The 1960’s were incredibly great for the church and the local congregation industry has been on the decline ever since. There are looks of declining industries in America, many of which employ happy people with great lives. I think what makes the church different is that pastors, generally, find so much of their worth in the approval of what is, often times, their only social community. For the rest of the congregation, they have families, work relationships, and other social outlets.
    To keep this brief, the industry is declining and there is an unrealistic expectation for changing the context. Clergy, consequently, throw themselves and their worth into the gears of a fifty year trend that is showing no signs of slowing. Can we blame them, we lay all sorts of false hopes on them to recreate a past that can not be recreated and when that does work, we declare new goals that are neither measurable or defined. If their sense of purpose and worth is wrapped up in a congregation that continues to dwindle, then that is a rough situation indeed.
    Great Post!

  3. Sandhya (Post author)

    Paul, I hear you. Very true; thanks! I was trained really well in the concept of “non-anxious presence,” and I think that I did better and better at that over the years. But I still held onto my agenda of the very souls of my members being transformed to a missional outlook and orienting themselves first and foremost to the needs of the people in our neighborhood….as I look back, I think that the difference with non-attachment is I would have been okay if I could have gotten to a place where congregants could say, “That’s just not what we as individuals want to do.” I’m not sure I gave them that option, because to me, that’s what it meant to be a real Christian in today’s world. I’m learning. 🙂

  4. Sandhya (Post author)

    Thanks, Scott! I think the good news–and you’re part of it–is that we’re realizing there are other models for being God’s people in the world, and some of us are beginning to gravitate towards them. They can’t support the infrastructure to which we’ve become accustomed, but they do look a lot like the first century church. 🙂

  5. Dick Hamm

    My dear sister Sandhya,
    You have been on a journey identical to my own as General Minister and President, except you took that journey about 20 years earlier than I did (either I am slow or you are precocious…probably some of both 🙂
    I left the office of GMP a couple of years early (after 10 years….three months and two days!) because I realized I had become hopelessly attached to what I thought were the right outcomes. I began as one humbled by the call of the church to the role, but ended up humbled by my inability to remain appropriately spiritually detached and thus by my inability to provide the kind of leadership that was needed. The early fathers and mothers of the church were talking and writing about detachment many centuries ago….it is, of course, a universal truth that all great religions discover and teach when they are at their best.
    Like you, I have practically no regrets about those ten years, and feel that much of what I did was right and good, but much of it has had to be adapted by God to be useful.
    Like you, I still love the church with a deep passion and have sought other ways to serve. I have (mostly) accepted God’s grace for my failings and have become truly grateful for the opportunities I was given through that role and continue to be given. I am now a church consultant, trying to apply all I have learned – including the essential importance of holding roles and responsibilities lightly so that they can be transparent and useful to what the Spirit is seeking to do in the church and the world.
    As a consultant, I know that the success rate of mainline congregations that claim they want to “transform” is about one in ten. But I believe every congregation has the right and responsibility to give it a shot….still, while as a consultant I try to provide the best processes and the best wisdom I can (and I am accountable for doing so), I have learned that I am not in charge of outcomes.
    Bless you in your learning all of this early and in your truly wonderful honesty and transparency. All this means that you have so many more years (than most of us colleagues) to bless the church as an appropriately-detached-yet-passionate leader. Bless you! Dick

  6. Sandhya (Post author)

    Dick, you’re actually one of my role models around this exact issue. Then again, I got to know you best after you stepped down as GMP, so I may have learned from you at exactly the moment you were doing this hard work. 🙂

    I am so grateful for your reflection and your transparency. As you know, part of why I got so involved with the Disciples of Christ as a convert of sorts was the Pro-Reconciliation/Anti-Oppression commitment you helped us name. As that initiative reclaims its role and simultaneously reinvents itself, I wonder what it would mean to practice non-attachment in the way we move forward…the thought terrifies me a little, but it might be a critical element of doing that work faithfully. Hmmmmm.

  7. Gene Hill

    Thank you! Brilliant! Deep!

  8. Mary Jacobs

    Sandhya,
    Your comments go to the heart…and the heart of the matter. Nouwen’s constant struggle was to find his identity and affirmation in the depths of the Spirit of God rather than in reviews, evaluations and affirmations of others reminds me if one of my spiritual mentors struggled with such things, am I to do any less? Oh, not to crave those positive comments! When we immerse ourselves in that Great Heart, we know that what we give with hope and passion is enough and can be used for the sake of justice and compassion in some small way.

    You are hitting some of the nails in my ministry right on the head! Thanks

  9. Joshua Patty

    Sandhya,

    Your thoughtful, even soul-searching, post reminds me of something that influenced me in accepting the idea that I could (should?) be a pastor. Personally, I think that there are key parts of my personality that are ill-suited for pastoral ministry (and which led me to emphatically slap away such suggestions for a few years, even from people I deeply respected).

    There’s another part of my personality, though, that I thought would make a good pastor. Ironically, even before I began I knew that I could walk away from ministry and find other things in life that would be deeply meaningful and fulfilling. Now a few years in, I still know the same thing. I love my calling as a minister, but it’s not my only calling. I love the congregations I have served, and I deeply appreciate the affirmations that they have given me over time, but I can only partially measure the quality of my ministry through their comments and attitudes. And I always know that I can walk away.

    Maybe it’s foolhardy, and it may not quite be what you’re thinking about with non-attachment, but I think it’s vital (at least for me) in keeping healthy perspective. Knowing I can walk away and do something else has usually been liberating for how I’ve approached almost every practical aspect of ministry, from selecting sermon topics to coping with meetings to filtering criticism. Knowing that I don’t have to do this makes it easier to remember, especially amidst challenges, why I do this — sometimes it even points the way toward how I should do this thing we call pastoral ministry. And it’s allowed me to do (at least on on most days) the five things you enumerate.

    And (for nothing) you know what I learned after about five years — patience really is a virtue. We can work on one big change (maybe two) at a time, but more than that dilutes our efforts. And self-imposed timetables are useful, but can also be wisely ignored (with few negative repercussions because the congregation usually isn’t all that gung-ho about quick changes anyway).

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