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.