Geraldine, Jeremiah and the comedy of congregational transformation (or, The Vicar of Dibley shouldn’t make me cry and is the phrase “spiritual PTSD” hyperbolic?)

[warning–this post is transparent but not peppy; I’m hoping it resonates with other pastors who struggle in the midst of transformation efforts, but I’m happy to hear from people who’ve had much more warm and fuzzy experiences. 🙂 ]

 

I remember watching and loving The Vicar of Dibley when I first discovered it in college. I suspect part of what I loved was that a plus-sized, irreverent woman was treading the same path on which I planned to embark. Also, Dawn French is a comic genius. How could you not fall in love with a woman who hangs 12 chocolate filled Advent calendars in the parsonage so she gets to eat 12 chocolates for every day in December leading up to Christmas? (The episode where the vicar goes to four Christmas dinners still makes my mother laugh because that happened to me at least twice during my pastorate.)

It had been a long time since I watched those episodes and my life has undergone many changes since then, but Dawn French remains a comic genius, so  I didn’t think too much about re-watching the series as background noise while I cleaned the house and packed for vacation last week.

Imagine my surprise when I broke down in tears halfway through episode one.

Then again, the previous weekend my dreams had been dominated by visions of telling various churches that they needed to change or die and having them ignore me in true biblical prophetic tradition. I should have realized: three months after my last day as a congregational pastor, I’m experiencing spiritual PTSD.

Gritty, radical, diverse and sometimes dangerous Oakland bears as little resemblance to Dibley as I do to Shakira. But the congregation in the show the Vicar of Dibley bears an uncanny resemblance to the quirky and charming and challenging congregation who to varying degrees embraced me in my very first ministry out of seminary, and my imperfections and mistakes map uncannily onto Vicar Geraldine Granger’s (especially when after a particularly devastating and somewhat public breakup she drowns her sorrows in a mountain of Curly Wurly’s and Ben and Jerry’s).

I think it’s the way the first episode captures the total mix of deep ambivalence by those resistant to change and deep enthusiasm by those who are okay with either change or not as long as they are loved that caused my tears.

But the other thing that made me weep periodically during the show was the image of a bucolic village where everyone’s lives are intertwined and the town claims their pastor with pride and she loves them deeply, quirks and all, like family.

It made me weep because I’m not sure that’s how church in community or the congregational relationship to the pastor works for most people any more. We’ve had to develop healthy boundaries to protect ourselves from the parish’s capacity to consume every waking minute of our lives, but as a result we do not get to experience the “potent meshings” that the poet writes about. I find myself watching parishioners constantly bang on her door and simultaneously think “doesn’t she know she needs to teach them to respect her privacy” and “why didn’t my parishioners bang on my door?” I tried to invite all of my congregants who were willing to come to my home for tea and sympathy, but I was only invited into a few of their homes, because they didn’t need their pastor to be an integral part of their life. The world of modern day urban America looks very different than the British village life of fifteen years ago.

It also made me weep because at the end of the series, Geraldine has been pastoring for ten years with deep love of her congregation but without a child or the life partner she desires, because the consuming life of ministry plus the isolation of a small town (and few non-congregants to date) plus, although the show undersells this, being a woman in ministry at a time when men her age are likely either uncomfortable with female clergy (or female power) or with religion in general. How many women I have known in that exact position (and to some lesser extent have known that experience myself). How many pastors gladly give their whole selves only to realize very late how much that has cost them.

I recognize that my tears are a gross overreaction to a charming light comedy (Dawn French’s humor is usually much sharper-edged). So yeah. That spiritual PTSD I joked about.

-Imagine a church being financially sustainable and having the resources to support a full-time pastor with a sanctuary that at most holds 100 people.

-Imagine a church where the pastor can completely fall apart and miss two Sundays because of situational depression and the church can name the problem and create a structure to help her heal; imagine a church where she would even dare to let them know she was spiraling into depression because they were so integrated into her life and vice versa that they would take care of her as she takes care of them.

-Imagine a church where the pastor can say, “Hey; I’ve got an idea!” and while the resident curmudgeon may predict doom and gloom, the rest of the parish leadership says, “it may not work, but that sounds like something totally worth trying!”

-Imagine a church that is  so representative of the community that its ministries really respond to the needs of the community, so that the church and community groups work together to provide the programs and services the community needs.

I  know a number of clergy friends who could tick off one or two of those, but very few can tick off all of them. And fair enough, I might be expecting too much and wishing my life were more like life on TV. But I think my unexpected weeping and my nightmares about stuck churches that would rather die than change are not unconnected.

Jeremiah wept for Israel: “I wish I had never been born! I have become a source of conflict and dissension in my own country. Even though I haven’t lent or borrowed, still everyone curses me.” (Jer. 15:10 CEB) I know my life’s much easier than Jeremiah’s, but I get how the brother feels. In one of my nightmares, I addressed a congregation I knew well and told them about a different congregation I had just visited, saying to them that this OTHER congregation was going to die soon because they couldn’t recognize that what they were doing had no resonance with the people in their surrounding community, hoping they’d realize that they were David and I was Samuel telling a story about someone else that was really about them. The next night’s nightmare involved rugged outdoor backpacking and whitewater rafting to deliver a message to save a church that then wouldn’t receive the message. In both dreams I felt this overwhelming sense of resignation, knowing I wasn’t going to have an impact but still having to tell them, a bit like Jeremiah, whose message God had already told him wouldn’t be received. (More cruelly, I think, God told Jeremiah not to pray for mercy on Israel, because they had to learn their lesson.)

The tearjerker for me about the Vicar of Dibley is, she didn’t have to do a lot of transformative work with them (which involves deep spiritual turning by a significant number of the congregation before any real changes in their behavior take place). She suggests things and they try them and it works. But so few of us get to be Geraldines. We end up being Jeremiahs, and our congregations won’t thank us for it. And they may not turn.

That’s not what I signed up for. I signed up for a bucolic church that wouldn’t know that they needed to change but would see the positive results of it and embrace it, who would love a vicar who made dirty jokes during church board meetings and would buy her the occasional pint down the pub.

What I got wasn’t a stubborn and stiff-necked generation like Jeremiah got, where you’re kinda rooting for God to teach them a lesson. What I got was a lot of people who felt fed by what we were doing, and wanted other people to be fed by it too, but who would not be spiritually fed by anything different, anything that would resonate with the people who were not already part of our community. What I got was good people who didn’t know how to do things in a radically different way and also didn’t believe that doing things in a radically different way would actually yield better results. (And what they got was a very green pastor who was overly comfortable with experimentation and not very patient with anything that didn’t place the needs of those who weren’t in the room above their own.)

If I were writing a letter to a young pastor right now, I would say, “the worst part about transformational ministry in the 21st century, if you love your flock, is that you have to hurt good people every day because the thing that works for them stymies the kindom of God. The best part? Well…the best part is knowing that as hard as this is, pretty soon this will all fall apart and we’ll have no choice but to build from scratch, which is much much easier than renovating.”

Most of us who go into ministry either desperately want to be loved or desperately want to be right. (I know a fair number of men my age in ministry who expect both, and the fact that it doesn’t work that way is a constant source of resentment and frustration, possibly because their mentors who ministered a generation ago did actually get both.) I think my jealousy of Vicar Geraldine largely stems from not just the love but the fondness she received amidst constantly nudging her flock’s boundaries. Plus, she does end up marrying the dreamy guy who played Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the recent BBC Robin Hood series. Yum.

I’m still unpacking how I understand ministry after my own parish experience–and you’ve probably read several blog posts I’ve written as I continue to ponder it. The fact that I suddenly started dreaming about congregational transformation three months after I finished what may have been my only traditional parish calling or the first of several ministries geared towards helping a traditional church become untraditional enough to actually minister to the surrounding communities suggests that I’m still trying to make sense of my journey with a particular congregation amidst the landscape of the dying mainline church. I don’t have any particular wisdom today, except to say there are fewer and fewer Dibleys and more and more congregations of Walking Wounded clinging to a church that doesn’t serve anyone all that well because it’s better than a church they cannot even begin to picture.

This transformation stuff is hard. And it usually happens amidst people who don’t realize their pastors need to be cared for or how to care for them. And it often requires demanding things of them that make them not really want to take care of you in the first place, because it doesn’t feel to them like you’re doing a very good job of taking care of them. Just thinking about it makes me want to break out my twelve chocolate filled advent calendars a couple of months early and go to town. I’m sure my Sir Guy will forgive a couple of pounds of chocolate weight.

9 thoughts on “Geraldine, Jeremiah and the comedy of congregational transformation (or, The Vicar of Dibley shouldn’t make me cry and is the phrase “spiritual PTSD” hyperbolic?)

  1. Friend and colleague,

    Your words and reflection here are powerful.

    Your lament pours out of these words.

    I often think back to my small town home church and how life was there – how slow things unfold – how change is inevitable and yet somehow subdued. There is a quaintness about it that seems appealing, where all a minister has to do is be with the people and celebrate life’s joys and tragedies.

    And then I return to the present and push myself, sacrificing time with those I love and even my own physical well-being, in hopes that one more checked off task will help this group of people witness to a loving God who welcomes all. How we might feed teen parents and their children. How we might welcome more homeless. How we might engage young people with sacred space. How we might welcome others better. And each checklist is replaced by another checklist, and then I wonder, did Jesus do this? Ugh. 🙂

    Peace,
    Nathan

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  2. I watched the first two episodes of the Vicar of Dibley on Netflix this summer. I enjoyed the humor and agree that Dawn French is a comic genius. To tell you the truth, I thought she was kinda hot in this show … but being married to a female clergy person that’s not much of a stretch for me!

    I think I hear what you’re saying in this article. I suppose the tears you shed over this show was probably healthier and more appropriate than 17 years ago when I threw Jan Karon’s “At Home in Mitford” across the room suggesting it was comprised of bovine fecal matter. Not a good thing to do at 10:30 p.m. when your spouse is almost asleep!

    See, if communities of faith actually worked the way they should, I don’t think I would have to travel around the regions teaching “healthy boundaries.” But such is the plight of the prophetic voice that tries to proclaim and model the transformed life (gotta have that before you have transformed community of faith) in a world that really could care less. I’m preaching on the Jeremiah 29 text this week, and it’s funny … Nathan Nettleton, the commentator I read, wrote: “It is a challenge to work out just what it means for a Christian disciple, who is looking forward with hope to the day when all is made new and the reign of God is fulfilled, to live and engage in the ordinary day to day realities of life in a world which mostly cares nothing about such hopes.”

    Sweet dreams. Or at the very least, sweeter dreams.

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  3. Great, Sandhya…Thank you for what you wrote. My favorite paragraph was the one you would write to the young pastor…much to reflect on. You’re great! Keep walking the journey and enlightening us all. Many blessings, Gene

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  4. OK, I will admit I was looking forward to a blog that played with contrasts and similarities between an Old Testament Prophet and a Flip Wilson character (“The Devil made me buy this dress!”). The difference a generation makes, sometimes .

    Once I caught up, I can totally see how that show would push every button on your dashboard. Even if your brain is telling you “it’s a sitcom, it’s a British sitcom at that. Reality will not impinge.” — your heart sees Geraldine at the job you thought you would be getting. Problems arrive and are pretty much solved by the closing credits, after which there’s a bonus joke. Just remember, you didn’t have a crack team of scriptwriters and gifted physical comedians filling the pews at your parish, okay? That’s what I tell myself when watching some perky person on HGTV throw a hundred thousand dollars of sponsor-provided content at a problem home in a highly edited hour, resulting in tears of joy from their clients.

    Jeremiah, though. Harder to dismiss as mere entertainment. Then again, he doesn’t sneak into your head while you’re cleaning your apartment and packing for vacation. Not directly, anyway — he has Dawn French do the initial salvos.

    Give yourself time and space to heal and learn from what you’ve just been through. And please, give yourself the break that you would give anyone else in your situation!

    pace e bene,
    Allen

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  5. Thank you for offering a vulnerable testimony. You ask a rhetorical question about PTSD. It happens that I spent the better part of the day yesterday listening to Rita Nakashima Brock talk about the difference between PTSD and Moral Injury. PTSD as she describes emerges from changes in brain chemistry and physiology brought on by traumatic life experience. Moral injury happens as people with normally function pre-frontal cortexes they must take actions that they themselves regard as unacceptable. I didn’t fully understand all if that but as I listened the thought did cross my mind that many in ministry fit the traits she was describing. We live in the burned out ashes if our dreams and have no wood with which to build shelter. Only dust–dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Personally it bothers me most that after 20 years if ministry the one skill for which I am praised more than any other is conducting funerals. I do think moral injury might not by hyperbolic.

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  6. Sandhya,

    Thanks for capturing so well the challenge of congregational transformation. Leading any group into the unknown against their will because it’s good for them (and for those they would serve) may just be crazy! May I use the comments area to think out loud a bit?

    As I serve the last months of my congregational ministry and look toward a final chapter of ministry outside the institutional church, I find myself becoming even more empathetic toward the people I have served. They were doing good work when I came to them and they continue to do good work. For some time now, they have not attracted new people at the pace they need to sustain themselves long term. Their numbers remain steady, but the new folks do not support the institution with time, talent, or resources like their forebears did.

    Most churches today would need to change the way they approach ministry so thoroughly the new ways would no longer sustain those who’ve given their lives to the church. So they make small, incremental changes and they spruce up the exterior of the building and they start a Facebook (usually maintained by the pastor.) They receive a few more visitors, but most of those visitors don’t find what they need or want.

    I am of the mind (for today at least) that transformation of long-existing congregations is largely a pipe dream. On occasion it happens. I led my first congregation through a transformation that doubled their size. Unfortunately, I made the typical new pastor’s mistake of building ministries dependent on my presence, and a few years after I left the congregation closed.

    I think most of us church folk seek a place we can call home where we are nurtured and supported in living the gospel. Those fortunate enough to find such a place quite naturally resist change to the environment that provides just what they need.

    Most people in church today love the way a church provides refuge from the pluralistic world. They certainly don’t want their church to be swept up or swept away by pluralism. It feels good to be “right;” reexamining our approach to sacred texts, spaces, and gatherings to be less exclusive might resonate with a few, but not with the vast majority.

    Most church folks aren’t too excited about the sweeping economic changes that are affecting all of us. When church becomes yet another place that demands more of them and focuses less on them, that doesn’t feel like prophetic gospel ministry; it feels like abandonment to the chaos.

    Transformation is a dirty word to many folks in the pew. It means they’re going to be asked to give more and receive less. It means they are going to be jarred from the refuge they cherish and sent out into the streets as messengers of good news. And it means their minister thinks that’s a good thing!

    I really get why most long-term church folk just want transformational pastors like us to leave them alone. They are doing good work. They are living the gospel, sometimes better than many of us if the truth be told. Their ways are dying, but aren’t we all? Why can’t we just do our thing somewhere else and find leaders who will help them do what they do, only better? I think those are good questions, and I can no longer tell them transformation is the answer.

    The answer may well rest in pastors becoming tent makers and manifesting this new thing G-d is doing with an entirely new circle of folks. It may mean we need to stop expecting the church to support us, look to G-d for the support and take the next indicated step into a future we cannot comprehend–all without the assurance that a faithful congregation will cut us a check once a month and support our efforts to “transform” them.

    Peace,

    Darrell

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  7. “..you have to hurt good people every day because the thing that works for them stymies the kindom of God.” And I didn’t get into this to hurt people. But “…pretty soon this will all fall apart and we’ll have no choice but to build from scratch”right now…” After 15 years of ministry in two different churches, I’m trying to get my heart around the likelihood that neither of those congregations will exist by the time I retire. So what was my life, and all those tireless hours for?

    Steve

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