This past Saturday I attended the memorial service of a long-time and beloved member of my former congregation. It was my first time back to the congregation since leaving my position and I am grateful that the minister and I agreed that I could attend memorial services. For those of you who do not know, the professional guidelines for Unitarian Universalist ministers and religious educators states that we will not attend events and services or be involved at our former congregations for two years following our leaving a position. The idea behind the guideline is to allow the congregation and the religious leader to move forward and also to give the new religious leader in a congregation a chance to settle in and form their own relationships. As I walked in the door, I greeted the widower. He hugged me and held on, I could feel him crying and in that moment I knew how much it meant to him that I came and how right it was that I was there.
As I always do at memorial services, I learned new things about this amazing woman. I learned about her professional life, met her son. I heard stories from all sorts of people who knew her. It is one of the blessings of this kind of celebration of life - you hear so many stories that you would not have another chance to hear.
What I also realized as I sat in one of the back rows of the sanctuary, looking around at the members of the congregation, I was filled with a profound sense of love and care. I came to realize that what I missed most of all from my work at the congregation, were the people, the relationships and friendships that had formed over the past five years. Yet I also realized all the ways I held myself back from fully entering into these relationships and that was because of the strong messages that are out there in seminaries and professional organizations about boundaries.
Now I am all for good and healthy boundaries. I can't imagine a circumstance where a minister and congregant having a sexual or romantic relationship is healthy. There are no circumstances in which any kind of sexual contact with a minor is acceptable. Being a minister, whether ordained or religious educator or any other person where someone is the professional and paid by the congregation for their expertise, comes with an expectation that they have a role of authority (even if the person thinks that is laughable) and that they must be aware of the particularity of the role they hold in the community. That being said, much of the way boundaries have been discussed, at least in the UU Circles where I have spent much of the last eight years, have created barriers to relationships, where ministers and others feel isolated and lonely and have in some ways, threatened the heart of ministry which is relationship.
What I realized as I sat there, is that I often held parts of myself back, that I didn't just let the relationship happen rather I worried about maintaining boundaries. Yet the ministers who have touched my life most deeply were the ones that I knew and not just as priests or ministers but as people. They were the ones that my parents had over to the house for dinner, the one that threw me into a pool fully dressed when I was being a snarky tween, the ones that have stayed in touch with my family over the years.
Boundaries need to be permeable for good relationships to happen. If the religious professionals are holding themselves back, not being open, not sharing, then how can it be expected that the members of the community will open themselves and share themselves? How can we model healthy relationships if all we can think about is not getting to close, not giving an appearance of favorites, being somehow perfectly connected and perfectly removed which is perfectly impossible?
Having good boundaries is first and foremost about knowing yourself. Are you self-aware? Do you understand your own needs, strengths, weaknesses? The truth is that in a community there are going to be people that are your people, relationships with them will be easy and come naturally, there will be many people who you will have a good relationship with and then there will be those who you will not like (and may not like you either), who will be difficult and your job is to be in relationship anyway. Will it look the same as it does with the people who really like and easily get along with - of course not. You are a human being and relationships are imperfect. However if you know yourself, if you pay attention then you are more able to enter into relationship in healthy ways.
Now the other pitfall is realizing that you are attracted to a member of the congregation. Now there was a time that young ministers were almost expected to find a wife from within the congregation he served (since they were almost all men and of course they were all straight) and it would have been an honor to have one's daughter marry the minister.) Times have changed and with it our understandings about sexual relationships between ministers and congregants. Just because one has feelings or attraction to someone does not mean one must act on them - contrary to every Disney movie and romantic comedy. Again self-awareness, the very heart of good boundaries, is key here. Being aware of the feelings and managing one's own behavior is key. I am not saying it will be easy but feelings and attractions are very often temporary and fleeting - it won't last forever. However if one is not being self-aware, not realizing any issues in one's marriage or relationship if one is in one, can lead to boundary breaking. This is a place where having professional guidelines can be very helpful to keeping one's behavior in check.
Another key to healthy boundaries and self-awareness is having a life outside the congregation and outside one's professional colleagues. Now I confess I did not do this very well. Join a book club, a bowling league, the Rotary. Yes if one is serving in a smaller community that may mean one will encounter members of the congregation but the goal here is to have life outside the congregation. Sometimes that life will intersect with life within in the congregation, just let it be. Letting someone know you in different contexts is part of life. Each of us has different relationships with different people and then some of those intersect. People have professional lives, families, hobbies, interests and faith communities - people understand that each of us multi-faceted.
I think we do a profound disservice to our members when we assume they can't hold boundaries. When we assume they can't handle a person in different roles we are not giving them a chance. When we don't get involved in certain things because members of our congregations may be there too or we work so hard to only have our friends outside the congregation, then we are saying to the members of our congregations "we can't trust you to hold the complexity of this." That is insulting! Yes, there are those who never will be able to do that - they are in the minority. When we make rules about boundaries assuming the worst then we will get what we assume. If we do have friendships with those in the congregation or work with them in other contexts then we need to be honest and direct with them as to where the lines are in our relationships ... when we do this we show our own ministerial maturity and our respect for them as well ... and perhaps more importantly we honor relationship. Guidelines can help us as we learn about ourselves and what ministry means but when the guidelines hold us back from fully entering into relationship then the ministry suffers.
So I am sorry I held myself back and didn't let my congregation get to know me as well I could have. I am sorry it is too late for that now. I am grateful to have the permeable boundary that allows me to come to memorial services. I am also deeply and profoundly grateful for the relationships I have had with members of the congregation. Please know, even though I didn't find a way to say it before, I loved the people of WUU and I know I was loved in return. Ok let's be honest, I found it easier to love some of the people at WUU more than others and some of them found it easier to love me than others. Yet each one of them touched my life, changed it and I am better because they came into my life. So thank you!
The lesson I take away is that I just need to love more deeply and more openly and surely that will serve me well wherever I end up next! Isn't that at the end where our guidelines hope to lead us? That we may have ministries filled with healthy relationships of love, care, witness and faith!
May it be so!
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