I’m always surprised when a parishioner tells me how important I am to them. I probably shouldn’t be surprised. After all, I’m there at key moments in their life: baptisms, confirmations, weddings, hospital visits, funerals, etc. But still, when I hear it from someone who I don't interact with on a daily basis (sometimes not even weekly), it comes as a surprise.
Barbara Brown Taylor was an important person in my life even though we had never met. She is a famous author and former priest in the Episcopal Church. Her books on preaching helped me become a better preacher. I first read her books while attending seminary. From the school library, I rented videos of her preaching. Over time, I learned to appreciate her as a preacher, pastor and person. I guess I became starstruck.
So, when I heard she was speaking at a local university, I immediately purchased two tickets. My wife and I attended the presentation. Afterwards, I got in line to have her sign my book. I was nervous. She had become this important person in my life. How was I going to communicate her importance to me? As I stepped up to the counter, I immediately began telling her that I was a big fan and how important she was to me as a preacher and pastor. She was kind and gracious. We talked for a couple of minutes. And then it was over. Reality set in. As important as she had been to me, I realized that we were not close.
There is a word for this: fantasy. We have fantasies about other people that represent our wishes and expectations of them. We envision and playout the relationship in our minds. There is a wide variation on what these relationships look like. It’s different for each person. We live out these expectations without talking about them. Some call this a projection process. Whatever it is, it’s not real. It is a fantasy.
A pastor and congregation meet for the first time on a Sunday morning. The sanctuary is full of fantasies. The pastor and the congregation have in their minds a narrative of how this new relationship will go. The expectations of each are projected onto the other.
There are two predictable outcomes. First, if the pastor is not working on differentiation of self, they may give into the unrealistic expectations of the congregation which can result in the pastor (or a member of the pastor’s family) becoming symptomatic. Second, the pastor may push back against the expectations of the congregation with a rebellious attitude. This may lead to a rift in the congregation. Of course, it’s not all about the pastor. Everyone in the congregation plays their part.
The disciples fantasized about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. The Gospels are full of examples of the disciples defining the word “Messiah.” But, in every case, Jesus tells them that their fantasies are inaccurate. Jesus defines himself by saying, “I am . . .” or “I will . . .” This is a helpful process to remember. As the disciples engage Jesus in an understanding of messiahship, the disciples develop an accurate and clear picture of who Jesus is instead of who they hope he will be.
Cutoff contributes to the flourishing of fantasies. Dr. Murray Bowen observed how people cutoff from their extended families and then create a narrative in their mind about the family which is inaccurate. When individuals work to stay connected with the extended family, they develop a realistic view of themselves and the family. The same is true for congregations and for pastors. A lack of connection between the pastor and the congregation opens the door of fantasies. The more engaged a pastor is with the congregation (while working on differentiation of self), the quicker both can grow up and see the world as it is, not the fantasy they wish it to be.