Of the Same Substance? Nope

“Hi, God.” That’s how a young child greeted me at the communion rail this past Sunday morning. I certainly didn’t want to disavow him of this notion so I gave him a high five and kept moving. Okay, I don’t really have that much of a messiah complex, but it was neither the time nor the place to get into a theological debate with a four-year-old.

But I think this speaks to a greater human need to make God tangible. Who wouldn’t want to be able to show up once a week and physically check in with God in addition to the spiritual check-in? “Hi, God, nice to see you again this week. Just wanted to drop in, say hello, and make sure I’m not believing in something that doesn’t really exist. I can’t stay for coffee hour but I’ll see you next week.”

Most clergy (hopefully) don’t try to perpetuate the notion that we’re stand-ins for God. If you’ve ever been tempted to view clergy this way either consciously or subconsciously, you know the resulting disappointment when you realize that, yes, your priest is human. It’s unfortunate but true.

But you can see where there might be some confusion, especially for children. We stand up at a distant altar blessing bread and wine while wearing fancy clothes and saying Jesus’ words “Do this in remembrance of me.”

We’re there to point to God, to show the way toward an ever-deepening relationship with the divine but, despite people’s projections, we don’t have any unique powers in and of ourselves. A priest can’t even do the Eucharist in isolation – it’s a “power” that only takes place within the context of God and community. Imagine if Superman was only able to leap tall buildings in a single bound if he first prayed with a bunch of people. The Joker would undoubtedly get away more often.

The psycho-babble term for what happens when people project idealized forms onto their clergy is transference. Emotional and spiritual needs get transferred onto a human being rather than brought to God. Again, this inevitably leads to disappointment which can play out as anger and frustration directed at the priest. People may not boo during the entering procession but they might start a nasty rumor or leave the church in a huff. Every priest has numerous examples of such behavior. But then many parishioners likely have examples of clergy who started believing their own hype and got a bit too big for their chasubles.

The antidote to transference is healthy communication and conversation surrounding the roles of the clergy and laity in a parish context. The priest has a unique function within the community — that doesn’t make him or her better than anyone (the old hierarchical model of priesthood has thankfully gone the way of the maniple) — and the laity have their own unique role in the community. Yes, the clergy role is more visible and ordained ministry cannot be separated from leadership. But it is a shared leadership both liturgically and parochially.

So, no, I don’t have any effect on the weather. When people half-jokingly say “Can you do something about all this rain?” The answer is no. As I like to tell people, I’m in sales not management. Perhaps together we can pray for a sunny day but, as nice as it would be, I don’t have a Batphone connected to the Big Guy.


13 Comments on “Of the Same Substance? Nope”

  1. padremambo says:

    Aren’t you just a little different? A smidge?

  2. Great, amusing lede for an important post. The transference stuff does make for messy relationships between clergy and congregants. My guess is the 4 year old would understand get it better and faster than the adults. IMrarelyHO.

  3. Sister Mary Winifred says:

    I have known many clergy and am under no illusion that any of them are God, but it’s just pseudo-humility for clergy to say that they are no different than lay people. Yes, you may need two or three gathered together to “do Eucharist, ” but if one of the two or three isn’t ordained you can’t “do Eucharist” anyway. Ordination is a closed club — no one can be admitted because he/she wants to be or even believes he/she has been called by God . . . so there is always going to be a heirarchy in the Episcopal Church. It’s just goes with the territory and is perhaps a fair trade-off for the best liturgy ever.

  4. A few notes on an otherwise excellent post: “Transference” is NOT “psychobabble”. It’s real. And, powerful, as you note. And, needs to be recognized and named so it can be dealt with appropriately. Good communication is a start. Naming it and recognizing when it happens is even more important. Please don’t diminish it by calling it “psychobabble”.

    And yes, while clergy are, fortunately or unfortunately human, I would hope that the grace of ordination does make us at least a smidge different. Just as the sacramental grace of marriage changes the two people who have had the covenant of their vows blessed by the church.

    Grace is amazing, still. Ours is an “impossible vocation” – an “odd and wondrous calling”. And, it means absolutely nothing outside of Christian community.

    Thanks for your post.

  5. Father Tim says:

    Elizabeth, I very much appreciate your comments and expansion on the idea of transference. If you read this blog regularly you know that much of what I say is tongue-in-cheek. In actuality this whole concept is not, of course, funny.

    Any priest who seeks to sustain any viable ministry in the long-term is well-acquainted with the writings of Rabbi Edwin Friedman who speaks eloquently and practically on the subject of transference in congregations. (As a side note, my favorite bumper sticker of all time reads “Jesus saved my soul, Friedman saved my ass”).

    I light-heartedly refer to it as psycho-babble (my wife’s a therapist) but well know that the concept is alive, well, and thriving in every congregation.

    Don’t get me started on ontological change (I do believe something happens at ordination) but it’s not something that makes clergy “better,” just different.

  6. Mariclaire says:

    I have to know-was the four year old one of mine?

  7. Bob Chapman says:

    How do you expect a four year old to keep this separated in her mind when you can’t keep Superman separated from Batman in your mind?

    Funny how you try to relate the disappearance of hierarchy to go along with the disappearance of the maniple. You’ve kept the symbol of authority while discarding the symbol of being a servant. (And, you know darn well where I got that little piece of wisdom expressed in just that way.)

    When I have served at the Altar and brought the water for the lavabo (except for the one time I tried to bring the wine), having that cloth draped over my left wrist has always felt more than functional. Symbolic, yes, but more than functional. Then again, may I’m weird. I’ll grant that.

    Don’t confuse me with a liturgical fundamentalist. I may joke “no maniple, no mass” at times, but I don’t believe it. I know how wearing a maniple has caused many problems for priests during the celebration (flying hosts, among them). At the same time, It somehow seems wrong when a priest dismisses the maniple so easily. This may need to be done so things can be done in decency and order, but not using a maniple should be done with a little regret.

    Meanwhile, about this standing in for God part. Aren’t we ambassadors for Christ? Everyone one of us–not only you–represents Christ to others. While I doubt you meant to appear to deny our ambassador role, a quick reading of this could be read this way by those who don’t read you regularly.

  8. Father Tim says:

    Thanks, Bob. When I was ordained a deacon, the preacher talked about servanthood and used the example of the maniple. He gave the two of us who were ordained that day a maniple (seeing as they’re out of favor, I guess it’s not hard to find a couple of old ones lying around a sacristy. While I’ve never worn one, I keep that purple maniple on my bookcase as a symbol of exactly what you’re talking about.

  9. Father Tim says:

    Mariclaire — you’re safe. This time.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Here is a simplified version of my experience, take what you will from it, a “transfer of learning” hopefully. In my mid-twenties, I began to realize that a sexually abusive experience I had suffered as a child was affecting my dating life, and I was very confused about sexual ethics, so I went to my local Episcopal priest. We meet five times for about an hour each time, and I left feeling super relieved to unburden myself of my childhood secret and to learn about the Church’s understanding of sex. I knew very well that my priest was not my mother (with whom I have a good relationship), but it felt as if I were finally able to have the conversations that I’d wanted to have with my mother growing up. And I knew that I didn’t really know much about my priest as person except that she was a priest–a class of people subject to specific standards and who in my experience had treated me kindly. I did however feel incredibly open and close to her as she had supported me through tough personal material in a very accepting, empathetic, and authoritative way. It wasn’t erotic, but I wondered if I was kind of in love with her somehow. I learned later this was a classic counseling maternal transference that was “both real and unreal, based on both present and past.” So far, so good.
    But then she began inviting me to parish social events where she was a woman at a party not that much older than me. Once, she said she was “very protective of me but didn’t understand why” (maternal counter-transference). Another time, she hugged me, told me that I was her favorite parishioner and that she loved me, and complimented my clothes. Later among other things, she told a dirty joke and invited me to go dancing. This was getting very upsetting, very stimulating, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, reminiscent of a much darker childhood relationship (sadistic-masochistic countertransference-transference but now with incestuous overtones). Eventually, I grew very afraid, and we had a nasty fight in her house at a fundraiser. The parish began to speculate that we were having an affair, but I felt to my disgust as if I were fighting with my surrogate mother whom I now had to abandon most painfully along with my regular parish volunteer work. To my surprise, other rumors about my once beloved Mother X began to circulate, and she was eventually “let go” for undisclosed reasons, in what turned out to be not her first dismissal. She said she wasn’t God, and I believed her. But in her aftermath, I felt queasy whenever a date mentioned religion for more than a year.
    Was my priest consciously trying to exploit me? Probably not. Were either of our almost overwhelming feelings diminished when she pointed out that I was “projecting”? Not really. To what degree was I irrationally afraid of her because of past patterns in my head versus rationally afraid of her misconduct and ignorance of therapeutic boundaries? To what degree did transferred past forms of fear protect me from an actually dangerous person? To what degree did I love her for her individuality versus her intimate professional care? No one can say objectively, not even my later therapist. Outside of counseling, the variables were no longer isolated, and my transferences became insoluble and intense. What’s the difference between transference and statistical reasoning by analogy under uncertainty? Between transference and idolatry?
    Psychologists write that “transference is structuralized,” that is embedded immutably in the counseling setting with its inherent imbalances of power, disclosure, and vulnerability. If so, is the role of priest in community incompatible with that of short-term counselor?

    http://kspope.com/dual/gottlieb.php

    http://www.andreacelenza.com/uploads/Disavowed_Aggression_The_Hated_Aspect.pdf

    http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ371645&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=EJ371645

  11. Father Tim says:

    Wow. Usually I don’t allow anonymous comments to be posted but I thank you for sharing this. It shows just how complicated these issues/relationships can be and also that abuse comes in many forms and guises. Clergy are generally allowed to counsel parishioners three times before referring them to an outside professional. A long-term therapeutic relationship with a parish priest is fraught with potential pitfalls on both sides and is thus not allowed. That’s not to say a lot of damage can’t be done in a short period of time or that ‘informal’ counseling doesn’t continue past the point of a healthy situation. While my heart aches for your having gone through this experience I am glad to hear of your perspective gained through appropriate therapeutic relationships. Many blessings, TIm+

  12. Anonymous says:

    Father Tim, thank you very much for your support, encouragement, and recognition of abuse for what it is. Limiting parish counseling to three sessions before referring seekers onwards sounds like a tough but wise guideline. I certainly wish that policy and its rationale were more widely publicized, so thank you for bringing them a little further into the light of day on your blog.

    After my healing time in therapy, I found some interesting work on parallels between resolving transference and Easter. Both can be seen as moves from possessive attachment to a more free, sacrificial love. That’s not to promote a martyr complex, but hopefully to respect better the sacred and to appreciate more God’s respect for our freedom.

    http://www.cgjungpage.org/index2.php?option=com_content&do_pdf=1&id=120

    But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
    2 Corinthians 12:9

    Peace be with you!

  13. Kathleen Larsen says:

    Mariclaire: it was one of mine. Zack said it and I was speechless. Father Tim’s response was phenominal: his expression was first floored, then he came back to (yes) high-five him. I thought “yes this man GETS IT.” We are so lucky to have you, Tim.
    And for the record, as soon as we got in the car I softly said to Zack “you do know that Father Tim isn’t actually God, don’t you? God is in Heaven.” And I almost said “Father Tim works for God.” He knew it; he was just showing off. I think………………………🙂


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