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Eager Longing -Developing True Reverence for One Another

By Warner White.

As the new pastor enters the church hall. one member of the congregation leans over to another and says, "Isn't she wonderful! That sermon was the best I've ever heard," to which the other replies, "She’s so sensitive. I think she’ll really understand me."

We call this the ‘honeymoon’ period, during which people see their new pastor with rose-colored glasses. This might also be called the ‘marriage’ model of the pastoral relationship. The congregation romanticizes the virtues of the new pastor, while she in turn romanticizes the congregation, fantasizing the wonderful things that are going to occur under her leadership.

Another common model, derived from Sigmund Freud, understands the pastoral relationship in terms of transference. The parishioners transfer their feelings about their parents to the new pastor. They see the pastor as a loving mother while she transfers her own childish hopes and dreams to the congregation.

Yet another transference model has been developed by Heinz Kohut and the school of self-psychology. This model speaks of narcissistic transference (in contrast to Freud’s oedipal transference), in which a person transfers a longing for the perfect self to an idealized figure such as a pastor or therapist.1 The congregation idealizes the pastor while she idealizes the congregation.

Here I wish to present a theological model of the pastoral relationship that I believe may offer insights in addition to those from other models. In this model, pastor and congregation progress through three stages: magnification of each other, disillusion, and finally (if all goes well), reverence. The starting place for the relationship is our deep human desire for we-know-not-what, that inchoate longing in the human breast that underlies our fantasies of romance, fame, glory, or exploring the unknown.

The Romance of Magnification

In Romans, St Paul says that "the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God ... groaning in labour pains," and he adds that "we ourselves…groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." He concludes by saying that "the Spirit ... intercedes with sighs too deep for words"(8.19-26 NRSV).

Whether Paul would see our fantasies as proceeding from the eager longing of all creation I do not know. But I choose to use his phrase to identify that longing emptiness and hunger that sends us off in search of the wonderful, the perfect, the unknown mystery, the ultimate revelation.

St. Augustine framed this longing in classic terms: "You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." We human beings have an eager longing for God. We often do not know it for what it is, and we fasten on many objects, persons, and pursuits in our search for its satisfaction.

Parishioners often transfer their eager longing to a new pastor in whom they invest their deepest hopes and desires. As a consequence they see the pastor in magnified ways. His or her virtues are magnificent, the flaws unseen.

Clergy, especially those newly ordained, do something similar with respect to their congregations. When I became pastor of my first parish, I had fantasies of well-attended adult education classes, of numbers flocking to special weekday services and events, of a community of loving. caring souls, of broad outreach to the poor. And it is not only the inexperienced who have such dreams. At the beginning of any new pastoral relationship, both pastor and people invest high hopes in each other. It is a time of romance, not reality.

We see this occurring in Acts 5.12-13. "Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. The people held them in high esteem." The Greek for "high esteem" is emegalunen - megalized or magnified. The apostles were magnified in the eyes of the people.

Magnification - positive or negative

Usually the magnification at the beginning of a pastoral relationship is positive. But it can be negative. For example, if a pastor has been removed amidst public scandal for a sexual offense, the next pastor (the "afterpastor") is likely to experience negative magnification. The congregation has been betrayed once and is fearful that it might occur again. If the afterpastor is alone in the church building at night, parishioners may wonder, "What is he doing?" If the afterpastor calls on a parishioner, others may wonder, "What’s going on there?" And so on. The congregation is nervous and tends to overreact. Until they get to know the realities of the new pastor, they are liable to view him or her with eyes of alarm. Similarly, the afterpastor may anticipate problems with the congregation and react in exaggerated ways to small problems.

Losing Illusions

Typically, magnification lasts about four years, during which, little by little, reality sets in. Like a honeymoon, the romance of magnification serves to establish the new relationship, to make both parties eager to be together, to make a commitment. But as the two parties get to know one another better, as they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, romance gives way to reality. The two parties become disillusioned; that is, illusions (magnifications) are replaced by real-life perceptions. The congregation gradually becomes aware of faults and limitations, as well as strengths and virtues, in the pastor. The pastor discovers that this congregation does not respond as he or she had hoped to adult education, sermons on the social gospel, appeals for aid to the poor, changes in worship or music. On the other hand, they are admirable for their pastoral care of one another, their singing, and their generosity.

The word ‘disillusion’ has negative connotations in ordinary English. To speak of someone as ‘disillusioned’ is to describe one who is not only disappointed, but cynical or depressed. Disillusion is not meant in that sense here, but rather in the value-neutral sense of having lost an illusion. Losing an illusion can lead to a more realistic hope.

When disillusion enters the pastoral relation, two possibilities present themselves. Pastor and people can decide to accept each other with all their faults and limitations, as well as their real virtues, and build a relationship based on these realities: "He’s not perfect, but then who is?"; "Oh well, this is just an ordinary bunch of folks; I guess I can live with that." Or, in their disappointment, pastor or congregation can turn negative and magnify faults instead of virtues. Where once the pastor could do no wrong, now he can do nothing right. Or the pastor refuses to accept reality about the congregation and becomes cynical: "What do you expect? Heaven on earth? All people want is their favourite pew and never mind the gospel."

Sometimes pastor or parishioners get stuck in the magnification stage. They downplay faults and limitations. Their romantic vision of the other becomes a rigid facade of virtue used as a shield against reality.

If pastor and people refuse to work through the loss of their romantic illusions, if they refuse to accept reality, the eager longing turns demonic. It is meant for God and when it gets fixated on something less than God, it becomes perverted. We are meant to discover that our hunger is not satisfied by lesser food and to move on to find the real food. We are not intended to stomp our feet and complain endlessly, "This manna is no good. I used to like it, but now I see it is worthless." Manna is temporary, intended to lead us beyond itself to real food.

Coming to Reverence

The disillusion phase typically lasts another four years and then, ideally, if all goes well and neither congregation nor pastor get stuck in magnification or disillusion, two wonderful things happen: each accepts the humanity of the other and each sees the other-in-God. This is the stage of reverence. Reverence has two defining characteristics: one perceives the real person with all of that person’s strengths and weaknesses, virtues and sins; and, at the same time, one perceives the unique dignity of that person as a child of God, as one called by God to a particular mission as an alter Christus or Christa.

The word ‘Reverend’ is derived from the Latin. It is a gerundive, indicating obligation or necessity. The Reverend Jane Smith is Jane Smith to be reverenced. Clergy are more often magnified than reverenced, since they tend to move around so often that few have a chance to get to know the real person well. But clergy are to be reverenced, not magnified, except in the beginning of a ministry.

Reverencing the congregation

So also are congregations to be reverenced. In fact, one of the primary callings of the clergy is to reverence their congregations. Paul makes this obligation very clear in the way he describes the church. We baptized are the Body of Christ, each with a specific vocation from Christ.

Clergy react differently to being magnified rather than reverenced. Some eat it up as long as it is positive, and strike pious poses in order to elicit it. Others find it very uncomfortable and do the opposite - they strike unpious poses in order to deflect it. In each case it is important to note that they are reacting to the unreal views their congregations have of them. During magnification the real person of the pastor is unseen.

An example: A number of years ago I called in the hospital on a woman (I’ll call her Mary) from out of town. I was wearing my clerical collar and as I walked in the door Mary called out, "Oh, Father, I’m so glad to see you!" I talked with her briefly, anointed her for healing, said a prayer or two, and left. A day or so later I did these routine things again. On my third visit she had a visitor, and as I entered she cried, "Oh Harriet, I want you to meet the most wonderful priest!" And she proceeded to praise me to the skies. I was the most sensitive, caring, insightful, reliable priest you could imagine.

I floated out the door on a wave of euphoria. But I had a sense of unreality. This could not be me she was talking about. What she was saying - as good as it felt -was not about Warner White. She didn’t know Warner White. She was not seeing me as a person, but as an icon.

And that’s all right. In such circumstances it is the job of the pastor to fill the role of icon, to be an image of Christ for the sick person. This person is needy and vulnerable. This person needs not the particular human skills and strengths of a particular pastor, but Christ himself, and it is the calling of the pastor in these circumstances to represent Christ.

But it is better, I believe, if the sick person and the pastor have established a relationship of mutual reverence, if, in other words, they know each other well as persons, they accept each other's real human person, and they revere each other-in-Christ. In such a case the pastor can enter as a friend, care as a friend, but, essentially, disappear as a person for a while and become an icon of Christ.

I was fortunate enough to have that experience myself several years ago. I had a bicycle accident in which I collided with a car. I underwent surgery and spent a week or so in the hospital. I was shaken to the core; everything felt insecure to me. On my first Sunday home, I wanted to receive communion, but was not yet able to come to church. The supply priest offered to bring me communion, but I asked instead that some laypeople bring me the sacrament. I wept through the experience. They were not just friends to me - though they were certainly that - they were to me Christ and his church. I saw them in a glowing light, even as I knew their full human limitations. That’s what I mean by reverence as opposed to magnification. Mary was magnifying me - she didn’t know me - and through that magnification (which was appropriate) was able to receive Christ. I was not magnifying my friends - I knew them well - I was reverencing them because I knew and accepted their full humanity, and at the same time I was revering the alter Christus and alter Christa they were.

The Pedestal Problem

It is important to notice the reaction of unreality I had to Mary’s magnification, for it reveals why getting stuck in magnification turns the eager longing demonic. The problem with being ‘on a pedestal’ is that the real person of the pastor (or church) is unseen. Prolonged magnification prevents real relationships from forming. A pastor who is magnified for many years is an unknown pastor, an uncared-for-pastor, a lonely pastor. This loneliness explains why some clergy do bizarre things to deflect magnification: they talk excessive slang, they dress down, they tell dirty stories, they do all sorts of things to be ‘Just one of the guys/gals.’ And it doesn’t work. The magnification goes on despite all such efforts, though it may turn from positive to negative. Jon Hassler, in his book A Green Journey, describes an extreme, culturally institutionalized form of magnification and its effects. In a conversation with an American bishop, an Irish priest says:

I wonder how well you understand the priest’s role in the Irish village. ... I have the respect of nearly everyone. ... I go into O’Donovan’s pub and all the men lift their caps and mumble something subservient as I pass along the bar. There’s even one old man who genuflects, I swear to God. Out on the street ... the priest gets nothing but worshipful smiles and esteem. ...

Since the day of my ordination I’ve been that sort of prince. Now, your average Irish priest, it’s to his liking. ... It’s grand with him, being a prince. It nourishes him. It makes him strut. ... I’m not your average Irish priest. I’ve lived a lifetime as a prince and I’m not finding it a pleasant thing to look back on. It’s kept me separate from my people, it has, my eminence has. Prevented me from being close to anyone....

You know it as well as I - we’re men apart. I’m standing up there at Christmas saying I love my people, and I’m wishing I had a friend among them. I’m held in esteem by them all, but what’s esteem worth in the end? ... I’d exchange all the esteem in the world for a single friend.2

Inappropriate magnification does not feed the soul. It is the cotton candy of the soul, a cotton candy which too many clergy mistake for the real bread of heaven. We hear from time to time of ‘well-loved,’ long-term pastors who have had many affairs in their congregation during their 20 or 30 years of tenure. What kind of relationship between pastor and congregation can this be? Can the 1ove be of the real person? I think not. Instead, like Hassler’s Irish priest, this pastor has lived among parishioners as a facade, not a real person. The pastor and parishioners have not reverenced each other. They have colluded to avoid disillusion and live in a world of magnification.

Achieving full mutual reverence

For an ordinary congregation to achieve full reverence between pastor and people is an ideal that may never be reached. There are always new people with whom to build a relationship. There are always parishioners with one or another type of spiritual problem that stands in the way of developing healthy relationships. Those whose mode of life is one of habitual dependence will seek to keep the pastor magnified. Habitually depressed and cynical persons will relish disillusion with their pastor.

Therefore, the best that pastor and people can do is a mixture of magnification, disillusion, and reverence. Some people know the pastor as a human being, accept him or her as such, and reverence the Christ they find. Others continue to magnify, preferring an unreal image of perfection to the reality. Still others become angrily disillusioned, not willing to accept the real person's imperfections. A healthy pastoral relationship of reverence, then, is one in which enough people in a congregation see and accept the pastor's humanity to provide a solid foundation, and in which the pastor in turn sees, accepts, and reverences the real humanity of enough parishioners to do the same.

One common idea for dealing with the unreality of magnification is to deflect it toward God. That seems appealing. Where does magnification belong if not directed toward God? But such deflection is not appropriate in many cases of pastoral care.

Parishioners in crisis or cut down by sickness are vulnerable, and for them dependency is appropriate. Magnification of the pastor's strengths and virtues is a means by which the grace of God is mediated to them through the pastor as icon.

The same is true for magnification at the beginning of a relationship. Magnification is appropriate at that time. Furthermore, trying to deflect magnification simply doesn’t work. 1 tried it early in my ministry and no matter what I said or did, if someone was magnifying me, he or she kept right on doing it. No matter how often a member of the clergy says, "Don’t puff me up. That kind of admiration belongs to God," parishioners continue to do so, though perhaps not out loud anymore. Such a response, after all, just indicates how truly devout and humble the pastor is, how truly worthy of the ordained ministry! Paul and Barnabas, you remember, were barely able to prevent the people of Lystra from offering sacrifice to them by protesting, "Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them" (Acts 14:11-18).

The pastor has as much of a task in moving through the disillusion to reverence as do parishioners. How many newly ordained pastors come face to face with the faults and limitations of their parishioners and fall into cynicism or even drop out! How often gatherings of clergy turn into gripe sessions about how awful their parishioners are! The spiritual task of the pastor is to find a way to recognize and accept the frailties of parishioners - to see them in all their reality - and yet reverence them as the Body of Christ.

A marriage made in heaven

It is the task so often failed by husband and wife. Husbands and wives are called to reverence not just a romantic Prince Charming or Snow White, but the real, limited, and sinful person with whom they actually live. For a husband and wife to know each other thoroughly and still love and reverence one another - that is a marriage made in heaven. And that is what marriage is for: leading one another to God through all of our humanity.

And so it is with the church.

1. Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self, New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1971. See also Kohut, The Restoration of the Self, New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1977, and Robert L Randall, Pastor and Parish: The Psychological Core of Ecclesiastical Conflicts, New York: Human Sciences Press, Inc., 1988. Randall applies Kohut’s self-psychological model of narcissistic transference to the pastoral relation.  Return 2. Jon Hassler, A Green Journey New York: Ballantine Books, 1985, pp. 219, 220, 223.  Return


The Revd Warner White is a retired Episcopal priest. He writes on church issues and consults in parishes.

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You are reading Eager Longing -Developing True Reverence for One Another by Warner White, part of Issue 19 of Ministry Today, published in June 2000.

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