Private Faith in a Public Role  

Have you ever responded to a congregant’s question with the answer you thought you should give, rather than just saying exactly what you were thinking? Have you ever hesitated sharing your doubts about God with your congregation?
In a field (sociology) that prides itself on developing claims about the social world through empirical evidence–what we can actually see and observe–studying religious belief has always been a bit complicated. In fact, there was a time when sociologists suggested it was best to leave studies of belief to the theologians. We have since recognized that setting aside belief and faith as a point of sociological inquiry ignores one of the most significant forces shaping human action and interaction. Yet beliefs are still complicated.
Indeed, while beliefs are central to ministry, I’ve found that much of the sociological research on clergy takes belief for granted. By this, I mean that there is little exploration into the nuanced ways that clergy translate their personal faith into public ministry and also how public ministry impacts personal faith.
Where I have found an interesting connection is through the work of a sociologist, Arlie Russell Hochschild, who wrote a groundbreaking book in 1983 called The Managed Heart. In this book, Hochschild explores how people (in this case, flight attendants) incorporate emotions and human feeling into their jobs. She describes the “feeling rules” as unwritten but assumed guidelines people follow in doing this emotional labor, controlling or managing their emotions to fit the expectations of others. For instance, a flight attendant might smile, not because he is happy but because he is expected to create a particular, emotional experience for passengers.
Hochschild’s work offers a fitting metaphor for the ways clergy incorporate their personal beliefs into their ministry. I encountered numerous instances where clergy felt pressure to perform, the need to offer something constructive on a text even when they were wrestling with its meaning and significance, and suppression of their own feelings or reactions to a difficult scenario in favor of providing pastoral care. One of the pastors I interviewed who I’ll call Calvin described the navigation between personal and public quite well:

You know the biggest challenge is my faith is not personal anymore. Faith is out there. It’s public, you know? And that’s great and it’s also tough. My faith is also deeply enmeshed with my role as a pastor, which is great because I get to read the bible more than any other person would get to or study it. If I was a professional person, I’d never get to study fifteen hours a week. Wouldn’t have the time for it, know what I mean? So that grows me personally because I preach to myself first and then I bring that on Sunday. But at the same time, well I’ve found it difficult to have the kind of quiet times I had before becoming a pastor, you know, where it’s just sit down with the bible, just pray and meditate. And I read a text now and it’s like, “I’ve got a perfect idea for an illustration for that!”  

While Calvin appreciates the spiritual component of his work, now that his faith plays into the “spiritual labor” of ministry, it all feels different–and not always in a good way. Prayer, bible study, reflection on an issue or problem are no longer his own. These practices are, to some extent, done for the benefit of others. How then do clergy navigate the intersections between a private faith and a public role–one that is rooted in an expectation of belief?
Audrey, another pastor I interviewed, candidly admitted:

I wonder and I think about whenever that time comes that I quit here, will I get my relationship with God back, so to speak, you know? I don’t know how that’s going to change, but I feel like more of a fake than I ever did before.”  

Do clergy have to set aside their own spiritual life in order to effectively care for and minister to a congregation? I think most would argue that a healthy faith life supports a healthy ministry. So how can we move in this direction? As a significant element of an integrated life, beliefs really do inform so much of what pastors do. And yet how can we move beyond assumed and static beliefs and acknowledge that clergy are also humans on a spiritual journey? Like I said, beliefs are complicated, but they deserve some closer attention. My next post will continue with this theme of spiritual labor and the implications for clergy.

Lenore Knight Johnson 

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