Ministerial Identity in Art and Dialogue


Self-Understanding/Acceptance is Key to Self-Identity in ministry. This may seem trivial to some or (too) obvious to others. But without understanding what one’s identity is in ministry, it is hard to be effective in ministry.confused

Let me give an example.  One of my jobs is as an administrator of a counseling center. We are a rather disorganized counseling center, meaning, I suppose, that I am not all that great of an administrator. But we keep moving forward and we keep helping people so perhaps that is a good measure of success. But we train people to be hospital chaplains, as well as for other roles such as pastor, layminister, and missionary. In the Philippines there are few hospitals with real chaplains. They often have a Roman Catholic priest assigned, and maybe some nuns. But, sadly, often they are poorly trained in pastoral care, and then end up being limited to mass and other sacraments, and healing oil.

The chaplain trainees in the hospital start from a disadvantage beyond a cultural one where the chaplain role is poorly understood. Pastors in churches have the advantage that they are recognized as religious “experts” by members of their own church. But in the hospital, the “parish” of the chaplain is full of people that don’t necessarily recognize such expertise.

As a result, many chaplain trainees lack confidence in their role. Some end up being apologetic in their visits. Some switch into “Sunday afternoon visitation” mode— essentially friendly banter and perhaps a bit of (unwelcome) cold-call evangelism. Others start to switch into assuming other professional roles, such as nurse, psychologist, or social worker.

A uniform, clerical collar, ID badge, and perhaps a Bible helps the individual to feel that he or she belongs as pastoral guides and advisors in a hospital. That is fine… but true pastoral identity really comes from an internal attitude… not from trappings.But where does this internal attitude get its start? External symbols do aid in a ministerial identity. And this should hardly be surprising. We gain a sense of who we are, not merely through personal reflection (as important as that may be) but through interaction with others. Reflection often requires some internalization of the  external, after externalization of the internal.

 1.  “Therapeutic Art.”

An exercise we like using is called “Color Your World.” We learned it from Dr. Jenny Pak of Rosemead  School of Psychology. We use five different colors of paper and give them to chaplain trainees with scissors and glue sticks. They will define what emotion associates with each color. Then they make a piece of art (realistic or abstract, 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional… doesn’t matter) that describes the emotional landscape of their lives in the last… oh, maybe 2 or 3 months. Once done, each person will share their artwork and then describe to a small group what the artwork means to them, color by color, feature by feature. 12891697_1159470107418692_8622662483575228575_o

Yes, this sounds like Nursery School stuff, and in some ways it is. (One of my earliest clear memories was in nursery school at the age of 3 or so, struggling to master scissors.)

But, in fact, it tends to be quite effective. And I believe it works well for much the same reason that art works for children after a major crisis. After a major crisis, children have difficulty communicating what is going on in their lives. But if a child is asked to make a picture (of the family, of the crisis, of things after the crisis… whatever) the child is quite capable of putting a lot of effort into it… even enjoying the task. It draws them out.

At this point, there is a potential trap. People often want to know “How does one interpret the art?” I can leave that discussion for experts, but in general the answer is that the artist should interpret the art. The problem with allowing others to interpret is that this assumes that others are better at understanding in artist’s symbol mapping than the artist. Rather than having art created to be interpreted externally… it is created to help the artist share. The art drives dialogue. It is possible that the artist may be blind to “what is really going on.” That is where dialogue/feedback helps. But it must be tentative. The same issues come up with dreams. The desire to dogmatically interpret dreams seems to be almost overpowering for some. But generally it is better to allow the dream to fuel dialogue rather than assume a role of unilateral interpreter

With Color Your World… this is what happens. If I ask a person how they are feeling… they will often say “Fine” or “Okay lang.” If they are part of a church that only affirms “positive” emotions, they might say “Wonderful, Praise God!” or “God is good!” But by separating the exploration of the feelings in the art creation from the sharing of those feelings, it is much easier and fuller. There are other advantages:

  • By externalizing, it is less awkward. It is more comfortable to describe a piece of art than it is to describe myself.
  • It provides a, hopefully, non-judgmental place to normalize so-called “bad” emotions such as fear or anger.
  • It increases group cohesivenss through mutual disclosure and acceptance.
  • It is actually quite fun when many (most?) people would consider sharing their feelings to be uncomfortable.

Self-identity starts in self-disclosure and dialogue with peers, with feedback. Art is one easy way that self-disclosure and feedback in a group setting can be accomplished– but there are others.

2.  Case studies. Case studies are written accounts of a ministerial nature (within our owncontext) that is shared in a small peer group for feedback.

The cases are real events that have been interpreted into writing. This interpretation process (selecting and filtering the event) provides a lot of good opportunity for self-disclosure and valuable dialogue.

While I believe that it is best to use real events, it has been noted that it is often useful even if the events are fictitious. The act of fiction is creative and self-revealing. However, the real world is far more inventive than most of us are. Analyzing what we did, rather than what we might do, is especially helpful.

Again, the temptation to interpret motives or “what is really going on” is powerful to some. But a bit of humility, recognizing our limitations, is best. The case provides the “art” to inspire feedback and mutual dialogue.  Additionally:

  • It forces us to reflect on our own actions, choices, and motivations. The fears, hopes, counter-transferences, and more spring out from the work.
  • Each case multiples its learning to the whole group. We learn through our own experiences… but the dialogue from each case allows each member of the group to “experience” each event and learn from it.

3.  External affirmation

It is quite possible that a true narcissist needs no external affirmation of his or her role. (I don’t know that for sure. If you are a narcissist, maybe you could tell me.) But for most of us, we have a lot of insecurity. We need  external affirmation. Diplomas, certificates and the like are not so much a measure of competence as an external affirmation of readiness. Symbols (clerical collar, ID badge, logo, bible, etc.) help individuals feel that they belong in a certain place in a certain role— but that feeling is especially real when those symbols are given by one who seems competent to evaluate readiness.

However, stronger than these is the affirmation that comes from group acceptance. In the training group, it is acceptance as a peer and colleague. In the ministry setting, such as  in the hospital, being treated like a chaplain by patients and families helps, but being treated as a chaplain by the hospital staff or even as an integrated care colleague helps even more.

I remember back in 2004, my wife and I came to the Philippines as “missionaries.” But we did not call ourselves missionaries. We were not formally trained (yet) as missionaries. I was an engineer by background while my wife was a nurse. We were sent out by our own local church rather than by a mission agency. It was affirming to be commissioned by our church, but they were not the experts in what it takes to be a missionary. So we did not use that term when we came here. The first group to call us missionaries in the Philippines was the Korean missionaries. That is great… but as Americans doing ministry work, what other term would they use for us?  The next group were local Filipinos. As we ministered in Baguio, gradually they began identifying us as missionaries. The last group to call us missionaries was the American missionaries. They started calling us missionaries in our second year. That actually meant a lot to me. They had competence to know what a missionary is and isn’t— but even more than that by describing us as missionaries, they were saying we are colleagues. At that point, we stated calling ourselves missionaries. I have seen the opposite case. An American came to the Philippines on short-term mission work. He kept telling people that he was a “cross-cultural” missionary, although the Filipinos who he was working with were well aware of his lack of cross-cultural awareness, of training, and the normal qualifications of being a missionary. They could not provide affirmation for this young man.

As evangelicals we often emphasize the concept of Divine Calling when it comes to ministerial identity. Personally, I think this is misguided. In Acts, the Holy Spirit did not call Paul and Barnabas to be missionaries. He told the church to call/affirm them. God calls all Christians to ministry. Recognizing our divine call is not (or should not be) the problem. It is recognizing our ministerial identity. This is found in honest supportive dialogue in a (healthy) mutual faith/ministry community.

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