Many years ago I was being stashed at Destroyer Squadron 2 (in Norfolk, Virginia) in between ship duties. During that time, I was asked to join a Damage Control Inspection on a ship I had never been on before. I was a Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG) at the time. Even though I was mostly along for the ride… during the damage control drills, I would be asked questions about what actions would be best. Now, I had been qualified Damage Control Watchstander before, and I had done my share of trainings in flooding and fire and such. But I was certainly no expert. Part of me wanted to say:
“I am a FRAUD!! I shouldn’t be here… but I have no choice. You can ask me anything but my answer is probably no better than your own.”
I rather felt the same way in 2004 when I got to the Philippines as a missionary. We were sent by our home church so we did not have the advantages of pre-field training. Yet many asked me to speak at different events It was good experience…. and part of me appreciated the trust. Yet, that feeling was still there.
“I am being listened to because I look like a missionary… but I have no idea what I am doing or saying!!”
Now these were not the only times I have felt this way. Other times I felt like this include:
- The first time I visited a nuclear submarine to try to repair their navigational radar.
- The first time I taught a class on church growth and multiplication
- The first time I was team leader for a medical mission.
That is okay, however. We are supposed to feel awkward and ill-prepared the first time one does something big and different. In effect, in such situations, there is always a bit of “Fake it ’til you make it.”
But for me, at least, I find things different in doing pastoral counseling. My primary pastoral counseling is with missionaries and other clergy. I am the administrator of a pastoral counseling center, and so I get called upon to do a certain amount of pastoral care/counseling. Many will talk to me like I know what I am doing and am wise in what I am saying. I feel like saying,
“Look, only with the greatest difficulty do I have some sense of what I should do and say in my own life. I am far far less sure of what you should do or say. Nearly all of the ‘wisdom’ I may have has come from my being in the vicinity of so many many many failures and mistakes… many of which I caused myself.”
But in counseling, the feeling of incompetence does not go away…
…and I think that is a good thing.
I have seen pastoral counselors become confident in their abilities. Some go towards being confident moral adjudicators, “knowing” exactly what the client should do and not do. Others towards playing junior psychologist… diagnosing with doubtful confidence what is “really going on”
But pastoral care/counseling is strongest when it is most humble… most tentative. Robert C. Dykstra, in his book “Images of Pastoral Care” lists several paradoxical metaphors/images of pastoral care. Among these is:
- Wounded Healer
- Circus Clown
- Wise fool
I have always appreciated Henri Nouwen’s metaphor of the wounded healer. but I am beginning to appreciate Heije Faber’s “Circus Clown” and Alastair Campbell’s “Wise Fool.”
In the circus, everything works in the superlatives, the greatest this, and the most amazing that. But amidst the dazzling array of highly skilled artisans comes the clown… whose humor comes in part from his or her apparent incompetence, and lowliness… individuals that seem so much to not fit into the menagerie that composes the circus. Yet they seem to have a clear role. As Faber states, there appears to be a psychohygienic purpose for them being there. It pulls people back from the ethereal to the mundane… from the transcendent to the imminent. One is reminded of the court jester who could say whatever he wished without repercussion… being a fool after all… yet in so doing would perhaps say exactly what needed to be said. Every “great man” or “great woman” needs someone who does not compete for greatness, but rather listens to what needs to be listened to and says what needs to be said.
In the hospital… in the jail… in the military… a chaplain should be a bit strange, not quite fitting in. When I was in the military, I liked the chaplains. They did not think or act like others in the military. They helped one deal with the “crap” one gets dumped with, helping one adapt thoughtfully to the culture, while in turn being rather counter-cultural themselves. I never asked a Navy chaplain whether he (the ones I met were male) felt a bit out of place and awkward in the military. If I did, I am not sure what he would say– but I hope he would say something like:
“I often feel out of place– I am accepted as part of ship and part of the wardroom, and part of the organizational structure, but I don’t really fit into it comfortably– almost as if billeted at the last moment. I have access to everyone on the ship from the captain and down to the greenest seaman recruit, yet I have little to no authority to do much of anything that ties directly to the mission of the ship. I am welcome to gatherings and yet I think I make people feel awkward much of the time. People come to me, either voluntarily, or by order of someone else. Some come expecting clear answers and solutions, others come just so they can say they have gone through the motions of ‘getting some counseling.’ In both cases, I can guarantee nothing. I cannot guarantee they will be better after talking to me. I cannot guarantee any guidance I may give is even correct. All I can do is be available, pull them briefly out of the structure of rank, authority, and responsibility, as well as DOs and DON’Ts in their chain of command, and truly communicate human being to fellow human being.”
That is what I would hope to hear, kind of like a clown at a circus… a (wise) fool in the courts of power.