Olsen, David C. and Nancy G. Devor. Saying No to Say Yes: Everyday Boundaries and Pastoral Excellence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. ISBN #978-1-56699-728-7.
Books abound on clergy professional boundaries, clergy self-care and burn-out awareness and church leadership texts. The co-authors of Saying No to Say Yes contend that many approaches take at best a partial, though well-meaning look at the challenges of pastoral ministry.
What is missing often is the fuller exploration of the less publicized yet everyday depletion of a pastor’s energy and wherewithal. The pastor’s fall from professional integrity could come after years of unhealthy, poorly maintained understandings of the self. In turn, the complex systems within even a small membership congregation can be the undoing of a minister unable to navigate and lead objectively within a church membership, which in itself is rarely a non-anxious and functional organization. The authors emphasize “how the minister defines himself or herself within the congregational system and how the system responds” (p. 63).
The book is organized into five short chapters. In the opening chapter “The Problem with Boundaries”, the co-authors guide you through the development of clergy boundary literature and methods, highlighting the timely and “products of their time” insights of the last forty years of how the issues were understood and addressed. Suggesting greater results and long-term health will be found by setting limits in anxious systems (i.e. churches), Olsen and Devor encourage clergy to “say ‘no’ to what depletes their health and the health of their congregation in order to say ‘yes’ to the attitudes, knowledge and skills that promote pastoral excellence and contribute to the overall health of the pastor, the pastor’s family and the congregation” (p. 20).
The second chapter addresses the need for “healthy selves and boundaries”. Introducing the self-psychology work of Heinz Kohut, the authors examine what happens when we lose or blur our sense of self through over- and under-compensating for the demands on our time and energy as well as the multiple ways a congregant expects a minister to fulfill some need or role. The authors ground ministry and the clergy with the admonition
to temper our sense of call with reality: knowing ourselves well enough to know where our selves falter, where we need shoring up, where we are vulnerable. Without such tempering, our calls can collude with our grandiosity. We may see ourselves as special, as being above rules, not requiring the self-care and boundaries to protect us. (p. 34)
Conversely, some clergy find themselves at the ebb of low self-esteem, leading to other likely opportunities for depletion and a weakened sense of self (p. 35).
The next three chapters build on these insights, exploring issues of boundaries in anxious systems, especially when systems collide inevitably with even the most resilient, well maintained boundaries we put in place. Anxiety in congregations often turns to scapegoating, and as I like to joke, “Clergy should shop at Target instead of being one.”
The authors emphasize the importance of congregations maintaining their own equilibrium in the form of pastoral relations committees and other ways of promoting congregational communication and self-reflection. Often, in my judicatory work, the church lay leaders can be unaware of the toxicity they themselves are taking on in the midst of a conflict or unsettled, anxious time. Keeping a better balance between “pastor and people” will require this book to be less reading “just for pastors” and shared with more leadership. Anxiety and how to handle it is a life skill sorely needed well beyond the sometimes pedantic, inward turned issues of a congregation.
Skills to identify and regulate one’s immersion in the anxiety of a congregation is explored through brief antidotal insights from clergy dealing with cantankerous leaders and uncertain times that spring up when we seem to be at our lowest ebb. (How many times does it seem that Advent or even Holy Week is suddenly when the unanticipated demands escalate on a pastor?) The benefits of a robust level of emotional intelligence are recommended, though I wish there could have been more time spent on this by the authors. (Perhaps a future text on the subject waits.)
Later chapters address the pastoral excellence movement fostered by the Lilly Foundation over a decade ago. Clergy collegiality groups, special emphasis programs at leading divinity schools and seminaries and a bevy of books on related subjects have flowered out of such concern. Yet, for many clergy and churches, these learnings are still being discovered, let alone integrated into the life of the church. For example, a few years ago, I shared a few pages of one such book with my former church’s pastoral relations committee. None of the committee members had read the short excerpt, which was quite demoralizing for me at the time. Looking back, I realize now that cultivating pastoral excellence is indeed like gardening in that I had not really grasped some of the learnings yet and made them my own practice and habits. In my naiveté, I had not understood the longer conversation and process that needed to be developed for anything approaching what that book’s authors or even this book’s authors recommended.
Each chapter ends with excellent reflection questions that I recommend are slowly considered, especially in private and group reflection. Also, two appendices are offered to suggest ways for a workshop to be presented around the book’s findings and tips for organizing a clergy collegiality group. Olsen and Devor recommend that an ecumenically diverse group with a gifted facilitator inform the model for such an undertaking. Certainly, working with colleagues who also do not have similar polity or judicatory connections with one another may invite deeper reflection as your sense of true “peerage” with one another is not complicated by working alongside pastors from your own fold. The bibliography is likewise a helpful guide to future reading and growth in understanding elements of Olsen/Devor’s engagement of varied sources.
Olsen and Devor explore these issues with long careers in service to churches and pastors as therapists and clergy themselves. They write with a profound understanding of what it’s like “in the trenches” while engaging in an exploration of the findings of psychology, systems theory and recent writings on pastoral excellence. Olsen serves as Executive Director of the Samaritan Counseling Center of the Capital Region (Schenectady, New York) and Devor is senior staff psychologist at the Danielsen Institute at Boston University. Both are frequent presenters on these issues for clergy groups and judicatories.