How do you help stuck systems become unstuck? One indispensable ingredient is the truth, which sets us free. Church leaders often feel they cannot tell the truth, because they are expected to be nice, “pastoral” or “Christian.” Nowhere is this more true than in our pastoral care situations.

Wayne Menking’s book draws upon Friedman’s ideas to encourage leaders to have the nerve to speak the truth, in love. It may well be that speaking the truth is the most loving thing that can be done when people are stuck.

This book will change your approach to pastoral care. Menking challenges the concept of pastoral care as passive listening or making people feel comfortable. To move forward, people often need to move out of their comfort zone. Drawing upon Friedman, Menking shows how sympathy sabotages recovery and a failure of nerve leaves everyone stuck. Instead, he proposes that genuine caregiving means courageous leadership. A theologian of the cross harbors no illusions about our condition. As a people of the resurrection we look death in the eye, and invite people to a new reality.

Menking challenges in just four short chapters:

1. Rethinking our Pastoral Vocation
2. God Cares Deeply—But You Won’t Find Much Sympathy
3. Called to Care—But it Might Not Be What You Thought
4. From Niceness to Power—Rising to the Occasion

First, Menking uses Friedman’s story of The Bridge to get us to rethink our vocation. As caregivers we feel we have to to provide “fixes, answers and palliative comfort.” This actually gets in the way and contributes to the stuckness of those for whom we wish to provide care.

“Somewhere along the way, we have acquired the belief that effective pastoral care is about relieving people of their discomfort and dis-ease, regardless of the level at which we are attending to them.” p. 9

The measurement of our effectiveness as pastors becomes how good we have made people feel. This traps us. Our sympathy can allow people to stay stuck.

Menking challenges the concept of pastoral care we were taught at seminary in the 80’s: pastoral care as passive sympathetic listening.

If we exhibit sympathy, rather than empathy, we run the risk of sabotaging recovery, by giving in to the powers that maintain chronic conditions.

As pastors our need to keep everyone in the emotional system content, happy, and together keeps us from taking the very risks that make change possible. Friedman calls these the “forces of togetherness.”

In chapter two, Menking reminds us that the God of the Bible calls forth reality, making all things new. Resurrection is the power to new life. The power of the resurrection is to die to the old, and be born again into the new. As Jesus calls us to die, so must the pastoral leader.

God does not feel sorry for us. God acts. God so loved the world that God intervened. Incarnation is, at its center, an intervention.

In chapter three, we learn a different way to think about pastoral care. Care is not what you think.

Churches are not the havens of care and harmony we think they are. Ask any bishop. Some can be quite mean. A pastor said to me once, “I’m constantly be sniped at.” One pastor says to Menking, “I feel like all I can do is stay hunkered down in the foxhole to avoid the fire.”

Does love include challenge, confrontation and calling for a new reality? If we fail to challenge the stuck systems, are we doing what we are called to do? If we feel stuck in “nice,” will we not be the epitome of Friedman’s, “undifferentiated leadership?”

We have bought into The Myth of Empathy: We find the greatest good in keeping everyone happy, and together. We think goodness is derived from protecting an individual or an organization from the truth of its condition.

The theology of the cross, however, calls a thing what it is. We must name the demons. A theology of the cross turns the tables on everything. A theology of the cross does not provide immediate relief of anxiety. It does not remove disquieting and discomforting feelings. More emphatically, a theology of the cross calls us to sit with people, with no pretense or illusion about their reality nor about the power they have over our life. A theology of the cross calls us acknowledge our weakness, albeit not as helpless victims. A theology of the cross calls us to be in these moments with a sure and certain hope that goodness—God’s goodness—is deeply
present, alive, and at work bringing forth life, hidden and veiled though it might be.

Pastors live in the constant expectation that to be a good pastor they must be unconditionally nice. I once told a church member that her behavior was unacceptable, and that if it didn’t change, she would be asked to leave. She was dumbstruck. Finally, she said that no pastor had EVER spoken to her in this way. I responded that I hoped she would stay, but that I would not tolerate her bullying others. She proceeded to tell everyone how “mean” I had been. Some bought her rhetoric. Most we’re delighted that finally someone had said, “No.” Menking has it right. If leaders don’t lead, people can become like spoiled children. Absentee parents communicate unconsciously to them that anything goes.

Most pastors discover that their efforts at harmony at all costs and niceness are ineffective. Niceness doesn’t get us there, but we can’t tell the truth, since that’s not “nice,” so the chronic conditions they are trying to change continue to persist. Furthermore, we mask our humanness (anger, resentment, sorrow, disappointment, grief,
disillusionment) behind a false piety that requires us to be nice in order to be a good person and a caring pastor. And this means never naming the truth that could see us free.

The final chapter names what happens to church leaders who cease to be nice by failing to tell the truth: shame. Shame, however, only has power if we give it such. To be justified is to be liberated from the grasp of shame’s power!

In our American culture, the way justication is preached from many pulpits tends to lead us in the direction of psychology and feelings: justification by grace means I can feel good about myself in spite of everything, without any fundamental change in my relationships with others. Justication by grace becomes a quick fix to my psychological ache, but never requires me to make the sort of internal shift that will lead to my taking a new position in the system I lead.

The upshot of all this is that care and leadership are part and parcel of the same activity. Whether you agree with this or not, Menking’s book is a good read. I hope it will challenge you as it challenged me.