This week I am on yet another conference, but this time in Britain. It is a gathering of around 80 people who are supporters of an approach to theology which is broad, liberal and inclusive. I have not been to the conference before but I decided to come because the organisation has graciously over the past couple of years published four articles by me so I felt it important to meet them. As is typical of conferences of this kind, the conversations are the key part of what brings one to these sort of gatherings. I make a rule never to sit with the same person twice at meals so that I have met up with a wide range of people as a result. There are also two or three individuals who I knew from college days 40+ years ago and it is good to meet up with them again.
Among the talks we have listened to over the past three days on a variety of topics, there was one that stood out as being good to share with the blog. It was a discussion on a little known passage in I Thessalonians 2.7-8 where Paul likens his ministry to that of a nursing mother. Emma Percy, the speaker, sees the nursing mother as a paradigm for pastoral ministry. This surprising metaphor seems to work at various levels. It points to a relationship of tenderness and care between the pastor and congregant. Although there is an obvious mismatch of power between mother and child, there is no way that a mother would ever abuse that power and harm the infant in any way. In the context of our concern to see that power is not abused in the pastoral relationship, it is of interest to ponder the nature of a relationship where the ’leader’ cannot abuse the relationship. I place the word leader in inverted commas, because the nursing mother metaphor makes it a decidedly inappropriate word to capture the nuance of Paul’s metaphor.
A further way in which the metaphor of nursing mother works as a description for the relationship of pastoral care, is the way that the supply of milk is (normally) experienced as inexhaustible. Emma pointed to the way that infant’s milk is something that flows through the mother. It is as though the mother just has to put the child to the breast for the miracle to begin again. This she likened to the experience of the Holy Spirit filling the pastor with the words of comfort and consolation that appear apt to each occasion. That is indeed my own experience of pastoral care working properly. Meeting people at times of need, does seem to draw on a fountain of wisdom and grace which flows through one in a most extraordinary way. Once again power abuse is ruled out of any pastoral encounter of this kind.
There were other points made in the talk but it was refreshing to have set out a model of care that ruled out the possibility of power manipulation. The New Testament is full of metaphors of this kind. Each one can form a bulwark against the possibility of a ‘leader’ harming a congregant in order to satisfy a craving for domination. Let us all be sensitised more and more against this sad andtragic feature of church life.