Paul B. Macke, S.J.
Volume 27 Number One Spring 2006, PAGES 46-48
In 1993 I wrote my first article for this journal on “Boundaries in Ministry.” It was an attempt to describe what boundaries are,and how they are needed for the health of both the minister and the safety of those we serve.
In light of recent scandals in the Church, and the responses to that crisis, boundaries might seem like walls that can never be penetrated or a set of limits that always say “Do not cross!” While boundaries do set limits that must be maintained, they are not meant to block affective response. By affective, I mean that dimension of the human person that feels emotions and is able to connect to another in a real and intimate (though not sexual) way. Something essential is missing in ministry when we can no longer be warm with each other in appropriate ways and get close to both the people we serve and our peers. We can fail in ministry by misunderstanding what we are to do with our emotions during a conversation with those who have come to us seeking faith-filled ministry.
For example, John, a religious priest, has just begun intensive spiritual direction with Debbie, a married woman, who has chosen to make a thirty-day Ignatian retreat. After the first week, as Debbie is sharing the powerful impact that the experience of being loved by God is having on her entire being, John realizes that he finds Debbie a very attractive woman and is getting sexually aroused occasionally during his sessions. He does not act out his feelings, but he unwisely shuts them down and becomes cool toward Debbie. This coolness is communicated to her. She notices the change in John’s verbal and non-verbal behavior. She follows the behavior he has modeled. She too backs off, shuts down her feelings. She begins to focus on herself, wondering what she might have done wrong to cause this coldness from her spiritual director. As far as John can tell, she stops being affective with God. Her conversation turns to more superficial aspects of prayer. For all practical purposes John’s accompaniment of Debbie in her retreat has ceased. He no longer is “with” her affective experience of God.
John had a number of choices other than pulling back from being his naturally warm and responsive self, a move that triggered Debbie’s awareness that something was wrong. As a spiritual director, once he realized that he was becoming sexually attracted to Debbie, John had several other options. One option he wisely did not choose was to act on those attractions, by fantasizing about those feelings, talking about his sexual attraction directly with Debbie, or giving her full hugs at the beginning and end of their sessions. These behaviors sexualize the relationship through inappropriate words or touch. This obviously would have been unethical in light of their professional relationship. It would have been a misuse of the power John holds as spiritual director. Fortunately John was aware that an imbalance of power always exists whenever someone seeks out a minister. The minister always holds the responsibility to exercise that power appropriately.
On the other hand, John could have terminated the relationship and referred Debbie to a new spiritual director. This might have been necessary if John found himself out of control and unable to remain centered during his sessions with Debbie. Such a termination might have been very negative for Debbie because she probably would have experienced this as a rejection and as her problem. However, termination and referral might have been appropriate if John was not free enough to accompany Debbie on her spiritual journey.
Finally, John could have honestly faced his sexual vitality, accepted his sexual feelings for Debbie, chose not to dwell or act on those feelings, and explored what this is revealing about himself and his own spiritual journey by talking with a trusted colleague and/or supervisor. This supervisory conversation could have helped him to deal directly with his attractions, which are an essential aspect of his humanity and of his ministry.
John probably needs to learn how to be both an effective minister who keeps boundaries and who simultaneously is an affective human being engaged in a ministerial relationship for the sake of the one who has come to him. What is involved here in both Debbie and John is affective. Debbie was experiencing affective, sexual energy in the experience of feeling loved by God. John was experiencing affective, sexual energy in the experience of receiving Debbie’s report of her prayer of being loved.
The secular culture advocates acting out those sexual impulses, often as a promotion of “human honesty.” Often Church culture advocates cutting off those sexual impulses as a promotion of “chaste behavior.” In this instance and in many similar ministerial instances, neither of those responses is adequate. In fact, they usually block effective ministry. For example, John has to learn how to maintain boundaries and allow his affections to be present as he ministers to Debbie. He needs to model for Debbie, for others, and for himself that he will not break a boundary and that he is an affective and caring human being whose emotions are present in the ministerial relationship.
When John can do that, Debbie will experience two realities: one, John is safe and will not move to meet his own needs through inappropriate action toward her; two, he is affectively present to her, and she can continue to communicate her reality to this minister as she welcomes God’s grace into her being.
Obviously I recommend the last option if at all possible in order to keep the spiritual direction relationship positive, according to the goals of the retreat, and ethically appropriate, given the imbalance of power and non-mutual self-disclosure. I believe these two things are necessary in a spiritual direction relationship. Supervision of spiritual direction is a very important element to help directors uncover personal issues that can cloud their companionship in the Spirit with directees. The more frequent the sessions, especially in longer or directed retreats, the more it is necessary for spiritual directors to receive adequate supervision.
The Church is crying out for ministers who have appropriate professional boundaries and ability to connect with people in affective ways. How often have we experienced priests and other ministers in our Church who seem to say all the right things and work hard, yet we cannot connect with them? They lack consistent warmth, compassion, and a sense of being real. Homilies or talks from these people betray a shallowness primarily built on a “mask,” or what psychologists label a false self. This false self gets defined by the role of priest, religious, spouse, spiritual director, pastor, chaplain, boss or something else. Real ministers of the Gospel are men and women who have struggled, sometimes with great personal suffering, to find their true selves and then to live with integrity in relationship to others, their work, and their God. The humanity of Jesus Christ is real for these ministers, and their lives reflect a strong desire to be close to others in the Body of Christ.
Real people in ministry do live with appropriate boundaries that enable them to relate with genuine warmth to others. These ministers are both “effective” and “affective.” It is very important that we integrate appropriate affectivity and boundaries in ministry, not only for our own sake and the sake of those we serve,
but for the health of the whole church.
Malone, M.D., T.P. and P. T. Malone, M.D. The Art of Intimacy. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1987.
Ruffing, R.S.M., Janet K. Spiritual Direction Beyond the Beginnings. New York: Paulist Press, 2000.
Keenan, S.J., J. F. and J. Kotva, Jr. editors. Practice What You Preach. Franklin, Wisconsin: Sheed & Ward, 1999.