I had a confidant in my first church, a middle-aged single woman with a son in his early 20’s. She had been a member of the church for years and years before I arrived. She raised her son in its Sunday School classrooms during the long tenure of my beloved predecessor, but by the time I got there her relationship to the church had been complicated by her out-of-the-closet son’s experience with some of the Elders. Still, she sought me out routinely over the phone in my three year’s there, and almost never to complain or make any kind of claim on my concern. She most often wanted to hear how I was finding being a minister or what I thought of some movie her son had recently recommended or to relate to me some hysterical anecdote from her job at the Salvation Army. She was genuinely interested in me and what I thought, and when she let slip some invective about the church she almost immediately apologized, guilty that she was corrupting my ecclesial optimism. Then she would cover her mouth with the back of her hand and laugh. She kind of fascinated me.
I left that church over 13 years ago, and as is appropriate with pastoral transitions, we did not keep up a regular correspondence. When I learned this week that she had died I found myself thinking back over those long conversations about her work and her son and her ex-husband, wondering what all was really going on. Her son is now 40. He’s not five years younger than me. It seems pretty clear she was mothering me. I think I knew that at the time, as I recall registering some unease about it to my wife as it was happening. But I almost always took her calls. We had a rapport that did me good.
One of the bits of advice I got before entering the ministry was to make friends with people outside the congregation I would be serving, in order to maintain healthy boundaries between my personal life and my professional relationships. I think the element of this congregant’s attention that I found so beneficial was that it felt like it was coming from outside the congregation. She didn’t have a view about the budget or the new worship songs, but she did have a view about how I processed other peoples’ views on those matters. It made her feel independent of the cycle of congregational life that was my constant concern.
Of course she was not. All of the churches I’ve served have at least one person in them who feels free to relate to the minister(s) as the disaffected outsider. It’s not bad so long as the minister recognizes it. I probably would have been a better new pastor had I leaned less on the attention of this confidant, yet I don’t really recall our interactions these many years later with anything other than appreciation.