Unintentional Detours, Porous Boundaries, and Curiosity

Unintentional Detours, Porous Boundaries, and Curiosity

July 23, 2015—My last day as a staff chaplain was last week. It is the work that I was called to for 5 1/2 years, but it was not something I had planned on doing. I had intended to do the one-year CPE residency and go back to the church. As usual, God had had other plans.

As I look back in my own effort to celebrate and grieve this “unintentional” detour in my life, I see that my call to chaplaincy took on the narrative arc of Holy Week, but that’s another post for another time. Further reflection has helped me to realize that being a chaplain is what really taught me to be a pastor. Sure, I knew how to preach, plan and lead worship, train elders, teach about God and faith, visit people in the hospital, and work with church budgets before chaplaincy. But those were things that I did. Being a pastor versus doing pastor things… that’s what I learned as a chaplain.

Standard 312 Outcomes of CPE Level II address pastoral formation, pastoral competence, and pastoral reflection. Specifically, outcome 312.6 is for Level II CPE students to “demonstrate competent use of self in ministry and administrative function which includes: emotional availability, cultural humility, appropriate self-disclosure, positive use of power and authority, a non-anxious and non-judgmental presence, and clear and responsible boundaries.”

Here are some thoughts that I am taking with me into my interim pastorate about this part of pastoral competence:

Healthy boundaries are porous.

Usually when people make remarks about someone with “boundary issues,” it’s because this someone’s boundaries are weak or non-existent. It’s easy to think that the opposite of poor boundaries is to have solid boundaries. But just like cell membranes that know what to let into the cell and what to let out, what to keep in and what to keep out, healthy boundaries are ones that retain both integrity and porosity.

Likewise, according to Family Systems Theory, the opposite of enmeshment is not cut-off. Self-differentiation, we are told, allows us to be in relationship while still maintaining a self. We allow ourselves to be affected by others, but not so affected as to lose our centers. Porous boundaries allow us to cry with others in their sadness, laugh with others in their joy, and sit with others in their unknowing; it allows us to be present and to be a reminder that they are not alone. It also allows us to be cared for by others. It allows us to be in mutual relationship.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is a staple for pastoral engagement.

One of the things I learned from working with people in high anxiety, high stress situations is that it is rarely, if ever, about me. People who are screaming at and accusing me of harming their loved one are not really directing it at me. There is a whole narrative, a whole world behind their actions and words. Maybe it is a long-ago memory of another loss. Maybe it is years of life not going their way. Maybe it is a reliving of another wrong done.

Curiosity, asking “what’s going on here?” or “what is this really about?” can help us to be the non-anxious, non-judgmental presence that creates space for people to express and experience the fullness of their emotions, their memories, and their present realities. It helps us to acknowledge that we do not have all the answers. It reminds us that they are the “experts” of their experiences and emotions. It connects us to their selves beyond this moment, to remember that human beings cannot be captured just in snapshots, in discrete events. And it really is rarely, if ever, about us.

Being fully present requires self-involvement.

I think that while curiosity is one way to engage with others, it cannot be the whole of our encounter. I think being fully present means being in relationship with others, which means we as selves have to show up. Being a pastor is more than asking questions and listening. If we are not self-involved in the encounter, our curiosity makes us observers or scientists looking at and studying an object, and it creates a power differential that makes a mutual relationship difficult, if not impossible. It is our self-involvement, our sitting alongside others as equals, that acknowledges others as subjects and opens up avenues for relationship.

“Joining” with others in their experience is one way of self-involvement. Another way to involve ourselves is to share appropriately our own stories that join, reflect, illumine, or give insight into others’ stories. Self-disclosure can be risky. It can make us vulnerable. But it is incarnational. We cannot be in relationship if we do not show up.

As I transition back into parish ministry for this time in my life, I go with the knowledge that my best gifts for the congregation comes from my time as a chaplain. Through what I had not intended, God has molded me into a better pastor and a better leader.

Jihyun Oh is interim pastor at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church and Moderator of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. She previously served as staff chaplain for the Marcus Stroke & Neuroscience Center and ICU Coordinator at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta before serving as interim pastor at Hamilton Mill Presbyterian Church. She is a double graduate of Columbia Seminary with an MDiv ’06 and DMin ’17. She enjoys gathering around the table with friends and family, watching movies with Minions in them, and being a new cello student.

The Center for Lifelong Learning offers an abundance of courses and events for pastors and lay-persons seeking vibrant learning and cohort opportunities specifically created to build and enhance skills in Christian education and formation, church leadership, spiritual formation and spiritual direction. Our courses are designed for people at all stages of their ministry. Check out our current classes HERE.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.