I was gently exhorted today by a priest to let myself be ministered to by others. His caring words (after a wonderful confession) almost made me tear. The truth of my lived experience is that unless I intentionally, consciously sought out to be ministered to, I rarely am. Even when I was working full-time in a parish, spending nearly 7 days a week in a church, I was not ministered to unless I worked hard to make it happen, and it was usually from outside the parish which was my place of work. We were all so busy – from the priests, to the staff, to the volunteers. We had so many things to do, so many meetings to attend, and so many people to meet, that ministering to one another was something that rarely happened.
Yet I was so keenly aware of my need to be ministered to. Being in ministry full-time is akin to being put in a pressure cooker. All those hairline cracks in your being from past wounds which you had managed to live with before, or maybe even forget were there, become much more pronounced under such pressure. I thank God that I had grown sufficiently in self-awareness that I knew when these things were happening with me. I worked hard to deepen my prayer life, sought regular spiritual direction, confessed monthly, went for annual personal retreats, and had even taken emergency leave before to seek inner healing when I recognised that I had unwittingly allowed my subconscious fears and insecurities from old wounds to affect the way I minister to others. Still, for very long, I felt that I was barely surviving. There was always so much more that needed to be done, so many people who were in need of help. I was always asked to do more, and I do not recall being told (apart from my spiritual director) that I should maybe do less and take better care of myself. Even when I was asked to take it easier on myself, the same output seemed to be still expected of me. I suffered burn out and my health went on a slow and steady decline. A lot of that was because my pride did not allow me to slow down, or tell others that I needed time and space to rest, or that I just didn’t have the capacity to take on any more.
Yet precisely because of the experience I was having, I was determined that I should look out for the needs of the people who were working with me. Ironically, this was not always appreciated. I was sometimes accused of ‘spiritual elitism’ because others felt that my criteria for ministry leaders were too high. Perhaps the way I went about it could have been better – though it was the best I could do at the time. But the reason why I always stressed that people who are not spiritually and personally mature enough should not take on leadership is because I knew the burden they are expected to bear IF they were to be responsible leaders. I also knew from my own personal experience how much damage leaders can inflict on others without their knowing, due to their own unhealed wounds and lack of self-knowledge. My sense of justice demanded that those who were put in charge of the care of other souls should be ready to take on the mantle of shepherds and learn to sacrifice for others. BUT, it was my concern for the leaders themselves that made me have such stringent criteria. No less than our Lord Jesus Christ had very hard words about those who cause his little ones to stumble (Mt 18:6; Lk 17:2). I felt strongly that if we appointed leaders without being discerning as to whether or not they were spiritually ready, and they later cause scandal, we who were in the position to have stopped them from becoming leaders are the most culpable. Yet often, we punish those who transgress when they do wrong without realising that by not ensuring that they were ready for their appointment, we – those who were called to care for these leaders – have also failed.
The people who are most in need of pastoral care and ministering are actually our leaders and ministers. Who is ministering to them? How can they give what they have not received? If they have not experienced what it is to be loved and cared for, to be guided and enlightened through others, how are they to do that for others? We all need people who have the courage to speak truth into our lives. We need people who love us and who will put our personal welfare above our usefulness. And while we cannot control how others treat us, we can try to be that person for others. Yet because it is true that we can never give what we have not received, our first order of business must always be to ensure that we are sufficiently cared for ourselves. Ask; seek; knock. We can learn to recognise when our spiritual fuel gauge is running low, and we can learn where we can go to be filled up.
Today, I felt immensely and deeply ministered to by my confessor’s wise guidance and caring words, and I am profoundly grateful to God for it. I greatly desire that such experiences could be more regular. I shall pray – and then trust – that my loving Father in heaven will always give me what I need to grow best.