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Accepting Responsibility Without Taking Credit

A Pastor's Reflection

I am prone to think of “responsibility” in largely negative terms; or at least with a strong hint of warning accompanying it. Responsibility has a sort of “or else-ness” to it and seems to imply consequences if not taken seriously. I am aware of a number of reasons why this is so for me. Among them are that I carry about with me a strong sense of needing to do the right thing and have a guilt reflex with a hair trigger.

I’m not willing to give up the opinion that my knee-jerk understanding of the responsibility is wrong. I do believe that responsibility implies “ought” rather than suggestion and entails command rather than suggestion. And taking responsibility for something often means owning up (my daughter recently learned this lesson when she opened the car door into the side of a BMW SUV at the mall). But I have also come to believe that my understanding of responsibility is in no way near robust enough.

Working in parish ministry has often been for me a struggle with “ought.” There are a host of things that the pastor simply should do (along with a host of things that everyone else personally believes the pastor should do, which can make it difficult for those with both a strong sense of responsibility and a quick guilt reflex). But there is a whole other side to pastoral responsibility that I came to learn about and particularly treasure.

Dave was dying of prostate cancer. He was a fairly active member, although not particularly “church-y”. He could be rough and grumpy, but was also pretty soft when it came to it. He was home with hospice care with only a few months or so to live and it was clear what at least some of my responsibility as the pastor of the church was. So I went to visit and sit with Dave. Of course that is the right and expected thing to do and any pastor who worth his or her salt and who knows what is good for the congregation (and for the pastor as well) does it. But I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, as the end of life is a game changer. It was also the first time I was to walk alongside someone through his or her death. It is often in these unknown and nerve-racking situations where the instinct to run away is strong, and so I was feeling the particular weight of “responsibility”—no matter how scared or uncomfortable this was going to be, it had to be done.

The sense of responsibility, though, quickly began to transform itself. Suddenly Dave had theological questions. He wanted to pray, talk, have the scriptures read to him, and just have the pastor there. This was all new for Dave. I began visiting him at least weekly while he was stable and more often as he declined and Dave and I grew increasingly closer through those months. The sense of responsibility remained throughout. These visits needed to be done and I felt this increasingly so as I witnessed the spiritual transformation that was happening in Dave. But although the sense of “ought” was still strong, the responsibility began to change into a deep sense of gratitude and honor.

For me, this new significant nuance to the sense of responsibility came about because of a deep awareness of my being simply a participant. What was happening in Dave—his new experience of his relationship with Christ and a genuine hunger for talking honestly about God and himself—was not something that I could bring about or in any way take credit for. I felt clearly that I was a necessary part of what was happening in him, but this was solely because God had called me to participate in what He was bringing about. I was responsible for caring and thoughtful visitation for the care of Dave’s soul because God had called me to do it and because, as pastor of the church, I represented something for Dave in a way that others could not. But Dave’s transformation was not because of me. Dave’s wife gave me his cowboy boots after he died and I keep them as a grateful reminder of the honor it was to be responsible for something I could not take credit for.

The concept is true more generally, I think, of doing weddings. It never struck me until I did my first wedding that, from one point of view, the whole thing is fairly silly. I get to say that a couple is married. They are not married until I say so. If I walked out half way through the ceremony—even though all has been prepared, everyone in attendance, and there are two very willing people desiring to leave as a married couple—they simply would not be married. It feels silly because, although the Church (and the state) invests in me the authority to marry a couple, I cannot really make them married, can I? Again, it is a strange responsibility to perform something I simply cannot bring about. And this is part of the paradox of ordained ministry. I have to take responsibility … but not any credit.