Boundaries and Transference in Pastor/Member Relationships
I spoke at a pastors’ retreat and was approached by a young pastor I will call Carlos who wanted to discuss a very troubling situation. With grave concern he described Maria, a young married mother who had been horribly abused by her stepfather and step-grandfather when she was young. In a Good-Enough household, the stepfather and his father would have been banished from the home at the first sign of inappropriate sexual intent. This unsafe household remained intact up to the present because the biological mother denied Maria’s sexual abuse. When Maria grew up, she got married, left home and seemed to do well for a number of years. Her husband knew about the abuse and they had worked through it, but Maria continued to have regular contact with her family of origin.
As Carlos told the story, his speech increased in rate and pitch with increasingly dramatic hand gestures. He told me that Maria’s stepfather once again recently raped her.
“Have charges been pressed?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “She will not tell her husband or the police.” “What can I do to fix this?” he implored. “We are praying and fasting for her. We counsel her, but she will do nothing. What can I do to get her to tell her husband? I could tell her husband! Should I tell her husband? We have to do something about this!”
“It sounds as if you have done all that you can do,” I said. “You are doing what pastors do. She trusts you. You believe her and support her. You listen and pray with her and for her. You fast on her behalf, and yet she chooses to keep this secret.”
This situation is an example of the need to understand the limits of one’s influence and transference/countertransference in the relationship between the pastor and church member. Boundaries are markers that define borders and this construct can be applied to many situations. We put boundaries around our thoughts, feelings, and what we say and do. Influence is limited by, or bounded by, many factors. Does a person understand, believe, see what I say as relevant, or care enough to be motivated to change? In this case, the pastor’s need for this woman to get into a safer context was greater than her need for continued contact with her family. As Carlos accepts the limits of his influence, he will be able to put boundaries around his thoughts, worries and frustrations. He will actually be in a better place to come up with innovative ideas to help her.
“If her husband finds out about this he will surely do something,” said the pastor.
“Would he be violent?” I asked.
“No, he is a calm man, but he will not stand for this,” replied the pastor.
“One thing you definitely do not want to do is to become a conduit of information between the wife and the husband,” I said. “If you do, you become part of a dysfunctional system, violate her confidence, and lose your position as pastor,” I said.
We have to define the limits of our influence based on role, ethics or contractual agreement and abide by them. Communication between a pastor and confessor is confidential. When Maria told Carlos about her problems she was assuming that he would keep confidential what he was told. Though what happened to her was horrible and she puts herself at continued risk by maintaining contact with her home, Carlos would have to abandon his role as pastor in order to intervene further. This was eating at Carlos and his wife. They worried about Maria, thought about her often, tried to think of ways they could help, and even lost sleep with the way this weighed on their hearts and minds.
“This woman was abused at a very critical time in her development,” I explained. “This has become part of her identity. To be sexually abused by her family was a ‘normal’ part of her role in the family and it hasn’t changed. For some, yet unknown, powerful reasons she has not broken ties with her family. The stepfather and Maria both perceive her as a sexual object, and she is indeed in danger of further abuse. You and your wife are a very important part in her story. She trusts you, will confide in you, and knows that you believe her and that it matters to you. Aside from her husband, she never had this support before. Even her own mother did not believe her. If you violate the boundaries of confidence, you run the risk of losing this very important position and Maria will blame you for causing ‘problems’ in her family life. She needs you to be who you are in the position that God has placed you in.”
Carlos began to understand his role and acknowledge the limits of that role. He is pastor, not savior. He listens, cares, counsels, and prays with and for her. Maria has a safely bounded, non-sexual relationship with a male figure of authority that she respects and trusts. She has never had this in her life. Though her husband is a safe person, the relationship still involves sex; therefore, her identity as first and foremost a sexual object is still preserved in her subconscious. At the heart of who and what she perceives herself as is a sexual object whose value is defined by her sexuality.
I further explained, “What you need to do is accept what God has called you to do and be in Maria’s life. Continue to pray for her safety and her ability to perceive herself differently than a child deserving abuse. If you were able to rescue her, it would perhaps do nothing in terms of her own perception of empowerment. She may still perceive herself as a victim. I understand your concern. She now has a terrible conflict. She has been raped and does not think that she can tell her husband. By doing nothing, she is not limiting abuse and is at risk every time she visits them. She knows that her husband will demand that she stop seeing her family and he may insist on pressing charges. She will be blamed for destroying her family, and she is not ready for that.”
Carlos calmed down as I spoke and said, “I receive this. You are freeing me from a terrible burden. This is so helpful. I will tell my wife about this tonight. It will help her so much also.”
Carlos’ demeanor quickly shifted from anxious and agitated to calm. As he embraced his newfound emotional freedom he became smilingly excited and even joyous. However, understanding the limits of the current system, accepting the boundaries and adjusting one’s attitude and expectations are just the beginnings of this important growth process.
I then challenged Carlos, “I want you to think about what is behind the passion that you have been feeling and what has been driving you to try and figure out how to be the savior. Pray that God will reveal this to you. What about your past, your perception of your role, or your own needs is motivating you and your wife to place yourselves in the position to be the ones who have to fix it?”
Carlos said that he would make this a topic of prayer and discussion with his wife. We agreed that we would speak in a few weeks about this. My expectation is that Carlos will gain significant insight into his motivation and this will help him in the future.
Learning about boundaries is first a cognitive event. We hear and think about a situation. We analyze what we have done and consider other options based on the new information. Carlos and his wife had not previously considered that they could accept the fact that they cannot make Maria expose this. When we accept what we cannot change, we gain a significant amount of emotional freedom. As long as Carlos and his wife believe that they should, or had to, do something, they could not rest. The moral imperative of should becomes a powerful motive to complete a mandated task.
Knowledge does not by itself transform. Carlos needs to understand his own motives, needs and drives. He also needs to accept that Maria may need other models of transformation in order to even begin to conceive the possibility of positive change and discovering who she truly is.
“Pay attention to your passion,” I instructed. “Ask yourself, ‘Why do I feel what I am feeling?’ ‘Why do I think what I am thinking?’ ‘Why do I want what I want now?’ As you understand what is driving you, and what your options are, you can be strategic and intentional about how you respond. You will no longer be victimized by your own passions. You may find that something in your youth or your training that contributes to your strong need to rescue Maria. You may need to grow in your understanding of how God uses you, the pastor, as part of a bigger plan that has others playing different, but equally influential roles.”
“People live their lives as stories or narratives that are influenced by many things. Maria may need exposure to other stories of transformation that are recognizable to her in order to even begin to think about a changed life. As you speak with her about the changes that you feel she must make, it may sound nonsensical to her. It just doesn’t compute.
It may seem to her parallel to this: If I were to say to you, ‘I think you should join the New York Yankees because you would make a great pitcher’, you would ignore me. It just wouldn’t make sense. In a similar fashion, we may present what we think are realistic paths to growth and freedom, but it just seems impossible to them.”
Carlos acknowledged that he understood this principle and would pray that Maria would be exposed to stories of transformation that could open her eyes to possible change. This understanding will help Carlos play another very important pastoral role. The pastor can provide personal counsel, but can also introduce people to each other who may have powerful influence. A pastor cannot do it all alone.
As I write this I have not yet had that follow up conversation with Carlos. I expect that he will discover that once he learned about the rape and her vulnerability to future abuse, that he would feel responsible if she was harmed again. He would then have imposed guilt on himself as if he were a participant in the crime. This is a hard situation for anyone, but as I saw the peace that came over him, I knew that my counsel was correct and that Carlos was ready to increase his own faith. Carlos had to accept that Maria was in God’s hands, not Carlos’ hands. God had prescribed a specific role for him to play and he was playing it well. Carlos has no idea what kind of trouble Maria needs to go through to be brought closer to God and to grow and mature, and as long as he defines what should happen, he is placing himself in God’s position that responsibility will crush him.
I really believe Carlos and I had a transformational conversation that will be reinforced and developed in future conversations. This transformation in Carlos will improve his capacity to minister to Maria and others.
I left Carlos with some very simple principles that I use in my own life and teach every student to consider with every case.
“I didn’t cause this mess and I can’t fix it. My job is to do the best counseling I can do for 45 minutes. If I provide the best counsel that I can do for 45 minutes I am a success. I don’t control what choices a person makes outside of my office. I can’t define success by what others do that I cannot control.”
When Carlos pastors well within the boundaries of his role he will teach, preach, pray, counsel and guide well. That is sufficient. He is doing all that he is called to do and is successful whether or not Maria makes wise choices.