Asymmetry (part 1)
Who is responsible for this relationship?
I’ve been trying to think about a good way to write about this, and I’m not sure that there is one. But I’ll start with a story.
A while ago—maybe even before the pandemic—someone told me that I should be eating Sunday lunch with a different member family every week. The way that this person phrased the directive seemed to assume that every family made a roast for lunch ever Sunday and could easily adapt to a guest. But I imagine that they would have been fine with sandwiches or a restaurant.
And what struck me as weird about this was that this person had never invited me to their house or to lunch. And they had certainly never invited me to their house for lunch. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I can count on two hands the number of times that a member of my congregation has invited me to anything. And I know that I can count on one hand the number of times that a member of my congregation has invited me to their house.
But I doubt that mattered to this person. That’s because I think that this person was suggesting that I should be arranging Sunday lunch dates with every member family in the congregation, except, of course, themselves. People have a habit of suggesting that the pastor should impose themselves on everyone else, thank you very much.
You see, a lot of people seem to believe that it is the pastor’s job to build and maintain relationships with the members of the church; and that it is the members’ job to sit back and wait for the pastor to work on that relationship, and to accept or reject that relationship on their own terms.
And that is remarkably unhealthy. And it doesn’t really work for anyone. So let’s talk about that a little bit in this post and a little bit in the next.
The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar studied primates and found a correlation between average brain size and average social group size. Basically, he hypothesized that a larger neocortex led to the possibility of larger social groups. And, when he extrapolated that to humans, he estimated about how big our social circles can be. There are about 150 people who you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.
There are serious questions about whether Dunbar’s number is accurate. There are serious questions about whether this is even a good way to think about social groups. But it makes intuitive sense to suppose that we all have some kind of number: you have a certain number of relationships that you can maintain, and once you hit that number, you can’t manage one more.
But that’s more complicated than a single number. It also depends on how deep the relationship is and how much energy you—and the other person—are putting into it. After all, there’s a difference between the kind of person who you’ll invite yourself to have a drink with and the kind of person who you’ll help move (or help move a body).
So think of it this way. You have a certain number of relationship points. Maybe it’s a lot; maybe it’s a few. The more points that you put into a relationship, the deeper it can be—from a few points for the casual acquaintance who you nod to on the street to someone who you would stay beside at the hospital for days—but every point you put into one relationship means that there are fewer points for others. And if you are the only one pouring points into a relationship, then that relationship won’t be as deep as it could be, and you will be using up points that you could be putting into other, better, healthier more reciprocal and cooperative, relationships.
Pastors aren’t special here. We also only have so many relationship points (and only so many of those are reserved for the people in our congregations). We can have deep relationships with a few people, and shallower relationships with many more, and passing acquaintances with still more. And those relationships shift dramatically when we are the ones who are pouring most—or all—of the points into the relationship.
Relationships where one person is pouring in all of the points are unhealthy. Sometimes, they’re mildly unhealthy. Sometimes, they’re really unhealthy. Sometimes, they’re downright abusive. And that’s especially true when the pouring-in of points is mandated by an expectation that the person pouring in the points cannot—or, at least, feels like they cannot—refuse.
In other words, a pastor who feels like their vocation and their livelihood depends on pouring points into relationships that have little or no reciprocation is in trouble.
And more than that, a congregation that expects its pastor to pour points into relationships that have little or no reciprocation is in trouble.
Part of that is practical. Spending relationship points on people who have a demonstrated absence of interest in being part of the congregation is a waste of resources. It would be far better for the pastor—and, in fact, for everyone in the congregation—to invest those points in people who actually want a relationship.
Part of that is spiritual. The church is not a subscription service; it is a consulate of the Kingdom of God. And while not everyone can be going full steam for their congregation all the time, part of being a Christian is being part of a community of believers that shares in the work of discipleship. It we, as members, are not investing points in our relationships with our co-conspirators in Christ, we are failing to participate in that community (and that’s true even for someone who shows up to worship every Sunday; that’s true even for the most generous donor).
And all of that means that it is the job of the whole congregation to be in relationship with the whole congregation. We are all responsible for the web of relationships in the church.
So here’s the ask. Don’t rely on your pastor to be the one who builds and maintains relationships for the church. Keep the pastor informed, of course, but if you know that someone needs a prayer, pray for them; if you notice that someone hasn’t been around for a while, call them; and if you know that someone needs to see a friendly face, visit them.
That will be healthier for your pastor. That will be healthier for the congregation. That will even be healthier for you. And that will help grow God’s reign of love.