Volume 5 Number 2
One ironic consequence of impeding a child’s or even one’s own boredom is the rise of a compliant self discernable in part for its being boring—a false self whose primary tasks involve anticipating the needs of its external environment, caring for its caretakers, and minimizing any possibility of being surprised from within or without. Precocious concern for the needs of others deadens vitality by displacing the child’s awareness of his or her own personal desires. The compliant child typically learns to elevate mind over body, curbing those harbingers of surprise of feeling or spirit by means of cognition and intellectualization.
Reflecting on the psychodynamics that compel a person to become boring, Khan writes: “One can see how clearly tiring and boring are related together, as techniques of coping with inner stress. The boring patient is trying to maintain omnipotent control over his inner reality by obsessional over-control of language and material. His narrative is petrified where nothing can happen.”4 Compliant persons exhaust themselves and bore others by striving overmuch to screen their passions, to camouflage their impulses, to monitor their every word or motive, to suppress anything surprising or unexpected. “It is therefore another interesting paradox,” Phillips writes, “…to note how much, for Winnicott, development depended on the capacity to relinquish or suspend concern for [others]. Concern for [another] is easily a compliant act and always potentially an obstacle to passionate intimacy and personal development.”5
If ministry is nearly synonymous with extensive concern for others, pastors are especially vulnerable to compliance and therefore, according to Winnicott’s formula, to becoming boring. The prosaic sermon, often justly thought to reflect the preacher’s lack of preparation or concern for the congregation, could in this light as likely signify the preacher’s excessive preparation or concern. To bore one’s hearers could mean, oddly, to care too much for them.
The preacher is no doubt much to blame for this tangled state of affairs. Winnicott’s observations, however, suggest a need for spreading responsibility more liberally. A young child develops precocious concern for others at the expense of personal vitality in response to an environment experienced as neglectful or overbearing. The compliant child either is forced to be prematurely alone or is instead never permitted to be alone, rather than more optimally allowed to be alone in the presence of another. So, too, preachers often experience their surroundings as alternately indifferent or overwhelming and feel subtly pressured to increase their compliance at the cost of diminishing self-awareness and vigor.
James Dittes speculated in the early 1970s that the origins of what he considered the personal and pastoral inhibitions or “cool bondage” of many ministers could be traced to their exaggerated desire as children to feel “assured of being on the same side as [their] parents by internalizing [their parents’] standards and enforcing them on [themselves] and on others.”6 Dittes’s observation continues to resonate in my own conversations primarily with seminary students, many of whom recall serving as a parentified child in their families of origin. They remember specific instances of what Winnicott would consider premature concern for others and recount, with deep shame or with notable pride, caring as children for needy, depressed, or sexually overstimulating or otherwise exploitive parents or for lost or neglected siblings. They in turn have little difficulty understanding their present pursuit of ministry in terms of their familiar childhood role and responsibilities.
Even apart from early family experiences, however, every seminary student or minister faces significant professional pressures to attend to the concerns of countless others, including not only the numerous and often legitimate pastoral needs of parishioners but more subtly the beliefs and regulations of the “parent” church and its various pronouncements on one or another perplexing issue of the day. The church and its constituencies, including seminaries, can sabotage ministers’ boredom, circumvent their secret negotiation of hope, and condemn them to reactionary lives that must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting.
The most public expression of all this, at least in those mainline churches most familiar to me, is the petrified and predictable sermon where nothing is allowed to happen. The preacher overly controls the language of the sermon, seeking to limit any surprising eruption of emotion or spirit or any challenges to familiar patterns of belief or practice. Monotonous words and metaphors ringing of inauthenticity paralyze rather than elaborate or change human experience.
My intention here is to plead not for heresy in preaching, nor for indifference to the gospel of Christ, nor for a rejection of the institutional church, but more modestly for an increasing playfulness, honesty, confidence, and courage as preachers first approach a given biblical text. Because of our childhood proclivities to concern for others, however, and ongoing demands for such caring in our professional lives, we tend to experience the kind of authentic solitude that I am urging as an act of heresy, of indifference to Christ, or of betraying those on whose love we most depend. The stakes in such solitude with a text feel dangerously, precariously high.
Unless preacher and text alike first become vulnerable to the other while holding at bay outside authorities that include ecclesiastical doctrines and traditions, there can be little hope that preacher or text will inspire anyone else. If the minister refuses to be changed by and, more provocatively, to “change” the biblical text in this early encounter, the resulting sermon will almost invariably paralyze and bore rather than touch and transform. If play is akin to recreation, and recreation to re-creation, then Winnicott’s vision for psychological health calls for a willingness to create and to be re-created again and again in relation to the beloved toy or other object, here the biblical text on which we preach. Playing alone with the text, finding and creating truth, is the first and foremost task, although not the last, in effective pastoral preaching.
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary