untellable tales

I read a novel last week about a pastoral search committee. Yes, a pastoral search committee. We writers will just write about anything, won’t we? The novel, called Search by Michelle Huneven, is a novelization about the author’s real-life experience serving for a year on the pastoral search committee of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. It’s a good book. Not great, not on my 2022 favorites list, but good and solid writing filled with complicated characters and plenty of interpersonal conflict. I was distinctly impressed with the author’s ability to capture the everyday drama of congregational life, to give the small-scale drama of life together some airtime. I’m curious if people outside of church world are appreciating the book as much as I did, or if my high rating is because the people and context are so intimately familiar to my personal and professional life.

That intimacy has, apparently, gotten the author in hot water with the real-life people who were involved in the real-life search process that she turned into a novel. My Facebook web is pretty large, at least in the ecclesial sense, and a UU minister told me that there is an uproar across the denomination, because author almost certainly violated covenants to keep the work of search committee confidential, and, even worse, real-life people are recognizing themselves in the fictional characters, and are not necessarily happy about it.

I don’t know UU drama, but I know church drama. Confidentiality and transparency are dueling commitments in this work, and discerning which conversations and situations need to be aired out and which require careful, close tending is a very, very delicate ministry skill. Some of my colleagues choose to err on the side of caution and keep everything – every conversation, every story of trauma or transformation, every meeting and every process – close to the vest. I understand that impulse. And I also strongly disagree with it, especially when “confidentiality” compounds harm and reinforces unjust power dynamics. Whenever possible, I lean toward transparency.

And that “whenever possible” is actually a lot less frequent than you may think, especially having read all these little essays about other people that I’m writing during Advent. The work of a pastor includes being present for so many intimate moments and deeply personal struggles that I would venture to guess that a solid 75% of what I’ve done and where I’ve shown up as a pastor over the last decade are stories that I’ll never tell in public. And y’all, I tell a LOT of stories. Think about that: if 25% of this work yields enough story-telling to fill weekly sermons and daily writing, just imagine the stories I could tell…if I could tell them.

That’s not meant to be a teaser or a threat – those stories really are not mine to tell, and I won’t. I don’t need the cautionary tale of that search committee novel drama to know that telling other people’s stories is fraught with ethical conundrums and a zillion ways to mess it up. The trepidation I’ve carried this season about how people will respond to my words is fairly heavy – and I’m writing NICE THINGS! I never cared this much when I wrote angry things! I have been diligent about asking permission before writing about folks in this series, and sending the links to people to let them know that they are out here in public on Al Gore’s internet. Transparency + confidentiality, y’all, they go hand in hand.

What I’m trying to say is that my list of things that brought me hope this year also includes at least a dozen things that I cannot write about, at least not yet. They are stories of tender caregiving and hard-won relational repairing, incredible bodily healing and powerful boundary setting. My list includes a long string of names of people who have spent this year acting as caregivers, to aging people and tiny people. It includes a not-insignificant number of people who have fought The Man and, such as it is, won. It includes people who gave up and dropped out and decided to live outside the systems of oppression that kept them small, and then quietly, consistently, lovingly called me – and others – over and over to insist that we could do that, too. You won’t see stories like this in the headlines, because their power isn’t in how many ad views they can generate; their power is in the very smallness, the very intimacy and ineffability of their impact. Actions speak louder than words, I suppose.

But I’m a word girl. They’re what I’ve got. I wish I could tell these stories, let you all in on the depth of love and resilience and disciplined hope that I get to witness day in and day out. For now, just know: hope really is all around.

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