One of the things about being a parish minister is that your schedule is constantly being changed by people’s needs and crises. You can be on your way out the door when you get a phone call: someone needs to talk, so you talk. It could be a church leader who just wants to review an agenda, it could be someone whose daughter is driving her crazy, or it could be the music director wanting to check something about Sunday’s service. Whatever it is, you need to be present to it. Most ministers are the only person in their organization being paid to devote their attention to the church on a full-time basis. So if someone calls about church business or for pastoral support, baby, it’s you. You’ve got to get that phone, and then you’ve got to be willing to turn your plans around on a dime.
The end result is that we’re…. well, I’m late for social plans a lot. I don’t like this and I know I’ve angered and upset and just plain disappointed a lot of people (family included) along the way, but it also means that I’ve learned to cherish flexibility as a major virtue. There’s a reason that religious professionals tend to hang together: we don’t have to explain to each other the last minute switches and weird things that come up to interfere with our schedules (“I can’t make lunch today, I’m going to the vet in an hour to be with someone who is euthanizing their cat.” “My secretary is going on vacation so I have to finish the Christmas Order of Service three weeks early.”). Nod, re-schedule. Or when it’s really hairy stuff, (“Someone’s house burned down” or “My board president just fell and broke both legs”) clergy friends never freak out. They’ve seen it all.
A while ago my friend Suzy said something to me that I haven’t forgotten and haven’t stopped wrapping around me like a quilt. Suze is a high school friend whom I hadn’t seen for a long time, and I was going to stay with her in Connecticut this past winter and use her home as a jumping off point for a brief stay in New York City. I was going to drive to her house in Connecticut from Massachusetts, and Suzy offered to drive me to the commuter train station so I wouldn’t have to bring my car into the city.
It was snowing hard the day I wanted to leave; there was that. I had to drop my dog off with other friends the day I finally could leave; there was that. Something small came up at church, of course; there was that. So I had to text Suzy several times to apprise her of my new ETAs. She is the mother of two small children and has a lot going on in her own life (contractors in the kitchen being one thing, as I recall), but she remained gracious and affectionate in response to each harried message, replying at one point:
“Whatever you do is perfect.”
Now, honestly. Who says that and really means it? “Whatever you do is perfect?” You could not possibly mean that, Suzy. It totally disarmed me. It gave me nothing to be anxious about, none of the usual insecure co-dependent poison to drink, none of the usual guilt to marinate in as I drove down the Merritt Parkway heading toward Greenwich. Whatever I did was perfect. There could be nothing more freeing, nothing more supportive to say to someone. And the thing is, she meant it. Her friendly voice was unmistakably authentic. Of course I had to be sarcastic in the face of such maturity and graciousness. I was like, “Girl, whatever happy drugs you’re on, I WANT SOME.”
Whatever you do is perfect. I still can’t get over the sense of goodness that created in me, how much I appreciated hearing it. I mean, how many times have I heard –or just felt — in my life, “Hurry up, let’s go, you screwed up, you kept me waiting, you were here too early, you stayed too late, you left too soon, you got the time wrong, you got the date wrong, you inconvenienced us, you move too slow, you run too fast… nothing you do is perfect! It’s not even acceptable!”
Right? And these messages have increased 100-fold since I entered the parish ministry; I don’t think it can be helped. It’s the nature of the work. Clergy share this: we know that we have inconvenienced, hurt and neglected our friends and families by meeting the needs of our congregations and assuming that our loved ones will understand and accept why we were late/didn’t show/missed the school play/took the later train/skipped Christmas dinner, and in a thousand other ways made a decision that was not at all perfect.
Later, while in Manhattan on that winter trip, I decided to believe Suzy’s assurance that I was welcome to take any train back to Connecticut that I liked and she would pick me up at the station. I had initially said that I thought I’d be on the 3:00-something, but I called her to let her know I would be on a later train. Again she replied,
“Whatever you decide is perfect.”
There is place in the gut where we feel safety or the absence of it.* When Suzy said those words I noticed that place in my solar plexus relaxing, expanding, letting in breath and comfort. I realized that like many of us, I hold a tremendous amount of tension in that place: a holding the breath and steeling the self for the punch in the gut that comes when someone responds to you in judgment, anger, or with the rejecting energy of pure irritation.
I told Suzy how beautiful I found her mantra of “Whatever you do is perfect” to be, how welcoming and how generous. We had a great conversation about the fact that it feels just as good to her to live from that place of openness and flexibility as it does for me to receive the fruits of it. What surprises me is how often I think of that phrase even all these months later, how inspired I still am by it, and how healing it has been to even say it to myself when I am tempted to engage in non-productive self-haranguing.
“Whatever you decide is perfect.”
I love it. I want it to be my mantra for relationships where each of us knows that the other is doing the best they can and in good faith.