“Hi, God.” That's how a young child greeted me at the communion rail this past Sunday morning. I certainly didn't want to disavow him of this notion so I gave him a high five and kept moving. Okay, I don't really have that much of a messiah complex, but it was neither the time nor the place to get into a theological debate with a four-year-old.
But I think this speaks to a greater human need to make God tangible. Who wouldn’t want to be able to show up once a week and physically check in with God in addition to the spiritual check-in? “Hi, God, nice to see you again this week. Just wanted to drop in, say hello, and make sure I’m not believing in something that doesn’t really exist. I can’t stay for coffee hour but I’ll see you next week.”
Most clergy (hopefully) don’t try to perpetuate the notion that we’re stand-ins for God. If you've ever been tempted to view clergy this way either consciously or subconsciously, you know the resulting disappointment when you realize that, yes, your priest is human. It's unfortunate but true.
But you can see where there might be some confusion, especially for children. We stand up at a distant altar blessing bread and wine while wearing fancy clothes and saying Jesus’ words “Do this in remembrance of me.”
We’re there to point to God, to show the way toward an ever-deepening relationship with the divine but, despite people’s projections, we don’t have any unique powers in and of ourselves. A priest can’t even do the Eucharist in isolation – it’s a “power” that only takes place within the context of God and community. Imagine if Superman was only able to leap tall buildings in a single bound if he first prayed with a bunch of people. The Joker would undoubtedly get away more often.
The psycho-babble term for what happens when people project idealized forms onto their clergy is transference. Emotional and spiritual needs get transferred onto a human being rather than brought to God. Again, this inevitably leads to disappointment which can play out as anger and frustration directed at the priest. People may not boo during the entering procession but they might start a nasty rumor or leave the church in a huff. Every priest has numerous examples of such behavior. But then many parishioners likely have examples of clergy who started believing their own hype and got a bit too big for their chasubles.
The antidote to transference is healthy communication and conversation surrounding the roles of the clergy and laity in a parish context. The priest has a unique function within the community -- that doesn't make him or her better than anyone (the old hierarchical model of priesthood has thankfully gone the way of the maniple) -- and the laity have their own unique role in the community. Yes, the clergy role is more visible and ordained ministry cannot be separated from leadership. But it is a shared leadership both liturgically and parochially.
So, no, I don't have any effect on the weather. When people half-jokingly say “Can you do something about all this rain?” The answer is no. As I like to tell people, I’m in sales not management. Perhaps together we can pray for a sunny day but, as nice as it would be, I don't have a Batphone connected to the Big Guy.