Dunbar’s Number

We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. – Hebrews 4:12-15

139px-John_Bunyan.jpgThese verses are from the epistle lesson for a mass in commemoration of John Bunyan, whose feast day this is on the Episcopal Church calendar of saints. Bunyan, best known as the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, was a tinker, a maker and mender of metal pots and cookware, by trade. According to hagiographer James Kiefer, he “underwent a period of acute spiritual anxiety” which led him to become a lay preacher among the non-conforming English Baptists.

I have to be honest and say that if I were dealing with “acute spiritual anxiety” becoming a preacher is not the remedy that I would choose; being a preacher was probably among the causes of my own experience several years ago with acute clinical depression! And keeping with the theme of honesty, continuing as a preacher, pastor, and parish priest is an on-going source of spiritual anxiety or (at least) of spiritual irritation!

Recently, in a Facebook discussion group, a member posed the question, “Why don’t Episcopal priests make hospital calls anymore?” and then related a tale of the member’s spouse’s hospitalization during which no clergy from their church paid a visit. Wow! Blanket condemnation of all Episcopal priests on the basis of one hospitalization experience! I began to suffer from “acute spiritual anxiety” just reading the comment, and began to give thought to becoming a tinker!

In the ensuing discussion, in which many spoke up for our clergy and suggested that the over-generalized denunciation was unwarranted (for which, by the way, thank you!) another commenter recounted a story of someone leaving the Episcopal Church because a priest had said, “I can’t visit everyone.” And someone else responded with approval, saying they would leave a church if told that and that if a priest said that, that priest should leave the ordained ministry!

“Wait!” I commented, “It’s probably true that the priest said that, but we cannot know the circumstances of the conversation. If someone were to talk with me about visitations, somewhere in the conversation I would probably say the same thing. Clergy cannot visit everyone! That’s a true statement, but for uttering that truth I am told I should leave my ministry?” I don’t think so! I suggested the commenter’s expectations were unrealistic.

I related the example of my current congregation which has a registered membership (which we all know is a meaningless number) of about 500, with an average Sunday attendance of about 125. I am the only priest on staff (an elderly retired priest is a congregant and helps out with hospital calls from time to time). There is no way I can visit everyone in this congregation; I don’t even know everyone who’s on the books as a member. During my eleven years here some of those supposed members have never darkened the church’s door!

Not only that, we live in an age when all the adults in a parishioner household may be, and probably are, working people. They are not home during the day to be visited, and their evenings are spent with family and children. Unless they have a particular need for their priest, they are neither available for nor interested in a visit. So my practice, and that of many of my colleagues, is to visit in hospital (when advised a parishioner is hospitalized) and to call on congregants at their homes when invited.

Needless to say, I received an online lecture about my inadequacies, a lecture which branched off into the tangential assertion that a parish priest should know every parishioner’s name and have a meaningful personal relationship with every parishioner. If one couldn’t do that then one was “100% unacceptable” as a priest. Talk about exciting “acute spiritual (or pastoral) anxiety”! Tinkering with metal pots was looking better and better!

This was not (I probably don’t need to emphasize) the first time I had read or heard such complaints about parish clergy in this or other denominations. I think everyone, at least most clergy and most people who have served on search committees or vestries, have seen the humorous (but not untrue) lists of the contradictory expectations of the “perfect pastor” –

The perfect pastor condemns sin roundly but never hurts anyone’s feelings.

She is 29 years old and has 40 years experience.

The perfect pastor has a burning desire to work with teenagers, and he spends most of his time with the senior citizens.

She smiles all the time with a straight face because she has a sense of humor that keeps her seriously dedicated to the church.

He makes 15 home visits a day and is always in the office when needed.

The perfect pastor never misses the meeting of any church organization and is always busy evangelizing the unchurched.

Etc. etc. etc.

I was unable to post a further response because the original post was deleted (whether by the original poster or the group administrator, I don’t know). I figured that was best and made no effort to pursue the discussion further, and didn’t join when it cropped up again later in the same group. However, today I find this reading from the Letter to the Hebrews in the saint’s-day propers, while in the Daily Office lectionary we are reading through the Gospel according to John and, tomorrow, will hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd.” And I am compelled to say, “I am not the great high priest! I am not the good shepherd!”

That bears repeating: I am not the great high priest! I am not the good shepherd! And that, I think, is the source of the problem – the source of the criticism in that Facebook comment thread and the source of clergy anxiety. I once had a three-year old parishioner who refused to be disabused of the notion that I was God, but despite his confidence in me, clergy are not Christ! We cannot be everywhere; we cannot visit every parishioner; we cannot know everyone’s name! We cannot respond to every pastoral need.

Another participant in that discussion had already made note that we clergy no longer receive notice from hospitals when parishioners are admitted. She suggested the complainant consider the HIPPA regulations which prohibit that and, further, that often there are in-house controls in hospitals regulating clergy visits with patients. Unless we are notified by the patient or the patient’s family, we may be completely unaware that there is even a need of a visit. (Of course, I don’t speak for those clergy who took the seminary training in clairvoyance and extra-telepathy. However, I and many of my colleagues missed that class.)

Had I been able to reply in that now-deleted Facebook discussion, I would have suggested that my correspondent also consider the impact of Dunbar’s number.

Dunbar’s number is a theoretical limit on human emotional interaction proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. He suggested that 150 is the average cognitive limit on the number of other persons with whom one can maintain a stable social relationship (the actual individual limitation may range from a low of 100 to a high of 230 relationships). Dunbar’s hypothesis is that this limit is set by the size of the human neocortex; our brains are simply unable to process the cognitive and emotional data from additional social interactions.

Dunbar’s suggestion was based on a wide range of data across multiple primate species; he studied the correlation of brain size with social group across 38 kinds of primates, including humans. Other researchers, limiting their research to human populations (and, interestingly, specifically including clergy as a study group) have suggested the average limit may be somewhat higher at 231. Nonetheless, the point is that human beings are limited in the number of meaningful relationships they can enjoy.

So let me reiterate: parish clergy are not the great high priest; parish clergy are not the good shepherd; parish clergy are human beings. Like every other human being, parish clergy have limitations. We cannot be everywhere; we cannot visit every parishioner; we cannot know everyone’s name!

But we try our best! We really do. And we often suffer “acute spiritual anxiety” because we are all too familiar with our limitations; if we’re not to begin with, some parishioners will make it their job to make certain that we eventually are.

“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” but we frequently have parishioners who are . . . and not all of them have the excuse of being three years of age.

The Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, an EfM mentor, and a writer of Daily Office meditations offered on his blog, That Which We Have Heard & Known.

John Bunyan: Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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