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Life in the fishbowl

One of my mentors when I was in seminary advised me that clergy are always under scrutiny – we live our lives in a metaphoric fishbowl. He was warning me to be prepared for it; and he was right.  It was great advice. I’m reminded of this frequently; partially because I live in a small town, partially because I am clergy living in a rectory, partially because I am a Christian.

Let’s start with the small town one.  We’ve all heard the joke that in a small town your neighbours know what’s going on in your life before you do. It’s not too far off – word travels quickly in a small town, because in smaller communities everyone’s a big family.  People get their news from one another over coffee, or from the bulletin board at the post office, and only on a weekly basis from the paper. Small towns are places where we still borrow cups of sugar from one neighbour to bake a cake for another neighbour’s event. We wave to one another when we pass. We swap extra vegetables from the gardens. We keep an eye on folks we have heard are going through a rough time. People who live in small towns know that they have chosen to live in a close-knit community, for better or for worse. And living in close community means knowing other peoples’ business, and having ours known in return.

Being clergy in a small town means that I am known to folks, that I am a bit of a public figure in town. I live in the rectory beside the church; my home is also my office. There’s a great deal of respect for this duality; in general if the front curtains are closed people respect my need for personal time.  But the house remains a fishbowl, with the majority of the front being windows: I’ve been waved at in the morning when I’m staggering to the coffee pot, I get texts asking if I’m alright when the lights are seen on or off at odd hours.  Pastoral counselling takes place in my living room, sermon prep from the couch.  I’ve had parishioners gauge my busy schedule on how much they see my dogs outside, I’ve had care home staff postpone calling because they’ve seen me just sitting down to a meal. It’s delightfully respectful and friendly, but it’s still very much public. Clergy can sometimes be held to a higher standard in their actions because of their position.

But I think that all Christians should share this fishbowl.  I believe that we are all called to live out our lives in a way that we would not be ashamed to share with the world.  We know that we are meant to live with integrity, with a consistency in our morals and ethics and actions. We know that Jesus has challenged us to consider the actions of our lives and amend those to demonstrate our faith and commitment to God; to live our lives as though we are in the fishbowl, always under scrutiny and assessment. What we do in public should match what we do in private; Jesus tells Nicodemus (John 3.21) that “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Living life in a fishbowl is not an easy task, but it is part of being a Christian. It is showing the world that we want to come to the light, that what we do at all times is a demonstration of our faith.  So whether we are clergy or laity, whether we are very private people or wear our hearts on our sleeves, we are all doing our best to be children of God, people of integrity, people whose faith will never be hidden.

How is your life in the fishbowl? Do you find scrutiny to be overly critical? Do you wish you had more privacy? How different are your private actions from your public ones?

About Laura Marie Piotrowicz

I’m a high-energy priest, now serving in the Diocese of Niagara, catching glimpses of the kingdom in daily life. I consider church to be a verb, and I’m passionate about prayer, eco-theology, and social justice. I love travel, reading, canoeing, camping, gardening and cooking, playing with my dogs, and drinking good coffee.

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0 Responses to Life in the fishbowl

  1. Kyle Norman

    This is an interesting question isn’t it?  Because at some level, if our private actions are completely different than our public ones, then is that a dichotomy we should be concerned about.

    FOr me, i try to make it so that my private actions support and equip me for my public life.  So they may not be different per se, but the focus I am able to give them is more intentional.  

    But I also see that who I am in my private spaces is more deeply ‘me’ than who I am in public.  As an introvert, it is when I am alone (or with family) and able to let all my guards down that  I feel free to be myself, in all unkempt, untyidy glory.

  2. Well said. I’m sure that most of us (both clergy and laypeople) could share stories to illustrate your point. I wonder, though: does the fishbowl concept exist only when we maintain a false sense of privacy? It seems to me that in the course of 100 years or so, we’ve gone from living in community (i.e. the small town everyone-knowing-everyone’s “stuff”) to living as individuals, and are gradually moving back to living in community (and all that it entails), due in part to changes in the way we communicate.

    I, for one, crave time out of the public eye: simple things like knowing I can spend some time reading, or sleeping, or spending time with my family. But it begs the question: why should I care if anyone else knows that I’m reading a book, or buying an umbrella, or roasting a chicken?

    What about the fishbowl makes us so uncomfortable? Are secrets important (and/or healthy)? Does privacy play an important role in rest and Sabbath living? Or is the simple truth that there is no fishbowl, because no one actually lives outside of the proverbial bowl?

  3. Kyle Norman

    Jesse, I like your link with Privacy to Sabaath keeping.  Jesus says that whatever we do in secret will be rewarded – so it seems that privacy is able to carry with it a sense of authentic self.  It is here we can escape the glances  of expectations, roles, demands or pretense.  It can be a powerful space.  Yet in a world of constant noise and frenetic activity – sometimes this space is avoided or even shunned.

    Perhaps you can shed some light on another side of the fish-bowl.  What about our online bowl – how does the dymaic of public/private spaces play out in the cyber-bowl.

  4. Absolutely. But you’re going to need to stay tuned for that–I’m currently working on a post regarding authenticity and our online/offline selves. The conversation continues…

  5. I think there’s a difference between secrecy and privacy – I tend to live my life as an open book, but there are times when I don’t want to be ‘watched’.  Secrecy opens the negative connotation (in my opinion) of having something to hide (not good) whereas privacy is taking time away from the public life to just BE, by establishing healthy boundaries.

    Good comments from you both, thanks.  Looking forward to the online/offline conversation!

  6. Didn’t I see something – oh – a month ago? – in one of the forums (fora?) by a parish administrator who puts in her M-F 9-5  and would like to have her Sabbath to herself (well,  within the confines of the 4th Commandment!)

    Kyle, the word that translators have been rendering as ‘secret’ – at least in Mt.6.4 and 6.6 is ‘xruptos’ – or my attempt at it – it is now more often considered as ‘hidden’. Please, LauraMarie, no offence, because not at all from the hiding based on fear or deception. So speaketh the PhD in clerical psychology NOT!

    Good thing for online forums – otherwise I’d have long since spent my entire monthly allowance on long distance phone bills!   🙂

  7. y’know, Kyle, about the ‘cyber-bowl’ problem – I’m sure I read something in La Presse a while ago to the effect that the power supply in Calgary was going to be subject to erratic brown-outs of varying severity followed by power-surges. Recommended “Great Care” with fuses or circuit breakers. All the fault of those wicked people in Ft.MacMurray (or is it Athabasca?) – the ones with the ‘Dutch Disease’ virus.So the solution to your problem is simply to “Turn it off”. Mind you; being excommunicate has its own disadvantages – believe me it’s just not worth it. Besides, how else would you get all the loving criticism from your Community friends?



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