A number of comments this week have had me reflecting on the power of “I”. When a person is speaking, and chooses to use the first-person personal pronoun, it tends to be a more powerful statement. It tends to lend more credibility to an intention. It tends to suggest credibility and accountability, as one is attaching one’s name and reputation to the statement. “I will do this” cannot easily be misinterpreted, as the speaker has taken ownership of it.
On the other hand, statements made by one person using the pronoun “we” depend on the context. “We,” when used specifically on behalf of a group, is merely the formal of “I” – with all the benefits that carries. However, when used arbitrarily, it can feel distancing. One person saying “We will do this” is cold, impersonal, and even incorrect: on whose behalf is this “we” intended? Is the one speaking entitled the majestic plural (the ‘royal “we”‘)? Why else, but to distance themselves from the statement, would one use “we?”
Further into formality and distance, one might use the generic, impersonal pronouns such as “one” or “someone” or “they.” Referring to unspecific objects or situations, these pronouns would not be useful in anything other than generalised statements.
These distinctions are important: not just in English class, but in ministry. It can make a big difference in how a sentiment is heard and understood. For example, in a funeral setting, one would not expect to hear “one sympathises,” here the personal “I’m sorry for your loss” or “You have my sympathies” conveys a much stronger sentiment.
A complaint of “We don’t like this” that is delivered by one person, refusing to identify who makes up the ‘we,’ is often unhelpful and unhealthy. It begs the question why the “we” are unwilling to speak for themselves, why there is a desire to remain anonymous, why an issue worth complaining over is not one worth attaching to one’s name (and accountability).
The “I” can be more difficult, because it is more personal, and therefore makes the speaker more vulnerable; it can also be more meaningful and have a much deeper impact: the speaker is engaged and expressive on a very real level. A departing parishioner hearing “I will miss you” knows that the person speaking does care about them and will miss them, without loopholes or confusing language. It shows an intentionality of care and compassion.
“I” statements matter. They speak to and from the heart as personal expressions, which therefore lend a sense of importance to the issue. The speaker takes ownership of the content of the message. This makes the content of the message a personal reality worthy of attention and care, rather than an abstract notion which can be ignored or deflected.
And so, our ministry is challenged to be one of “I” – not in the sense of being selfish and egotistical, but a ministry of personal connections; of intentional accountability, of a desire to fully put ourselves into what we are saying and doing as an expression of faith. Our creeds are based on this personal connection, and confirm as much: “I/We believe” are declarations made in community of our commitment of the faith which sustains us and calls for us to be in personal relationship.
Part of our call to ministry and to living the faith, then, is to take that personal commitment that we make to God and apply it in our personal relationships with one another. In situations and conversations that we have, may we be conscious and careful of the importance and inherent meaning of the pronoun we choose.