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?