I will be at the Presbyterian Writers’ Conference this week, so I probably will not be doing a lot of blogging about the care of pastors. Yet, in some ways, the two are connected. Almost all the writing that I do is connected with care of clergy. Two fiction projects, one a novel and the other a series of short stories, are all connected with the lives of pastors. I think that the profession of being a pastor is facing a major challenge. The recent sexual scandals will exacerbate the lack of respect that the society has increasingly given to our profession. My hope is that some good fictional descriptions of the life of pastors can counter the negative images and reveal both the challenge and the satisfaction of our calling.
In addition, I am working on some stand up comedy routines about some of our experiences as pastors. My assumption is that we need to draw upon the healing properties of humor as we face the challenges before us. Sometimes a good laugh can help us gain some perspective.
Writing has always been good therapy for me. As I write, I discover deeper understandings and new insights. I look forward to the conference and gaining new insights.
I mentioned earlier this week about the pastor who thought that some people were feeling a sense of shame at being known as Christians. When I pursued that with him, he mentioned the actions of the extreme right wing of Christianity. The political and religious exclusivity of some forms of Christianity is perceived negatively by many. This is especially true when it leads to public fighting and splits within a faith community whose Lord said that they will know we are his disciples if we love one another. (John 13:35)
I think that as a counter-point to such behavior, we need to identify what makes us feel good about our faith. Hopefully we have passed the point where we think that the way to promote harmony is to water down the faith so that it does not challenge what others believe. Perhaps now it is time to explore how we acknowledge where our beliefs and behaviors set us apart from others without a concurrent judgment against them. In essence, do we not need to learn how to “speak the truth in love” with those who differ from us.
Can you imagine a more powerful witness in our fractious times than demonstrating how to live in diversity without a self-righteousness that leads to segregation and even violence. We don’t need to learn how to live among those who all agree with us. We need to learn how to live among those who differ and accord them the respect that suggests that God can speak to us through them even as God can speak to them through us. If the Roman centurion can be an exemplar of faith even though he didn’t have the faith of Israel, then can’t we deepen our own faith by being open to God speaking to us through those who differ from us.
In a blog several months ago I spoke of clergy paying attention to boundaries. In that blog, I suggested that one guide line that they might follow was what I called the public option. Don’t do anything in private that you would be embarrassed to do in the public square.
To use a politically popular phrase, the church is going to need to operate with more transparency. You generate trust when people know what you are doing and why you are doing it. It would be a good exercise for a governing board to have a discussion about distrust and name the various behaviors of the internal working of the church that could be misinterpreted by the larger society if done in secret. Those are the very actions that need to be interpreted, almost as a form of witness. Apparently the early church was accused of immorality because they referred to everyone as brother and sister and then passed the kiss of peace during their services. The society interpreted what was going on as sexual orgy within a family. There was a need to interpret that the kiss of peace was a form of hospitality and that all members were considered brothers and sisters as part of the family of God.
Luke has an important reminder in 8:17. “For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.” That can be seen as threatening but it is also possible to make it a positive. What we do must be such that if it were public, it would make a good testimony for our faith.
In an age when people want to be “spiritual but not religious,” those who are willing to commit to a congregation as a member are going to decline. Declining membership will force a major review of how congregations function. They will no longer be able to count on an easy influx of members and resources to support their variety of ministries. They will also not be able to assume the respect that used to be accorded churches within the larger community. Picture a time when belonging to a church is a source of embarrassment in social circles. I recently heard one pastor say that he thought one reason why people didn’t join the church was a sense of shame at how Christians are behaving. Can you imagine someone hearing that you belong to a local church and making a snide remark about what is going on in that church?
All of this will be a strange new experience for many Americans who are accustomed to a general atmosphere of respect being given to churches even by non-members. We may well want to draw upon the experience of some of our brothers and sisters in other cultures who are more accustomed to practicing faith in an atmosphere of alienation. Historically the church has often thrived under persecution. A major difference is that there is more intentionality to belonging. You can’t just drift into membership because membership comes with a cost.
When Luke comments on the cost of discipleship, there is a haunting reality to his quoting Jesus as saying, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” Perhaps a major feature of our new context is that there will be fewer of us and we will have to honestly count the cost of what it means to be a disciple in an age of distrust.
I fear that the fallout from the media coverage of the sexual scandals in the Roman Catholic Church has major implications for the whole church. We live in a society that is almost drunk on distrust. The current tea party movement is just one of its recent manifestations.
Jack Haberer, in the April 19 issue of Presbyterian Outlook, shared some statistics on the rising number of people who prefer to identify themselves as spiritual and not religious. They hunger for a faith that can empower them but distrust the community in which the faith can be nurtured.
The number of American adults identifying themselves as “more spiritual than religious” has increased from 19 percent in 1998 to 27 percent today. In fact, as reported by religion writer Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier Journal, fully 30 percent of adults under age 40 say they are spiritual but have no religion at all. And, according to a poll by Marist College, 63 percent of Americans say it’s either “very true” or at least “partly true” that they are “spiritual but not religious.”
All of this feeds into the attitude of institutional distrust that plagues our society. A major scandal like that which is getting such media coverage about the Roman Catholic church infects peoples attitudes about all churches. It also poisons the natural attitude of trust in religious leaders which once was part of our society. Recently I have heard priests report that it is no longer comfortable to walk down the street wearing your collar. It is now suggested that we do background checks on all volunteers who work with children and youth in our churches. Where you once could pull a troubled youth aside at a retreat and go for a long walk in the woods to offer counsel, such an activity may be viewed with suspicion in our time.
It is time that we take a look at the Demon of Distrust that plagues our religious community and consider how we shape our ministry in such an atmosphere.