Thursday, March 27, 2014

Beating up on the clergy. . .

It is a common sport among some Christians to blame every problem on the clergy, to complain about their pastors, and to condemn all clergy for the sins of the few.  I read where a couple of more brothers whom I know are now without call, having come through a difficult time and resigned.  Now, to be sure, I am not saying clergy are blameless, only convenient targets for those who bring all their upset, disappointment, and frustration with them into the congregation.

I cannot complain about it personally.  That is not to say I have not have and do not now have my thorns in the flesh who love to point out all my flaws and failings.  I do.  But these have always been such a distinct minority that it has been easier for me than most.  But I do know many congregations with a reputation as clergy killers.  One even has the word "love" in the name of a Lutheran Church.  I also know too many clergy who have made some mistakes, even a few whoppers, but who have found the congregation unwilling to forgive and definitely unable to forget.  Most of these were new pastors when they spoke at the time they should have remained silent or were silent when they should have spoken.  None of these would rise to any reason for their removal but the atmosphere was so poisoned against them that they soon left.  Who would blame them?  Especially when their family got into the cross hairs of those who demanded more than they could deliver.

Beating up the clergy is not new nor is it unusual.  Once when I was flying to a conference a brother in the ministry ended up sitting next to me.  I knew his dad as well.  This fellow was ever so hard on his brother clergy and insisted that such lazy clergy should be drummed out of the ministry while those with his kind of initiative ought to receive more financial reward (and incentive).  At the time I was about ten years into a small parish (my first call) and I took much of what he said personally.  It was one of the loneliest moments of my ministry.

As much as some might like to think it is a Lutheran sport, it is even more rampant among those churches that hire their clergy (and fire them) at will.  Even Roman Catholics have bishops and brother priests who love to beat up on others.  And there are problem parishes even in Roman Catholicism.  Some have taken offense at the way Pope Francis seems to have singled out priests and bishops for a strong public rebuke.

Pope Francis is capable of speaking with great tenderness about those far from the Church.  When discussing his brother Jesuits, even those who sent him into exile and were active obstacles to the mission of Jesus Christ and the Ignatian charism, the Holy Father speaks with nuance and delicacy. Yet when he speaks of the parish clergy, his remarks are almost always critical, inveighing against the lazy priest in his rectory, unmoved by the suffering of the afflicted in need of mercy, reduced to a functionary who has become an obstacle rather than a conduit of God’s grace.

I am not saying that pastors are perfect, that their failings should be overlooked, or that their flaws do not matter.  They are sinners, just like the folks in the pews.  But just as preachers find invectives from the pulpit are hardly effective communication or motivation, neither does constant and nitpicking criticism do all that much to help the situation.

If you are one of those who feels you have much to complain about in your pastor,
  1. Pray for him.  Take it to the Lord in prayer before you pick up the phone, send off an email, or have a whispered conversation about him in the parking lot or over coffee in the fellowship hall.  Pray for him.  Pray not specifically for his flaws but for him as a person and for God to work through him in spite of those flaws.  Pray for the flaws and for God to help him become a better pastor.  And then pray for yourself that you be given the ability of looking beyond the man's flaws and be given a forgiving heart.
  2. Do not make it worse.  Do not go to him and say "Pastor, a lot of people are talking and they all agree that you. . . "  Do not be a self-appointed representative of the malcontents.  If you have a problem, talk to him privately -- not to vent but to encourage him in whatever is his weakness or flaws as a pastor.  If you hear of people complaining, encourage them to also go to him and speak to him privately.
  3. Encourage him in what he does well.  No pastor is a complete failure.  Whatever it is that he does well, encourage him in it.  Let him know that you recognize his abilities as well as his sins and failings.  Help him figure out how to translate abilities and skills in strong areas into the tools to strengthen his weaknesses.
  4. Relieve him of some of the extraneous duties and responsibilities that soak up his time and energy and detract from his pastoral work.  Make sure the properties folks are doing their jobs so the pastor does not have to plunge the toilet, replace the light bulb, and fix whatever else is broken.  Make sure that the church officers are complementing the pastoral work by shouldering the burdens of the temporal affairs of the congregation and not just complaining about them and dumping on the clergy.  Show up when you are scheduled and serve enthusiastically in whatever roll and task assigned to you.
  5. Stop comparing.  No pastor can live up to the sainted qualities of the pastors who were there in the glory days (the pictorial wall of shame fame every congregation has of its previous clergy).  No pastor should have to be constantly compared to other pastors down the road or in the news who have excelled at this or that or who seem nearly perfect on cursory overview.  St. Paul had his problems, too.  Corinth was one of those problem congregations.
  6. Get over it.  That is the favorite counseling phrase of a classmate of mine.  Get over it does NOT mean put up and shut up.  It means stop dwelling on your discontent, your disappointment, and your frustration.  Dwelling on these things becomes just as big a problem as the flaws and failings of a mortal man who serves as your pastor.  Why is it easier to look past these things in some folks but not in others?  Maybe that is worthy of a bit of your prayerful contemplation.
  7. Sort out the big problems from the small ones.  If your pastor is a mediocre or bad preacher that is one thing.  If he preaches false doctrine or fails to preach Jesus Christ crucified, that is another.  If he needs organizational skills that is one thing.  If he refuses to visit the sick, teach the Word, and provide pastoral care to the sinner, that is another.  If it is a *biggie* then go to the Visitor (Circuit Counselor) or Bishop (District President) asking for help (not merely to complain).  If it is not a "biggie" then get down on your knees and thank the Lord and ask Him what you can do to help.
It is not a complete list or a particularly enlightened list of what you can do, but start there.  Beating up on clergy is fun for all ages (at least for a time), diverts the attention away from some of the real issues, and is a sport requiring little training.   But it has the downside of not only killing clergy, it kills your congregation, and it will kill you.  Bitterness cannot be spread without its effects coming back to haunt you.  I do not beg for pastors to coddled or for their flaws to be ignored.  I only ask that they be accorded the same grace and mercy that God has shown to us.  Maybe we would all gain from that, ya think?


John Joseph Flanagan said...

Many good points. Pastors need the support of the congregation, but also feedback from elders with respect to the direction and vision of the church. Sometimes, when a Pastor acts or speaks unwisely, criticism is deserved and essential. It is especially important that Pastors and church leaders work together, share common goals, and air differences privately, with maturity and discernment.

Anonymous said...

Loved your comments overall...however, it may be going a little far to expect your trustees to "plunge toilets and change light bulbs"!!! I mean, I realize with the limited RAM memory on a pastor's brain he doesn't have much room for common sense (at least the studious ones immersed in Scripture and theology in general), but I'd hope he could manage to figure out how to change a light bulb, or at least do so with the help of 10 other pastors working together. ;)

Janis Williams said...

In a world where pastors are CEOs (seeker driven churches), or edgy (Emergent church) Christians have forgotten that God is the one who gives us pastors. The pastor we have is the one God has chosen for us (even if we think we did the choosing). It doesn't matter if he is a little strange (we ALL are), a little obnoxious, or even aloof. He is a sinner, and so are you, and so am I. It is not the pastor's job to make the sheep love him; it is the job of the sheep to follow.

The emphasis is all wrong. It's not the pastor's job please everyone, but rather on us to trust him as the representative of Christ.

John said...

Your points, Pastor Peters, are well taken. The sheep must ever be mindful of the office of their shepherd. This old sheep asks one thing, for the sake of your flock - When you retire --- Leave!! Move!! Be far from the flock you tended!! Allow the new shepherd to carry out his call without your interference, even if he is fresh from the seminary. Do not be available for weddings, funerals, whatever. In the event you must remain in the area, ALWAYS defer to the new shepherd.

Anonymous said...

I appreciated your steps for helping a Pastor. I think it is a useful tool that can be applied to other situations as well.

ginnie said...

To John: An unfortunate "Amen." How difficult for those who have grown to love their flock and have to leave them behind for the sake of their church. I puzzle over this often.