Monday, November 9, 2020

An inconvenient truth. . .

From Rome to St. Louis the customary way to deal with errant clergy is to laicize them, or, in the case of Lutherans, to remove them from the roster.  In some cases these sometime pastors and priests deserve nothing less than removal.  We all know the horror stories of the predator priests and abusing ministers who have used their good offices for harm.  Yet at the same time, laicization is not strictly punishment or else being laity would itself be something less than good.  Who in their right minds would say that?  Of course, they cannot continue to serve and cannot bear the authority once entrusted to them.  But, too often, this is the end of it all.  You strip the faculties and office and remove from the roster and then set them free.  But is that all we can and should do?  It cannot be simply a question of what is good or best for the Church or for the people these men once served but we must also ask if we are doing our best for those who once served us in Christ's name?

We live in an age of accusation.  Every pastor knows this and so does everyone in the pew.  Social media has only encouraged the unsocial practice of finding fault, complaining, whining, and insulting.  It might be somewhat justified if the rationale were doctrine or truth but it usually is about nothing more than preference, like, taste, and feeling.  No, I am not addressing the horrid and terrible things that pastors and priests have done to young boys and girls or to adults -- using their office and authority for lurid purpose and leaving a wake of wound, pain, and terror that follows them the rest of their lives.  But that is not the only complaint, is it?  More often than not, pastors and priests are moved around and removed for less serious infractions.  More often than not, congregations (or at least some within those congregations) are agitating against a pastor because of personality issues, because they do not think the pastor is doing enough to grow the congregation, because he is holding truth to the faith of creed, confession, and catechism, or because he has made choices they did not like.  Though pastors and priests are supposed to be protected and removed only for cause, we all know that bishops and district presidents often call for a resignation because it is easier to deal with one individual than with a group or whole congregation.  And then the problem goes away.  Or does it?

It is no wonder that we have trouble recruiting men for the ministry.  We say one thing about this office but then act as if a pastor were a mere hireling, someone to be engaged and dismissed at will.  Even worse, someone to blame when things do not go well or when doctrine conflicts with our own opinions and desires.  Every pastor and priest and every congregant knows exactly what I am talking about.  The days when the minister stood on a pedestal are long gone, when the pastor was the most highly educated individual in the congregation and people deferred to his opinion, and when the matter was settled because the pastor said so.  Congregations are not much in danger of tyrants (at least those in Lutheranism) but they are in great danger of being without pastors and without pastors of noble character and good preparation.  Unless we figure out what to do with the way we deal with such conflicts, pastors will continue to be scapegoats, seminaries will be empty, and the numbers of those who once were pastors will continue to swell.

As a Church we dare not forget that they are not priests or pastors merely until they become inconvenient or troublesome or make a mistake or misspeak.  We need to reconsider how we use resignations to solve pastoral problems that may not only be pastoral.  We need to consider anew what is our duty and responsibility to those who once held what we all agree (at least on paper) is the highest office.  That may require a sea change in the way we deal with things locally and in districts and dioceses and as bishops and district presidents.  Those who are to administer the ecclesiastical supervision so essential to the life of the Church bear a heavy responsibility and may be beleaguered and besieged by the weight of it all.  However, they have more duties than to simply help the congregation find a tolerable way to get rid of their pastors so that these same men can be ignored and forgotten once they are out of the picture.

I am not one of those who carry this responsibility but I know many -- too many -- pastors who have been told by those who do that the better part of valor is to resign and the to see them linger in this terrible limbo without hope of anything more.  I know that pastors make mistakes.  I make more than more, I am sure!  But in more than 40 years of ministry I have known many who left in anger or who continue to voice bitterness and complaint even though the rest of the congregation does not share their complaint or their concern.  Like any pastor, I have had people talk to me in hushed voices about the many who are upset with me or the direction of the congregation or this practice or that and are about to take their pocketbook and leave.  Like every pastor I have received anonymous comments, scribbled notes without signatures, or second hand complaints.  And, like them, I have struggled to know what to do with those whose who are upset but are nameless and faceless.  To many of them I owe an apology and some of them owe me one but no one should be keeping score.  What is at stake is too great.

Things are not getting better for these situations.  In fact, they are getting worse.  We want to blame seminaries for letting the bad apples get through.  We want to blame the pastors but there are congregations who have long lists of men who have served them briefly and left for one reason or another and the problems continue.  We want to blame congregations yet some pastors seem to take their troubles with them from congregation to congregation.  We want to be blame somebody but blame seldom contributes much to repairing what has gone wrong.  When you face a problem, blame does not solve it (as our recent national election shows!).  And the issues upon which we dismiss a pastor or tear up a congregation had better have some substance to them and not be a matter of feelings (bruised, hurt, or not).  In the end, I would urge us to slow down a bit.  Yes, there are cases where we must act quickly and decisively to protect people but for the rest of them, we need to calm down, dial down the rhetoric, and stop adding fuel to the fires that are burning down some congregations and pastors.

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