Transparency note: my bias is toward pastors in these situations, mostly because that’s my vantage point. That being said, I do recognize that it is really difficult when someone comes in and starts changing things a community has held dear for centuries. I welcome all responses.
This last week I heard another example; it was the second time in as many weeks. I heard about another colleague who had received an anonymous note or had been the recipient of anonymous passive-aggressive behavior from someone at the church who was disgruntled about something. They were crestfallen.
Actually, I hear about these incidents a lot. An image of Sisyphus always comes to my mind when I hear about these incidents, because that’s exactly what it feels like to get feedback you can’t do anything with. Anonymity provides the critique without the accountability…
Quick aside: speaking from experience, anonymous feedback is the worst kind of feedback. It makes it absolutely impossible for follow-up, encourages tactlessness in messaging (after all, if no one knows it is you writing, you can be as mean as you like), and most disappointingly, it is endemic of a passive-aggression that seems to be fostered in the communities of faith. It’s not scriptural. God is highly relational in the scriptures, so don’t you think we should be, too?
My advice? Throw it in the trash. I’ve been blessed to have calls where I’ve received relatively few anonymous notes. I can say I’ve not been the victim of bullying that I’ve seen some of my colleagues endure…which is a good thing. But I wonder if I’m the exception. I hope not, but I wonder.
Let’s be honest: if you can’t sign your name to a note or a criticism, it’s not worth sending. If you can’t stand behind your statement, it’s not a conviction but a predilection.
But my above advice is just a short-term solution. I think there is a larger issue that we have to deal with in some way, and it is this: many churches simply do not want the pastors that seminaries are producing these days, and many new pastors simply do not want the pulpits available.
Let me explain myself before you send me that anonymous note…
My seminary class was full of idealists. We had, and many still have, a strong conviction that God in Christ is active in the world, and that as pastors we would connect people to God’s action and the world would start to look differently, first at the individual level (for hearts changed), and then at the communal level (for societal change), and then at a systematic level (for world change).
That’s still our vision, at least one that I cling to in big and small ways.
But I also know that, at least in some ways, social justice can be talked about as a savior in some instances…and that’s just not scriptural. It’s evidence of the Savior’s work. It’s a call of the Savior. But social justice is not Jesus; it’s easy to fall into that rabbit hole, though…especially when Jesus is largely thought to be assumed in the church’s work.
We need Jesus along with justice, people. We don’t need exclusive “social justice,” but rather “social Jesus.” We need growth in faith while also being invited to act on that faith in real, tangible, life-changing/system-changing/world-changing ways. We need that Jesus who speaks to our inner faith and discipleship growth as well as calls us out of our comfort zones to engage the world.
…”Social Jesus.” I might trademark that…
And I wonder if sometimes the seminary community doesn’t find themselves falling down that rabbit hole in much the same way university students find themselves becoming entrenched in this cause or that, siloed off into affinity groups for action. Group think can be a powerful force, even in a place of robust dialogue.
On the flip-side, faith communities can also become that siloed place where group think takes hold. Jesus has often been talked about, communicated, and felt in particular ways in a particular community, ways that people are reluctant to change. Particular patterns of life together are largely assumed to be universally understood in many communities of faith. Pastors are often expected to reinforce these particularities.
This, too, is a rabbit hole, the hole of particularity.
Traditions and community rituals form us together, but sometimes they also wall us off from new ideas or new expressions of the faith.
And so when you have two entities coming together from siloed places of formation, both with ideas of how and what they’re supposed to be doing, there is not only a gap in expectation, but a gap in understanding about what is going on. The one believes they’re called to lead a people into finding out where God is active in the world, matching the two up; the second believes they’re calling someone to reinforce for them that God is active in what they’re already doing.
Now, forgive me for the broad brush-strokes. This is certainly not true for every pastor or every faith community.
But I’m trying to figure out why I’m seeing so many of my colleagues leave the profession (or think of leaving…the stats are surprising), “take a break” from the profession, or trudge along into the headwind of anonymous notes and continual barrage of insults that I’m really not sure happens in any other profession, at least not the way it does for pastors, all the while nursing addictions, depression, self-loathing, or a callousness unhelpful in the profession.
Think about it: in what other profession, other than perhaps politics or a CEO of a non-profit, do you have the people you serve as your literal boss, even though they ask you to lead? And even in those cases just mentioned, there is a level of abstraction from the person serving to the person being served.
As one meme nicely put it: pastors are the only people who get complaints when they don’t visit people who don’t want them there in the first place.
Imagine sitting at someone’s bedside as they’re sick or dying, and that person has had a history of trying to systematically stand against everything you’ve tried to do in your ministry at a particular congregation, and you have to be their compassionate hand and voice in that moment. Yes, it’s part of what we’re called to do, but let’s not pretend there’s not just a little bit of bitterness there on either side of that situation, and quite a bit of psychological violence as some pastors must minister to people who have said horrible things about them.
Jesus does say bless the ones who curse you for my sake, but he didn’t say that you have to preside over their funeral or entertain their insults to the grave…
Added to this gap in expectation are three more glaring issues that we continue to skirt around: pastors leaving seminary today often don’t look like their predecessors in style or theology (not to mention gender or race) than even a decade ago, some churches are in the pressure-cooking process of dying already, and my generation in particular is deciding that life is too short to do work for people who dislike you (mostly because we’ve seen our parents or our mentor-pastors endure it for years, and we just won’t live like that).
Those three issues create a perfect storm for dysfunction, vocational crisis, and just really bad behavior that looks nothing like Jesus and everything like evil.
Of course there is some fragility that we must be honest about. Pastors: you need a thick(er) skin. Let me walk that statement back for a second and re-state it:
WE need a thick(er) skin.
My skin has grown thick(er) over the years, but there are still soft spots. And I still get frustrated, especially when complaints pile one on top of the other with this work. Reading and re-reading Friedman’s work and the Psalms has helped with this.
But the Office requires it; demands it. And the back-biting and dysfunction in communities of faith is not new, nor does it just affect certain flavors of churches. Just look at the issues that Charles Stanley had when trying to assume the senior pulpit at highly conservative First Baptist in Atlanta alongside the issues that progressive Riverside Church in New York City has had finding a stable presence for their pulpit. Or, just look at Paul’s advice to that church in Corinth who just couldn’t get their act together. It’s not new.
I think what is new is that many from my generation of pastors just aren’t feeling the Sisyphean work is worth the pain, and that the situation is literally one of life and death for some churches who see continual decline and some pastors who find themselves trying to fit (or not) into a role they feel they never signed up for.
Pastor: ask for good behavior overtly. Expect it. And if you’re a Senior or Lead Pastor, it has to come from the top down. I cannot tell you how many colleagues have left calls because they’ve been bullied by congregation members and the Lead Pastor hasn’t had the stomach to do something about it.
But in a broader sense, I am seeing a really disturbing trend. My fellow clergy are entering parishes that simply do not want their ministry, despite calling them to the pulpit. They want something else. Sometimes they say that they want something that looks less like 2016 and more like 1956, or even 1986 (impossible). Sometimes they say that they want someone who looks more like the pastor they had as a child than one of their grandchildren (even though their grandchild is exactly the person they want in the pew). Sometimes they just want to get rid of the pastor, a “return to sender” to the Bishop…that’s just not how it works.
And I’m seeing fellow pastors who just don’t want the congregations they’re being called to, either. Sometimes because they don’t want to/can’t offer the ministry desired of them from the people. Sometimes because they don’t identify with anyone in their congregation in theology or age, and loneliness catches up with them. Sometimes because their creativity is stifled (though from the pew it can feel like things are changing for the sake of change), and sometimes because they just can’t make their zeal in seminary translate into a zeal for the people they’re called to serve.
And we say things like, “the system is broken” when it comes to matching seminary graduates and congregations. And that is true; it is broken. But that’s not the whole story. It’s not all about bad matches.
It’s also about bad expectations on all sides. It’s about a changing church and a changing world that we all give lip-service to, but aren’t quite sure how to actually be in yet.
A greater part of the narrative, greater than any of us might want to admit, is that the pews don’t look like the pulpit anymore and we’re all having a hard time figuring out how to do ministry together because of that.
The church today is a church different than a decade ago, and certainly a century ago. And pastors are asked not only to lead congregations to faith, but also be marketing experts, small non-profit managers, funeral directors, and miracle workers, all without rocking the boat.
And our seminaries just aren’t training pastors to be all of those things.
And the result of that is often passive-aggression and the unhealthy tension of bad behavior and burn out and splitting churches and, well, you get it.
Is my hypothesis right? Do churches just not want the pastors seminaries are producing, and pastors the churches that are offered? Are expectations just so radically different on either side?
None of this is helping the body of Christ, by the way. And this kind of stuff (really, would YOU join a church full of such strife?) makes many into reluctant Christians…if they stay at all.
We have to figure this out. Together.