Why You Will Join the Wrong Church

6776-church_old_winter.630w.tnAlain de Botton’s 2016 New Yorker opinion piece, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” remains one of that magazine’s most read articles. And for good reason.

When I first read it back in 2017, after it was named the “most read article of the year,” I remember feeling both convicted and relieved. He names all the conventional reasons we marry (or fail to marry) in these days: we’re drawn together clumsily though, in our minds, through fate that reason cannot comprehend; we claim to want happiness but really we want familiarity, and we think this person will scratch that itch; and we really just want all the good feels we have in the present moment to continue.  Nothing will quite do that by putting a ring on it…or so we tell ourselves.

We all read this and laugh.  But it’s a tragic laugh.  Because it’s true, and we’ve all fallen in the trap at some point, even if we’ve never married, because we subconsciously buy into all of these ideas and adopt or abandon LTR’s (long-term relationships) before and after the ring because of how they do or do not meet these criteria.

The brilliance of the piece is not in that it points a finger at marriage and laughs.  It, in fact, does no such thing.

Instead I would call it an “apocalyptic piece,” in that it pulls back the veil of marriage and LTR’s to reveal them for the broken things they are.

Broken things are not unusable or useless, by the way.  But they are broken.

As I was reading the article I was thinking, “Huh. A related article could totally be something like, ‘Why You Will Join the Wrong Church.'” These same factors are at play in the subconscious in looking for faith communities, and seeking out spiritual leaders.

-We stumble into a church or a tradition and feel it is fate for us to be there because, in that moment, everything feels to good/right/just what we need.

-We claim to want love, but what we really want is the feels, especially the same old feels for those of us who have been doing this religion thing for a while.  It has to feel like church…or, conversely, feel like the idea of church that we’ve had in our mind but have never experienced feels like.

-We want permanence.  Grounding.  Which is why when pastors leave, hymns change, buildings change, carpets change, people leave, people arrive…you name it…we’re all too ready to opt out.

Alain de Botton suggests that we view marriage not like a romance novel, but rather like a tragedy, and often a comedic one.  As he puts it:

“We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”

In the same way, I’d suggest that we view joining a church like a comedic, and often tragic, tale of star-crossed lovers encountering one another and making it work.

Because here’s the truth about both marriage and finding a faith community: the active agents are not finished products. In many ways even the idea of “products” is not quite correct.  All the active agents in these relationships are unfinished and broken and, you’ll find quite soon, that you’re broken in different places.

See: you thought you were broken in complementary places.  And sometimes that might be the case.  But in most situations, you’re going to have to force the fit (at best), and at worst just hug the cactus that is the truth that you’re both broken in different places and aren’t going to get fixed.

At least not in a way that you want.

You’re going to join the wrong church, or have the wrong pastor, because our ideas of what makes a “right one” are romantic (and, perhaps, fantasy or fiction if we’re naming genres).

Marriage is an experiment where two people try to love each other into being better versions of themselves.  It is not about meeting needs (though there is that), and it certainly is not about meeting expectations.

It is not about not feeling lonely anymore.  It is not about constantly scratching your spiritual itch.  And it is certainly not about singing your favorite songs, sitting in your favorite pew, having your children experience the exact same things you did as a child, or even fostering that totally different experience that you’ve always longed for, and finally this church has it.

You will continue to be lonely (as we all are).  You will be disappointed in the lack of spiritual depth (or the different spirituality). You will be sad because it’s all changed or, conversely, all the same but just in different wrapping.

You will disappoint one another. Hurt one another. Be indifferent when you should care, and care too much about things that really don’t matter.

And you’re going to think to yourself “It shouldn’t feel like this!”

But it does. And will.  It shouldn’t be abusive, mind you.  But it will always end up being disappointing. On many fronts.

A faith community isn’t about any of that, anyway, when you pull back the veil.

It is about loving each other into a different way of being, by God.

Which sounds pretty Godly, if you ask me.

And, of course, there are totally legitimate reasons to leave your church, especially if you find that the Jesus they talk about doesn’t love as widely as you know God to love. Abandon any ship that isn’t good news for everyone.

But that’s rarer than we think.

More often than not the reason we’re dissatisfied is because, well, we just joined the wrong church.

Which is totally normal.

The Impending Clergy Shortage…Coming From Left Field

EmExitRumors of an impending clergy shortage have been circulating for years in the mainline church.  The aging pastors who had put off retirement because the economy took a nosedive are finally choosing to head out to pasture, as most of that mess has rebounded.

But the more I look at the Christian landscape, and not just in the mainline, the more I see a different clergy exit looming and, yes, in process.

Largely from left field.

Many younger clergy are “giving it up for Lent,” as a colleague of mine once said, describing why he left the ministry after just five years.

Thousands of dollars in schooling and investment, while certainly not wasted, are not being used as originally intended.

The church really should take a hard look at why this is, and will continue, happening.  And look at it with eyes wide open.

Many who are leaving the ministry are doing so because the churches that they are prepared to lead, and the Jesus they fell in love with, don’t live in the same place. They’re finding so many churches too occupied with propping up the past instead of embracing the future.  They’re finding the Jesus of radical love and action to be hard-hearted and bound by fear.

They love the people in so many ways, but are having a hard time finding ways to let the people love themselves or others without spiraling into self-preservation and sniping.  The Jesus who said, “Those who lose their lives will gain it” seems to not have been talking about whole congregations, because they are not usually willing to lose their past to gain their future.

Some who are leaving the ministry are finding their particular faith doesn’t quite align with the faith in the pews.  Too esoteric.  Too mystical.  Too interested in justice, and not what the pews consider “Bible-based” (which, ironically, is the charge leveled at Jesus by the Pharisees who continually wanted to know what authority [scripture or tradition back-up] he was using to say and do the things he did).

Some who are leaving the ministry are finding the debt crushing.  Church attendance, and therefore giving, is at 1920’s levels.  Full-time calls at wages that will put food on the table and pay for seminary debt are disappearing.  Health insurance costs keep rising.  The business sector promises stability that the church can’t offer anymore.

If the church wants a learned clergy, it’s going to have to figure out this conundrum.

And some are leaving because they’re getting eaten up, and life is just too short to put up with that for too long.  We follow a Jesus who said that we’re to give our life away, but not in the way that disregards life itself. You should hear the stories coming from clergy about what is being said to and about them from the “Beloved Kingdom.”   The culture shift in the world that the institution is resisting is creating a difficult environment in many corners.  Anxiety and anger fill and fuel more than hope and service do in many places.  It’s not true everywhere, but in enough places to snuff out budding vocations.

Couple this with the fact that seminary enrollment is at unsustainable lows, we’ve really got to do some soul searching, church.

And the solution is only partly about encouraging people to go to seminary.  That won’t do the trick.  That’s like patching a road that needs to be replaced: it won’t work, at least not for long.

I think there is a clergy shortage coming from two directions.

We need to take an honest look at how it all operates.  Because we’re pumping out non-traditional clergy these days for a church that continues to want to operate in a very traditional way.

And this just isn’t going to work in the long run.

The Church of the Future is Full of Good Feels. Only.

kham-pha-nhung-cong-dung-tuyet-voi-cua-vitaminDA friend and colleague recently posted this article about Zoe Church and their mass baptism on the streets of LA.

The location is no doubt double-edged: they probably couldn’t host those baptisms in the night club their church meets in.  Blood is allowed on the dance floor…but not water (and if you don’t get that reference, check your Michael Jackson albums).

But no doubt at work was the optics, too.  LA loves to roll out and walk red carpets, and what better way to design a baptismal service than to entice the cell-phone paparazzi?

The whole article, while well written, smacks of gimmick and glam.

And trust me, I don’t say this without some self-conviction. I’m not far from receiving similar accusations.  We in the mainline get accused of being into gimmick and glam when we suggest a credit-card kiosk for offerings (because who carries cash anymore?), logo-label coffee mugs, or (gasp) suggest a coffee station in the Narthex.

I’ve been called arrogant and artificial a few times (this week).

I figure most pastors my age aren’t far from such accusations.  When you lead, people will call you arrogant, even if you don’t see yourself that way. When you try new things people will accuse you of being self-serving and gimmicky, even when that’s not your intention.

Doing things differently or with a new set of eyes and ears and minds is not gimmicky.

What is gimmicky?

Leveraging Sunday to purely provide the shot of feel-good that humans say they want. Like a drug, we’re addicted to the feel-goods.  And we’ll come back for it week after week, but never feel any better, ultimately.  It will work for fooling yourself, but won’t work for what you want from it.

Read the article.

See the ending where he notes that, at the end of the day, he’s “here to preach good news. To give humanity hope…When I come to church, you know what I need? I need encouragement.”

But here’s the rub: his idea of good news, of hope, has more to do with consumerism than it does with Christ.  It has more to do with individual dreams than with Jesus.

His good news is good news for the celebrity who stars in each of our individual plays, not for the world at the center of God’s drama.

Narcissism and the current Christian culture go hand in hand.  The Jesus who you invite into your heart becomes your indentured servant in this story, granting wishes and giving you unending personal encouragement as you deal with being an adult…

That’s the story, right?

Right now in Austin, people are being targeted by a serial bomber.  How is your personal Jesus going to help them?

Right now in Syria little boys and girls are being bombed. Weekly.  It’s far from you, but do you think Jesus has a thought about it?  Or is Jesus only about encouraging you?

This is the problem with the church of the future.  Pretty soon the self-help shelves will meld with the Christian Lit shelves in the book stores (which will soon all be electronic, anyway, save for the few who have a cult following), as Jesus becomes more and more the personal talisman of the believer.

Hope is not the assurance that in the end you’ll get what you want.  Hope is the assurance that, no matter how it ends, you won’t be left high and dry by a God who cares deeply about you, your story, but also everyone else’s story, and deeply cares about how you will intersect and interact with their story.

You will be encouraged, because you won’t need the drug of the feel good every week when the true story of the wandering prophet from Galilee is seen.

You will have hope because you’ll see that the whole world can be moved and changed, not just your world.

And when the pastor in the article mentions he wants to avoid politics…well, what are we to do with church and politics?

Friend, we’re about to come up on Palm Sunday.  If you want to talk about a political march, about resistance theater done in public, read this story about a Galilean who rides on an ass instead of a white horse to snub his nose at Caesar (who would enter cities on a white horse), effectively calling Caesar the ass in the play.

You might be able to take politics out of church, but you can’t take it out of the Bible.

Is this the future of the church, the “church of the good feels”? Yes.

And no.

Because it’s the current reality.

I’m not against good feels in church.  But I am against an uncritical faith. I am against stripping the Bible of it’s power to change the world because you want to make it about solely changing your life.  I am against public theater that serves the self over the whole community.

The church is a place to know and be known.  It is a place to receive comfort and be made uncomfortable.  It is a place where your wounds are healed and the wounds of the world revealed (and, often, the ways you’ve caused such wounds whether you wanted to or not).  And it’s a place where you learn that the Good News is both about you but also about everyone else, and that should be jarring to you.

The church is about the feels, but they aren’t always what the world would call “good.”

But they are good in the same way we call “Good Friday” good…

The church of the good feels is alive and well, but I wouldn’t call it “good.”  And I wouldn’t go there.

But I would eat an acai bowl with you.

Because I like acai…not because I think you’d think I’m cool if I did.

Ye (Me?) of Lots of Beliefs but Little Faith…

BeleifBrian McLaren, in his book The Great Spiritual Migration, has this phrase that he used early on in the piece that caught me as being very true.  He said that some people have “many beliefs, but little faith.” (p.45)

Beliefs, he suggests, are opinions or judgments about which someone is fully persuaded. While they may not be verifiable in any reliable way, they are held as un-waveringly true by their adherents.

Faith, on the other hand, doesn’t flow forth from certitude, but rather from the conviction that risking for the sake of love is better than not.  And faith, in McLaren’s definition (and in mine) is always connected with deep, abiding love.

So, according to McLaren, an individual might have a ton of beliefs, these things they are so certain about, but have little faith.  Their propositions are not rooted in a deep, abiding love that is much bigger than their human understanding of the notion.

They can spout off the Apostle’s Creed, for instance, but have no experience of the God they profess.

They can assert supposedly moral dictums, but have no understanding of the generous space from which morality flows.

They often want to impose their beliefs on others, ignoring how such coercion violates the love they want to claim they have.

Faith, on the other hand, holds the tension of not knowing, not needing to know, and not needing everyone to agree with them, well.  Faith leans into the great mysteries of God and holds loosely to the small dogmas that we’ve created about God.

Faith has no need to coerce, but rather coaxes through intentional dialogue and open invitation.

Faith doesn’t just spout off any Apostle’s Creed, but knows intimately the creative, salvific, and sustaining properties of God’s presence because they’ve made it past the life/death, resurrection/redemption, sin/righteousness dualisms that religious history has tried to make us choose between.

The life of faith lives the creed, it doesn’t just believe things about the creed.

Beliefs are so strong, like concrete.

But they crack over time, making them hard to maintain, hard to navigate, just…hard.

Faith, though, is like soil. Tillable, changeable, able to adapt and move with the uneven landscape of growth and advancing years.

And many will find faith challenging their beliefs, growing up through the cracks.  Sometimes this invasion of faith can be worrisome.  It’s hard for faith to coexist with beliefs sometimes…faith is so unpredictable, and beliefs are so rigid.

Usually a good dose of fear will take care of the faith growing through the cracks of belief. Fear that too much overgrowth will create too much upheaval and then, well, where would we be?

Lots of organized religion has centered itself around beliefs.  Just take a look at church websites and click on their “What We Believe” page.  You’ll find it all there.

But what about faith?

Lots of people, whether they consider themselves religious or not, have a lot of beliefs.

But what about faith?

So…

Do you have beliefs?  Or do you have faith?

 

The Call to a Certain Amount of Loneliness

loneliness_coverMy post on how your pastor is not your friend has called forth lots of emotions from people.

Some have rightly identified that loneliness is a problem for pastors, and they’re not wrong about that.  I don’t think anyone entering the ministry with eyes wide open will dispute the fact that the call to ministry is, in some ways, a call to embrace a certain amount of loneliness.

By this I don’t mean that depression is to go untreated.  This is a real problem for many service professions, pastors included.  We must take actions to counteract this terrible reality.

And by this I don’t mean that pastors should not have friends or cannot have friends, just that deep, personal friendships should rarely (if ever) be cultivated within the congregation.

I think the solution to combating loneliness within this particular profession is two-fold:

1. Pastors need to find ways to cultivate healthy relationships outside of the parish.

This is difficult to do.  Let’s be honest, many people see the church and the church community as part of their service work in the world.  Choir practice, helping at service opportunities, even sitting on the church board or on the evangelism team are opportunities for them to give to something that is not work or family related.

Pastors are usually not free with their time or energy to invest in something else.  Their focus is on making this particular thing work, and it usually requires the church to be not only their job but also their hobby/service to the world.

It is tough.  If we make it impossible for our pastor to find outside friendships because we expect them to be at everything, especially things happening on Saturdays when the rest of the professional world is largely “off,” then we’re setting them up for burn out and churn out.

Pastors have to have space and time to cultivate relationships outside of the parish.  The parish is not enough for them…will not be enough for them.

2. With all of the above being said, pastors also have to be honest about their role in the lives of people: they are the container of both promise and problem, the dead-end for words that can’t be spoken in other places and to other people, the scapegoat for troubled people’s troubles and the savior for other people desperately seeking something to save them in the world (and this last one is, of course, not a good thing…but it is a reality nonetheless).

In short: the way the pastor is seen in the profession, used in the profession, and abused in the profession will, naturally, lead to a certain amount of loneliness…and unless this is somehow embraced by them it will gnaw at the pastor and eat them up.

And we need not embrace it like a cross to bear, or as something that sets us apart or special or as an object of pity.  Please…as if anyone should seek pity.  And let me be clear: we need not embrace abuse.  Guard your heart and your mind and, yes, your relationships against the wayward person who sees you as the convenient dumping ground for all of their own insecurities and psycho-social issues.

That’s not what I mean.

What I mean is that it should be embraced kind of like your ordination vows, even the difficult ones, are embraced.  In fact, one of the vows we take in the Lutheran Church is not to give illusory hope to others.  Perhaps we, ourselves, need to take that to heart, too.

Illusory hope in this work would be to expect that this profession will provide you with friends.  Your friendship needs will not be met here, even if you seek it out…it will disappoint you.

Embrace it like you embrace the shadow part of your life: you swing punches at it even though you know it’ll always be there.

Wide-eyed, without apology, let us say that a certain amount of loneliness is just a part of this whole gig.

A pastor must do what they must to make sure that it doesn’t take more of a share than it’s supposed to.

A Follow-Up: Don’t Pastors Need Friends?

handsThere has been quite a bit of chatter about my last blog post, so I thought I’d write a follow-up, an addendum, to clarify a bit of what I’m *not* saying.

I’m not saying that pastors are somehow “above” friendship.

I’m not saying that pastors don’t need friends.

And I’m not saying that pastors should be aloof or unfriendly.

In therapy circles we talk about the many different harbors we have in life, places where we take shelter.

What harbors do you have?  Here are some I’ve identified:

We have the harbor of our family of origin, those who raised us and (often) love us with an unconditional type of love.

We have the harbor of our close friends, a family of choice if you will, who provide the kind of filial love that we need to be fully actualized humans.

Some of us have the harbor of partners or spouses, a harbor that checks many different boxes on the needs chart.

We have the harbor of our closest friends, those intimate friendships where bonds are tighter than most any wind that can come along…most any wind.

And then we have the harbor of community, a place to belong and be loved in a communal way.

Now, just about every human needs almost all of these harbors to be fully actualized.  There are exceptions, of course.  Not everyone is called to be partnered/married.  And not everyone needs the harbor of a community past their family.  But, by and large, I think most humans need these particular harbors to be fully human.

Pastors included, of course.

But, depending on the issue that comes up in life, I would claim that not all of these harbors are *safe* harbors.  If you’re having trouble in your marriage, you shouldn’t go to your parents.  It’s not a safe harbor.  They are not unbiased.  You may receive the kind of love and comfort you desire, but it may not be the kind of love that will lead you to a resolution or an objective viewpoint.

When a pastor is looking for a safe harbor, a person to confide in, I would readily claim that a parishioner is not the port of call.  And can never be.

Categorically, can never be.  The relationship won’t work that way.

And this is what I mean when I say that your pastor is not your friend, at least not in the conventional sense of what deep friendship means: they can never confide in you.  Your relationship doesn’t provide them with a safe harbor.  There is always some distance necessary.

Most of the push back (most, not all) on my article has come from people in congregations who certainly feel their pastor is their friend.  In many ways, yes, they are right…in many senses of the word friend, they might in fact be “friendly.”

But if you cornered your pastor about whether or not they could confide in you, if you asked them clearly about the nature of your relationship, I would bet that they would be honest and admit that you’re not a safe harbor.

Because if you want your pastor to be a safe harbor, it can’t be any other way.

And look, I have lots of examples where this has messed people up, messed churches up, messed pastors up. I’ve encountered many people quite cold to their current pastor because they felt so close, so “friends” with the predecessor, even a sense of loyalty if you will, that it causes trouble, it causes deep confusion, some real hurt, and plenty of pain on all sides.

It is not a safe harbor in the end.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t have deep conversations, honest conversations, deep affection, and real love between pastors and parishioners.  That is all absolutely there.

But if the pastor is getting their friendship needs met by parishioners, they do so at the peril of the office, and the peril of that person continuing in the congregation after they leave the office.

In fact, I wonder what leads more pastors to depression: pastors realizing they can’t seek a safe harbor in their parishioners, or pastors who seek parishioners as safe harbors but then realize it didn’t work; it wasn’t safe?

Pastors need friends.  They need safe harbors.  And congregants need pastors who know that they cannot be it.

 

Why Your Pastor is Actually Not Your Friend

*Disclaimer.*

dog collarI’m not wanting to be rude or put anyone off by this statement.  And this doesn’t come out of any recent personal issue or encounter.  And this is certainly not some sort of passive-aggressive way to get a point across to someone I’m reluctant to talk to in person.  That would just be bad behavior.

But this is a consistent point of confusion for many, and so I think it deserves a little blog article, and discussion if you wish.

*End Disclaimer*

Your pastor is not your friend.

It’s hard, because they feel like they are.

And this is not a hard and fast rule, by the way.  Some pastors do make a friend in the congregation, someone they can absolutely be themselves with.

But that needs to be rare.  It may not always be rare…and then things get fuzzy…but I believe it *needs* to be rare, for you and for them.

Because here’s the truth: you’re one day going to have to tell them something that you can’t tell a friend.  Something about yourself, a deep truth, that maybe only your best friend might know, but they’re not going to give you what you need about the topic because they’re too enmeshed in your friendship.

In that case you need a pastor.  You need some abstraction.  You need someone close enough to you to care, someone with some sort of authority, but also someone far enough away from you that they’re not going to hold it as the primary thing they know about you.

Pastors are trained in the art of not hearing what we hear.

People sometimes worry that a pastor’s view of them will be tainted by something they learn or know, but I assure you, we learn and know so much about everyone that we’ve come to the conclusion that everyone is just as messed up as everyone else, ourselves included, so no one is any different.  The CEO of the huge corporation with boats and houses is just as dissatisfied as the person living paycheck to paycheck, they’re just unhinged at a different point in their personhood…

By and large you need your pastor to be a pastor, not a friend, and your pastor is not your friend if they’re doing it well.

Plus, your pastor can never confide in you the way one confides in a friend.

They can’t.

I sit stone-faced in situations where people talk about one another.  My opinion in that situation may not be neutral, but it has to appear to be, because I probably have to be that person’s pastor, no matter my opinion of them.

Your pastor is not your friend.

There are certain exceptions, of course: childhood friendships, close bonds, ways we can compartmentalize our relationships that work in very specific situations.

But it’s not the norm. It can’t be the norm.  If it becomes the norm your pastor is no longer able to be your pastor.

Plus, if you and your pastor are friends, then your pastor can never leave.  As if leaving a parish isn’t hard enough, the idea of leaving not only parishioners but also friends makes it impossible. Co-dependent. Bad for vocation and bad for any avocations you now share.

This doesn’t mean you don’t kid around with your pastor. It doesn’t mean that you don’t drop by to say hi, that you don’t do things for one another that friends do.  It doesn’t mean that you don’t even sometimes take trips together, play sports, attend birthday parties, and have a beer or two…many of these things that friends do with one another.

And it certainly doesn’t meant that you don’t share many of the same qualities you would with friends.  Pastors can open up, to a point.  Pastors can kid around, to a point.  But everything is “to a point” and that point is exactly where the collar hits what you need from them…

In every situation, they are “pastor”…which is just a very different way of being than just “friend.”

And finally, one thing we have to be really clear-eyed about: friendships end.  They do.  Friends fight and squabble, hurt each other’s feelings, get jealous, and get enmeshed.  Pastors who become friends run the risk of ruining the pastoral relationship when the friendship dissolves.

This is just plain bad for the office.  It’s a bad risk to take.  It’s a risk, I think, not worth taking.

We’re not the only profession that suffers from this fuzziness.

One of my very best friends is a doctor.  I casually ask him for medical advice sometimes, but if push came to shove he’d refer me to someone else for serious diagnosis…we’re too close for him to be my doctor.  My best friend is a financial adviser. I ask him for financial advice sometimes, but he can’t manage my money.  We’re too close for that.

It’s hard to explain I guess, and hard to accept in some instances, but I really haven’t found any other way to put it:

Your pastor is your pastor, not a friend.