At their courageous best, clergy lead where people aren’t asking to go, because that’s how the range of issues that concern them expands, and how a holy community gets formed.
– G. Jeffrey MacDonald
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Over the years I have been critical of pastors, probably because I have been one and still am in a form of pastoral ministry. Most of the critiques I’ve written come with one finger pointed outward while three others are directed toward myself.
I take this calling seriously, as I think most who pursue it do. For every self-promoting celebrity circus ringleader, there are hundreds of priests, rectors, ministers, and pastors who are quietly going about their business, trying their best to provide spiritual direction and soul care to people in their congregations and communities. Still, as I observe around me every day, the state of our vocation is dismal.
The era through which I’ve lived and served has provided serious and sustained obstacles to the spiritual life, ecclesial life, and pastoral life.
I came of age in small town America in mainline Protestantism — both now utterly changed and nearly unrecognizable. I had a spiritual awakening during the counter-cultural Jesus movement that caused all manner of upheaval throughout society and churches. I cut my pastoral teeth and went to seminary during the heyday of the church growth movement, in a time when an entire subculture called evangelicalism was growing strong. I saw the birth and spread of megachurches. I witnessed the politicization of conservative Christianity in reaction to several “liberation” movements, many of which were themselves rooted in socially aware progressive forms of the faith.
As for my life’s cultural context, the small towns in which I grew up are now shells of their former selves. The heartland has been decimated by sea-changes in our technologies and the economy. Multitudes have fled south to bask in sunnier climes and those who didn’t suffer long commutes and alienation in the cold big cities up north.
Television, in my opinion, has been the single greatest technological life-changer in my generation, altering our ability to personally access entertainment forever. Its impact on transforming our society into one that values individualism, personal choice, and a consumer mindset is inestimable. The ubiquitous presence of screens in our personal lives, homes, and everywhere we go (even at the gas pump! even in church!) has had a dramatic effect on us and the way we “take in” life.
Stop for a minute. I don’t want you to think that I’m merely criticizing today’s world — I for one would rather live in no other era. I’m just trying to trace, in the most general fashion, why pastoral ministry in particular has become so vapid and disrespected in our day. The tsunami of change we’ve experienced and the insufficient ways we’ve tried to keep church “relevant” have made the pastoral vocation seem like a relic that belongs in a museum.
Some, emphasizing a more robust pastoral role, have over-corrected in response. A “shepherding” movement, neo-calvinist and puritan in nature, has sought to restore robustness to the ministry. This emphasizes the pastor’s authority and “ruling” elders in an attempt to revive respect for the office. It seeks to reinstitute forms of hierarchy in the church and society (patriarchal, of course) to restore proper “biblical” order. Some of these groups have been saturated in charismatic teachings, adding “revelations” and “visions” and “miracles” to the biblical text to boost the pastor’s status as uniquely “anointed.” And of course, there are the prosperity gospel preachers, who are simply not to be questioned. They are the faith-full, the ones who hold the secrets, to whom everyone else must say “Amen.”
All these are attempts to seize back the power that has been lost. However, pervasive scandals in which abuse of power has been uncovered have turned an entire generation sour on the idea of the celebrity and/or authoritarian pastor. There are, nevertheless, a lot of people who still stream into their churches and ministries.
And frankly, a lot of what’s wrong with pastoral ministry today has as much to do with those people as it does with pastors and church leaders themselves.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a minister in the United Church of Christ, and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul, wrote a piece in the New York Times called, “Congregations Gone Wild.” In it, MacDonald laments that many clergy are suffering from burnout, not only because of their hard work and the natural demands of the vocation, but because congregational expectations in today’s church are forcing them away from their true calling and into work that they are ill-prepared to do.
The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.
As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.
He blames “consumer-driven religion” for this state of affairs. It has become so pervasive that a 2008 Pew Forum poll he quotes reports that 44% of Americans now say they have switched their religious affiliation at least once, or dropped it altogether. The shoppers hold the power in this marketplace. So much so that pastors’ job descriptions have been rewritten. Attracting people and building the organization now takes priority over spiritual direction and proclamation that is designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
MacDonald speaks from personal experience:
I have faced similar pressures myself. In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.
Pastors, in many cases he says, have become “the spiritual equivalent of concierges” — meeting every customer request for information, entertainment, and religious experience. As Eugene Peterson wrote years ago, this is a natural result when “pilgrims” forget their calling and view themselves as “tourists.” Pilgrims need strength and direction to persevere on the journey. Tourists want to know where they can get the best massage.
To be fair, there are many, many churches that are deeper than that, at least by intention. However, in my experience what they often offer, while it goes beyond a back rub, serves only as a reinforcement of commonly held beliefs and opinions that makes people feel good about having found their “tribe” (or in today’s parlance, their “brand” of choice). I’ve heard pastors toy with messages they think will be “prophetic” and “life-changing,” but more often than not it’s the same thin soup people have learned to live on, and indeed asked to be served.
The pastor’s problem is that this state of affairs doesn’t send him to his or her knees with the same desperation by which Moses grabbed hold of God on the mountain.
The people’s problem is that they really do prefer the golden calf.