Thursday, February 2, 2006
Interpreting and defending the hierarchy
Today I want to address a subject I have never written in this column about before. But I’ll bet many other ministers have felt some of the same conflicts in their work with local churches. I refer to the way that the individual pastor has to interpret (and often defend) actions of higher authorities of the denomination to members in the local parish, and unless one belongs to a tradition where the local church is completely independent, I am sure that most ministers and congregations have felt what I am feeling to some degree or another.
Often representing the higher authority of the church to the people in the pew seems a thankless task, for inevitably, the higher authorities of a church deal with issues or make pronouncements in a way that seems remote from the average Christian. It is the same disconnect that one finds between say, the issues that come before the United Nations and the local board of aldermen.
Higher governing bodies of the church seem to make their pious and sweeping pronouncements over all sorts of issues without taking the feelings and situations of average individuals into account. Why is this? They are trying to speak for the whole denomination. Pastors, on the other hand, are concerned with private individuals, and we know all too well the particular and personal situations that color and mitigate the absolute and moralistic pronouncements that come down from on high.
So the preacher feels caught in the middle, and it often stirs strong resentments on the part of parish clergy. Right now it would be hard for me to find a parish minister who does not feel very put-upon by the officialdom of his or her denomination.
Conservative and liberal ministers both feel caught. We recognize that the national church has a duty to speak out, yet we wonder if it is really wise for the churches to take a stand on each and every issue that involves our national life — abortion, family values, church-state relations, sexuality, health care, taxes, immigration and all the rest. There is only so much that small congregations can take in.
Of course local congregations have a responsibility toward social righteousness and ethical concern, and we do not always address these things as well as we should. But when we do, we come to it in a very different way. I wish ecclesiastical leaders were more aware of this and that they would try and be more helpful to local pastors in this regard.
By contrast, when ministers become too involved in these global matters I wonder how they have time to be such activists. For me, after I tend to all the pastoral visiting, sermon preparation, and all the details of tending to and overseeing the work of our little church, there is very little time to enter into all the issues of the “culture wars.” I will leave it to wiser heads than mine.
Sadly, many Christians seem to believe at some level that division is the only way to address a really great religious issue (or even in too many cases a small one). More than that, Southerners tend to accept secession is an ancient and honorable way of resolving differences. To the extent that this feeling is engrained, I would counsel denominational leaders therefore to be careful how many hot-button issues they decide to take on.
Humility and modesty ought to be the first laws of religious leadership. This does not mean that one never acts out of deep religious passion, but it does mean that when one does, it will be clear that one is motivated solely by allegiance to a higher power and never by human ideology or the desire for aggrandizement of any kind.
I often reflect on how different preaching was when I served as an assistant pastor in a very, very large congregation. It was thrilling to address such great audiences, but there was also a great freedom in the act. I never had to take the slightest concern for how I worded things might strike an individual listener. So what if somebody got their feelings hurt or took things the wrong way? When there were thousands of members the individual just did not matter all that much. But how different it is in a small church! There sermons have to be worded with the feelings and reactions of people one knows intimately.
Of course the gospel’s challenges and rebukes still have to be brought home, but one must do this in a much more nuanced and compassionate spirit, for the members also know much more about the foibles and failings of their pastor. Small churches are much more healthy as ways for Christians to relate. They diminish the possibilities for hypocrisy and pretension that accompany all religious effort.
I cannot solve the problems of the world, nor can I take responsibility for explaining or accounting the efforts of all those who do. All I can do is work hard as a pastor in the vineyard where God has set me to labor.
Once my physician was checking my blood pressure and found it to be up just a bit. He smiled and asked me if I were trying to “make all those good Holly Springs Presbyterians behave.” Of course he was joking, but the remark hit me squarely between the eyes. Internally I was feeling responsible to do just that. My doctor went on to say that the only person behavior I could control was myself, and of course that is a full time job. It was the best medical advice I have ever received.
I figure that if I worry about just the things I can personally make a difference in, I will have enough to do, and that this labor will bring me to the end of each day tired, but perhaps having done some good. There is an old prayer that asks for strength to change the things I can, to accept the things I cannot, and pleads for wisdom to know the difference. I try to pray it often, for it is the best way I know to stay on track as a minister and as a Christian.
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