Good Pastors, Bad Congregations

Parish ministry: It’s good I left when I did.

I was shaped as a congregational leader in the 1960’s and 70’s: heady days of steady church membership, confident budgets, and familiar ethic traditions holding everyone together. Despite the daily pain of Viet Nam, race riots, assassinations, and a rising violent drug subculture, middle class Americans believed in the power of their institutions. It was this general optimism that brought the votes to ordain women in my Lutheran tradition in 1970, to start new congregations in blossoming suburbs, and to grow the church publishing houses that served tens of thousands of congregations.

By the time I was a few years into ordained ministry, I could see that church culture had started to change; America was changing. The explosion of affordable, personal technology began to change the way we communicate, socialize, learn, do business, and understand the world. We’ve become a worldwide, 7 days a week economy. We have seen the rise of extremist religious groups around the world threaten our allies as well as our own nation, with youth from our own region joining them. At the same time, religious conservatives calling out for us to become a “Christian nation” ignore the almost daily media stories of clergy sex abuse, its cover-up and current lawsuits. 

Our culture has not stopped adapting. In a matter of a generation, church seems completely unnecessary to large numbers of people. Congregations have been slow to notice, even as theologians, seminaries and clergy have scrambled to adapt.

Our churches still use models of volunteer, non-profit, church building- and clergy-centric ways of being church, while our children hold in their hands tools that open the whole world to them. Their schools, their sports teams, and the internet, social media, e-publishing, and online gaming, are the communities that connect our children. While my children have been in worship with me their entire childhood, they do not connect with that community ritual the way I do. The prayers, hymns, creeds and sacraments that shaped me are just a small part of the huge flood of words, music, beliefs, actions and symbols their lives encounter every day. 

We as members of churches must stop behaving as if these changes will all go away. If we keep electing lay leaders to manage our congregations who have this perspective, that “we just have to keep doing what we have always done,” we will continue to have buildings that are too big for the budget, clergy who get sick or quit from the stress, and lots of meetings where people wring their hands, demanding some shiny new youth program in order to bring in younger families. We need the best, brightest, most faithful lay leaders to join their pastors in helping recreate congregational life. We who care can’t give up.

Those who live, breathe and study the changing church point to the opportunity for us all to grow into what we have always claimed to be: people set free by grace to embody grace in the world. We must somehow take the best of our institutional life – our worship, our education, and our service – and do that well when we are together, and then keep living our faith in our lives. That’s what we need our clergy to be doing; equipping us through worship, conversation, training, teaching and example to live Christian lives. Not sitting in their offices, overwhelmed by the endless phone calls and paperwork of a shrinking intuition. If you have a pastor who is a good teacher and preacher, who loves God and is constantly out in the community meeting with people, trying to grow the church in the world, love them and join them. They know what they are doing.

 

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Please Don’t Lie to Me

I know as a person and therapist that Truth with a capital T is often a very subjective target. Your truth about an experience doesn’t have to be anywhere near my version of the truth of that same thing. You may LOVE Taylor Swift as a musician, and me? Well, I’m more Bruce. We went to the same concert perhaps, but did we have the same experience? No.

But when it comes to arriving at some shared version of what is or has happened in your family or marriage, or where you went on a vacation, or what your child said to both of you when she arrived after curfew last weekend, we should be able to agree on a mutual version of facts. We won’t get the details quite straight, but we should be in the same county. Even the same neighborhood. When we can and do, we can begin to talk about what is painful, or good, or what is not working or what you may want to talk about changing.

What sets us all up for failure, however, is when one person in the conversation is lying. Omitting facts or key feelings, covering up important details, scamming the rest of us in the group. I have to tell you, I’m a pretty good judge of people, most of the time. But I get slammed rather regularly by clients who have been lying to their spouse or to their family and friends for so long they are great deceivers. We will go session after session, even month after month, and I will notice that we aren’t getting much traction for emotional or behavior change. I will hear reports from one side of funny feelings or vague worries they have, and I keep working to be optimistic and focused.

And then the phone call, or the teary confession. “I’ve been having an affair.” “I want out.” “I can’t do this anymore.” Hits me up the side of the head every time.

If you are going to spend the money and time and energy to do therapy, please know that I will begin by trusting you to tell me the truth. Maybe not the Whole Truth, and Nothing But, but some version of truth that helps me know what we are all talking about. If you want some help uncovering that secret in the rest of your life, you will need to start by trusting me to hear it. Please don’t lie to me. I can’t help you when you do.