Thinking Out Loud

November 4, 2010

So Why Exactly Does Scandal Hit Pastors and Religious Leaders?

Mark Barger Elliott tries to deal with this question — “How can we clergy explain such egregious transgressions?”  this week on the CNN Belief Blog.   He feels there are two culprits, “the work and the person.”

Take the first one:

As a pastor I identify with the pitfalls of “the work.” Fifteen years ago I took vows “to love God, my neighbor, and to serve the people of God with energy, intelligence and imagination.”

Today, however, my job description reads like the director of a mid-size non-profit. A million dollar budget needs to be raised and a monthly payroll of 12 employees met. To tread the churning waters of shrinking resources and demands for excellent programs, I take classes on strategic planning as often as classes on the Bible.

As to the second issue:

How do we explain the moral transgressions of a profession charged to teach morality?

In my years as a pastor I have witnessed marriage vows made and betrayed. I have visited those in prison and those trapped in a prison they have made for themselves. I’ve prayed with the lost and the found, watched fortunes flow and ebb.

“Broken” is a word that describes many of the people I have been privileged to walk alongside as a pastor.

I have also spent a great deal of time with other clergy; from preaching stars who soak up acclaim for their oratory gifts to pastors in inner-city churches barely making ends meet.

The solution to the first problem seems more simple:

One option is to intentionally separate the clergy from the church’s financial matters. Teaching people about God’s love while shaking a fundraiser’s tin cup seems to ultimately undermine one’s credibility. People suspect a bait and switch.

I wish he had been given more space to flesh this out.    He identifies a tension here, but it’s just one, and pastors are stretched physically and emotionally in so many different directions.  Is the point financial responsibility specifically, or the inconsistencies of the job?

The second solution is not so easily dealt with:

Clergy typically fall into one of two camps.

Those who, in the face of the brokenness that surrounds them, come to identify their own brokenness and in humility choose to “live with the questions,” to borrow the poet Rilke’s phrase. This person is reluctant to offer quick answers to the hard questions of life.

The other camp is clergy who choose instead to offer confident solutions to life’s struggles. The clergy I have watched transgress their ordination vows typically fall into the second camp. The temptation is to shift from speaking about God to speaking for God. When that line blurs in a pastor’s mind, all bets are off.

On this point, I wish he’d had space to discuss the “personality” as well as the “person.”   I’ve heard it said that the very personality traits which cause someone to want to be in the pulpit are the very personality traits that leave them vulnerable to temptation.   (My personal belief is that anyone in business leadership, or in a position where they are “upfront” before a crowd of people is equally prone to the same conditions.)   The second paragraph above is certainly an interesting insight into how that might play out.

To me, this is the question all of us — laity and church staff — need to be asking each time we hear a story about another fallen leader.   And “hearing” is key, because we tend to focus here in North American on Canadian and American stories, but Elliott points out there are similar stories in Europe that we’re not always being told.

I also wish he’d had time to broaden out the ending.  While pastors have made vows to serve God vocationally, each one of us has promised to honor God’s name and serve Him with devotion.   The moral collapse of a Christian leader may make headlines, but when it happens to any one of us, it is not any less significant to God.

To read the full piece, in context, which I encourage you to do, click here.

Mark Barger Elliott is Senior Pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and author of Creative Styles of Preaching.

Comments left at the original article come from the widest possible readership at CNN and should be read with discernment.

“Collapse in the Christian life is rarely caused by a blowout, but is usually the result of a slow leak. ” ~source unknown

May 9, 2010

Pastors Who Are Non-Believers

This item by Erin Roach appeared as part of the “Culture Digest” collection for April 30th at Baptist Press.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A study by Tufts University has called attention to the presence of Protestant pastors who do not believe what they preach, something the authors describe as a nearly “invisible phenomenon” of “unbelieving clergy.”

Ambiguity regarding who is a believer in Jesus and who is a nonbeliever, the report said, is a result of the pluralism that has been fostered by many religious leaders for at least a century.

“God is many different things to different people, and since we can’t know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all,” the authors wrote in summarizing the pluralistic view.

Rather than relying on statistical evidence to point to a conclusion, the study employs anecdotal stories of five ministers whose identities have been obscured. Even the authors admit they couldn’t draw any reliable generalizations from such a small sample of clergy, but what they found, they said, does deserve a closer look.

One pastor, a Methodist, said he no longer believes that God exists, but his church members do not know that he is an atheist. Most of them, he said, don’t even believe Jesus literally rose from the dead or literally was born of a virgin.

Another pastor, from the United Church of Christ, said he didn’t even believe in the doctrinal content of the Christian faith at the beginning of his ministry, but he continues to preach as if he believes because it’s the way of life he knows.

A Presbyterian pastor in the study said he remains in ministry largely for financial reasons and acknowledged that if he were to make known that he rejects most tenets of the Christian faith he would obliterate his “ability to earn a living this way.”

A Church of Christ pastor explained how he continues to lead his church despite losing all theological confidence.

“Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I see myself as taking on the role of a believer in a worship service, and performing,” the pastor said.

He describes himself as an atheistic agnostic and said he still needs the ministerial job and no longer believes hypocrisy is wrong.

A Southern Baptist pastor included in the study said he was attracted to Christianity as a religion of love and now has become an atheist. If someone would offer him $200,000, he said, he’d leave the ministry right away.

“‘Preachers Who Are Not Believers’ is a stunning and revealing report that lays bare a level of heresy, apostasy and hypocrisy that staggers the mind,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote on his blog in March.

“In 1739, Gilbert Tennett preached his famous sermon, ‘On the Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.’ In that sermon, Tennett described unbelieving pastors as a curse upon the church. They prey upon the faith and the faithful. ‘These caterpillars labor to devour every green thing.’

“If they will not remove themselves from the ministry, they must be removed. If they lack the integrity to resign their pulpits, the churches must muster the integrity to eject them,” Mohler wrote at albertmohler.com. “If they will not ‘out’ themselves, it is the duty of faithful Christians to ‘out’ them. The caterpillars are hard at work. Will it take a report from an atheist to awaken the church to the danger?”



As for the cartoon, I traced a use of it back to an appearance in this blog post about doubt from a Christian perspective, but thought if you’re feeling really brave, you should consider this recent blog post about seminary education from an atheist perspective where you’ll also see the same cartoon.

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