Checking my messages on an Internet news group, I came across the saddest note. Writing to a group concerned about abuse of clergy, a clergyman recounted comments made to him the previous Sunday after church.
Two blasted his sermon, one made a snide comment, one jabbed him for leaving a wedding early, and one said he should”watch his back”because a recent visiting priest made him look inadequate.
Clergy hear many such comments _ and worse. So do the lay leaders who expose themselves to abuse by running religious education programs, chairing events, planning new facilities and raising money. Many can imagine this pastor’s knotted stomach and bewilderment.
Abuse of leaders is rampant, of course. Ask anyone who has served on a school board or run for office what it’s like to be a public servant.
But abuse of religious leaders springs from a unique sickness, which is not only making their lives miserable _ causing burnout, early retirements and declining seminary enrollments _ but is holding congregations back. It’s not just rudeness, to which we could respond by offering instruction in basic civility. It is warfare between self and God.
Many have decided to trivialize God (thereby disempowering him) by making God’s faith communities a consumer transaction, in which some are shoppers (and therefore always right) and a few are providers (and therefore not to be trusted, as in”caveat emptor.”) They come to church or synagogue to get their self-defined needs met. And they fight, as only a righteously indignant shopper can fight, for their”right”to satisfaction.
While congregations need to be responsive to members, that doesn’t excuse or exalt a consumer mentality. It is an illusion to think that God wants us to be happy shoppers. God’s desire for us is far deeper. We have been”called in righteousness”not to be ecclesiastical shoppers or to keep ecclesiastical shopkeepers in line, but to be a”covenant to the people, a light to the nations,”to liberate the captives.
Faith communities aren’t in business to please people, but to transform them. And that, of course, is the problem. We want the benefits of faith without the cost. We want accepting, friendly communities; we want assurances that we are loved and forgiven; we want to be fed. But we resist the demands.
We resist, I think, because we sense deep down that the cost of faith is more than financial contributions or active participation. We would like faith to be that easy. I think that’s why we give so much to churches, hoping it will be enough. But the cost of faith is loss of control. The cost of faith is loss of life as we have known it. The cost of faith is repentance.
So we insist upon being pleased. That puts us in charge, not God, and it puts the burden on service providers to change their behavior. We take surveys, monitor rumor mills, harvest discontent, and use lay leaders as an indirect way to corral the clerics. We withhold our financial support, change congregations when displeased, write angry letters, and figure it’s our right to use any public setting for complaining.
Tough luck for churches, some might say. But this trivialization of God carries over into everything we do. Education, for example, ceases to be about learning and focuses instead on pleasing parents (demonstrable results), pleasing children (entertaining) and pleasing future employers (useful skills.) Neighborhood ceases to be about community, mutual support and shared responsibilities, and focuses instead on status and resale value. Democratic politics ceases to be about shared decision-making, and focuses instead on getting one’s ears tickled by soothing poll-scanners. Marriage ceases to be about sacrifice and forming a new creation, and focuses instead on getting one’s needs met.
We like to say these are leadership problems, and if we just had wiser, better trained, more team-centered and inclusive leaders, all would be well. Frankly, I don’t think leaders are the problem. We are.
When we stop behaving like consumers and spoiled children, our religious congregations will get healthier. And so will our schools, our politics and our homes.
By: Tom Ehrich,……….an Episcopal priest in Winston-Salem, N.C,