A couple years ago a young ordained minister in California told me that he couldn’t wait to become pastor of his own parish. He told me he had lots of ideas about pastoral ministry and he was anxious to implement them “to get the church back on track.” The more he talked, and the more I listened, the more I realized that he wanted to push people back into a 1950s religiosity built on male chauvinism, silent obedience to the clergy, a medieval morality, and an unquestioning dogmatic rigidity. This young fellow would resonate completely with Raymond Burke, the US Roman Catholic cardinal – wrapped up gloriously in his fancy lace and flowing red dress – who complained that the church is no longer “manly” enough. He reiterated last week that women and girls are the source of the current crisis in the church: all part of a “radical feminism which has assaulted the church and society since the 1960s.” “Apart from the priest,” the cardinal stressed, “the sanctuary has become full of women. The activities in the parish and even the liturgy have been influenced by women and have become so feminine in many places that men do not want to get involved.” (How ironic then that the first Christians to proclaim that Jesus had been raised from the dead were women……)
Since we will soon be in Lent 2016, here a seven-point reflection for all in pastoral ministry of one form or another – some questions for personal and possibly group reflection:
(1) The good old days: Do we want to be anchored in the past or engaged with today and preparing for tomorrow? As an old man and a retired professor of history, I have a pretty good understanding of the past. I have no desire to live like back then.
We also have to ask what one means by the past. Cardinal Burke is a Renaissance era ecclesiastic in dress, manners, and modes of thought. Some of my friends and former colleagues, on the other hand, are locked in the 1960s: repeating again, and again all their old complaints about the church but demonstrating in fact that they have become as out-of-date as the contemporary hierarchs they complain about. So where am I today in this discussion? Am I dealing with contemporary reality or still enjoying fighting yesterday’s windmills?
(2) The City of God and the Human City: I have no desire to get into a professional argument about the pros and cons of Augustinian theology. (Not today at least.) There is a problem, however, when we fail to understand that the Human City — in which we live — is the place where we encounter and live with the living God. It is sometimes tempting perhaps but neither healthy nor authentically Christian to run away from contemporary life, condemn it as “heathen” or “secularized,” and ignore the men and women wrapped up or crushed under a broad array of human concerns, problems, and agonies. The world is not our enemy. It is where we live with our brothers and sisters. INCARNATION means God-become-one-with-us. And what is God-become-one-with-us asking me to do this day?
(3) Building temples: My old friend (who died much too young) Ken Untener, formerly RC Bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, often reminded people that building-temples can be very seductive but has very little to do with Christian ministry and witness. If we follow the example of Jesus, he said, we cease being temple-builders and become traveling pilgrims pitching their tents: following and living with God’s people wherever their lives take them. Am I often too wrapped up in building and maintaining my own temples?
(4) Finding scapegoats: It is easy to find scapegoats in today’s church. I agree that problematic and abusive people need to be sanctioned and removed. (Some need to be sent to a federal prison.) On the other hand, if we spend most of our energy only on finding and heaping abuse on our scapegoats, we risk becoming alarm bells incapable of being change agents. By only focusing on the sawdust in another’s eyes we risk ignoring the planks in our own. We need to be critical but we also need to pick up and carry our own crosses. We need to take charge. Who is my scapegoat and how am I going to make constructive change?
(5) Having the truth: No one has all the truth. No theology, whether progressive or conservative, has all the truth. No single religious tradition has all the truth. We are all truth-seekers and we need each other as we move along in our truth-seeking-journeys. Arrogance and self-righteousness have no place in the lives of the truth-seekers. Collaboration, humility, and compassion are the key virtues for all seeking the truth. Have I become arrogant about my own positions? Am I really willing to listen and collaborate with others?
(6) Exercising authority: Authority in the church is greatly misunderstood and greatly abused. Authority comes from Latin auctor which means the capability to influence people. It is connected with agency and encouragement. Jesus provided the model for Christian authority: service and the work of the Spirit. Authority in the church should be practiced as the ministry to motivate and transform people, based on trusting relationships. Authority is horizontal not vertical. We all have authority; but how do we exercise it? Jesus says in the Gospels that whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Servant ministry = Servant leadership.
(7) Protecting the church: Certainly the greatest reason given by church leaders for their allowing unethical and unchristian behavior is that they are or were “protecting the church” or “safeguarding the name of the church.” Gay people who get married are fired from church positions to protect the name of the church. Clergy who abuse children are allowed to continue their immoral behavior but in a different parish, in a different state, or are sent to “minister” in foreign country: to protect the good name of the church. It goes on and on. At all levels. A church that condones and promotes immoral behavior has no name worth defending.
The English word “Lent” is a shortened form of an Old English word meaning “spring.” In the Dutch language “lente” still means “spring.” Wherever there is winter in the institutional church, spring can and will return, because the church is first of all not an institution but a community of faith: women and men alive with the reality of God-with-us.