Public and Pastoral Ministry: Honest, Passionate and Theologically Informed Leadership

I want to tease out two aspects of the Lillian Daniel article controversy that I am especially interested in: first, the issue of clergy sarcasm and open disapproval and second (but closely related), the issue of religious leadership in pastoral ministry.

I happen to think that clergy passive-aggression and two-facedness is a serious problem for the church (and all institutionalized religion), and that is why I celebrate Lillian Daniel for writing a piece that says, “Yea, ministers are sarcastic and dismissive at times.” The mask comes off. Brava. Let’s see more of this. I no more want to have a “You’re Okay, I’m Okay” minister than I want a schoolteacher who praises all of my work as being “A” quality.

I am convinced that many clergy feel obligated to act sweet and patient at all times because they have a tremendous amount invested in maintaining that persona, not because it serves God or the church. It has a lot to do with conforming to popular images of clergy, living into expectations instilled at a young age, and it has to do with needing to be liked and admired and thought Christ-like.

Love does not always look like the warm mother in an apron, folks. Sometimes it looks like Jesus losing his temper and berating his disciples. Sometimes it looks like a mother lion swatting a cub away from danger with a big paw. The cub might tumble and get scraped, but that’s how cubs learn.

Do we not believe that souls are at stake here? Do we not feel that the question of how one orders their spiritual life is of utmost urgency to the individual and to humanity? Do we not know by now that narcissism and entitlement are the besetting sins of middle class American culture (the locus of most Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ pastoral ministries), and that we are called to challenge them?

My colleague Andrea Lerner asked today, in respect to this question, “Isn’t ministry about meeting people where they are?” Of course it is, I responded. But ministry is about loving people enough to tell them that you think where they are isn’t where they should stay. For me, this means even challenging the person on the airplane who wants to regale me with tales of their path to self-made religion and enlightenment.

I no more respect a minister who encourages the self-created religion of vague spirituality than I would respect a professor who tells a student, “Really, you could learn this stuff just as well if you read a few of these books at home on your own. Or none of them, because you can figure this out yourself.” What an abdication of personal integrity and vocational commitment!

The simple fact is, it is only when I am too tired and don’t care enough to say something that I just nod and smile. When I do have some pastoral energy to give is when I engage with the person, asking questions, disagreeing, making a case for the Church, witnessing to what it has meant for my own life. I am not passive-aggressive. I am aggressive! I do not want to hold snide feelings to myself to unload over drinks with friends later that night: I feel that that sort of behavior is poisonous and I see enough of it at clergy gatherings to make me heartsick for the rest of my life. Love, for me, means paying attention, responding honestly and risking my own likeability factor in the service of my religious commitments. (It helps that I have a good sense of humor and am naturally warm, roly-poly and nurturing. I can get in a lot of pointed questions and challenging remarks that a more imposing figure would get away with. We must know our instrument of communication: mine is non-threatening with a big smile and a Bette Midler-esque spirit of irreverence and fun. I use that to my advantage in broaching difficult subjects.)

Liberal religionists like the UUs and the UCCs (and other mainline Protestants) too narrowly define pastoral ministry and pastoral presence as the warm and fuzzy part of ministry, perpetually encouraging, endlessly patient, and frankly indulgent. Meanwhile, we bring a fiery passion to social justice ministry, somehow thinking that these two aspects of ministry are separate and distinct. They are not. They are the same and they both require courage, challenge and religious leadership and guidance.

I am highly suspicious of ministers who do not hesitate to lead, guide and advocate for justice but who abdicate responsibility for guiding individual souls in their pastoral ministry. To me, they are hollow. I want to ask, “Who are you, really? Why are you so clear on what everyone outside your congregation ought to believe and do, and yet so absent and mellow in your own pastoral responsibility to teach religion, to guide, and to challenge people you meet in private chambers?” I do not understand these ministers. I am left to conclude that they very likely do not have enough religious depth, knowledge of tradition and clear theological understanding of their own, and therefore cannot guide others to deeper faith. The emperor has no clothes. The minister has no religion, just a list of political convictions.

I believe that honest expression of anger and frustration — even very occasionally expressed through sarcasm — is healthier for the liberal church than the very limited emotional repertoire currently accepted in the popoular image of “religious person” (and especially clergy).

I believe that contemporary liberal religious leaders must integrate their understanding of pastoral and public ministry so that their theological and spiritual commitments are not passionately expressed in one setting and repressed in another.

That is all. Thanks for listening.




4 Replies to “Public and Pastoral Ministry: Honest, Passionate and Theologically Informed Leadership”

  1. Wonderful follow up to a stellar post yesterday. Thanks for taking the time to spell it out so clearly. I loved Lillian’s article (especially the long version) but realize from many comments all over the place that people reacted to the “tone” and “sarcasm” and weren’t able, perhaps, to hear what she was really saying (and to whom she was saying it). Thank you for bringing the point back to the place about people’s souls and how the We’re All OK! stance is not pastoral. Great teaching here. Thanks.

  2. I hear Daniel reminding us that clergy have normal human reactions – like feeling perturbed because you’ve heard a somewhat similar story before; feeling tired because you’re working to remain open to receive this person and the newness in their version of this all-too-familiar story; or weary because being a lightning rod takes a toll over time. The issue for me isn’t the reaction itself – its what we do with it. Do we use it to reinforce our image of being superior to SBNRs? To chide someone who might really need our pastoral care? Or can we notice our reactions, let them go, and discern the message they might have for *us*?

    Of all people clergy ought to be the role models of how to express disagreement with someone, and to do so in a loving and caring way. In my college teaching life, I’ve often told my students that I care about them enough to challenge — not coddle — them. That failing to do what’s needed to promotoe someone’s growth is tantamount to not caring. In my work as an intern minister, I also see gentle challenge as love — and honesty.

    Thanks, PB and responders for a stimulating pas-de-deux on Daniels’ article.

  3. I think you might be missing a point in Daniel’s article. She faults the spiritual not religous with this: There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself. . This rejection is a good deal more than rejection of a Pastor. Daniels is criticizing those who reject the institutions of religion. That means not just the Pastor, but the whole structure of the community, which is a good deal more than the Pastor.

    Rev Daniels’ Glen Ellyn, Illinois a community I pass through every day, twice a day, coming to a from work, and given the traffic, it’s not a place given to people sitting still. It’s also a notch or two above “middle class” by anyone’s measure. I’d be hard pressed to condem these cizens as naval gazers or people stuck in comfort because while it’s clearly the good life lead there, the people seem far from idle. God my very well be encountered in this work-a-day world too. Revelation just as likely there as at Church. I suspect the spiritual not religous crowd would say God more likely to be encountered outside Church as in. That’s a bit of a challange we (as Church going UU’s) ought to address. It’s a challange to our institutions and not just our pastors and clergy (who sometimes seem obliviouis to the institution themselves).

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