Thursday, August 21, 2008

Clergy Abuse

This blog is not about what you think it’s about. That’s how effective has been the recent demonization and vilification of clergy. It never occurs to most people that the phrase “clergy abuse” looks two ways: both abuse by clergy and abuse of clergy. I’m not going to talk about the former; everybody else already is. I’m going to talk about the latter; nobody is. I’m going to talk about it because hardly a week goes by that I don’t get an email from an anguished Christian telling me that their church has just fired their pastor without cause. That is, the pastor didn’t steal, commit immorality, or otherwise violate his vows or disgrace his calling. Quite the contrary, in most cases (not all) he was a good pastor, faithfully preaching the Gospel, tending the flock, and leading the church as best he could to be the Body of Christ. It was just that he ran afoul of a power player or players who didn’t feel that he was “meeting their needs,” or they didn't like his "leadership style," or some other bogus pretext for getting rid of him. That’s not surprising in the corporate world where shareholders’ expectations determine the CEO’s perceived employee effectiveness and security, but in the church of Jesus Christ, that’s obscene…period.

One of the things I keep saying is that the primary problem for the church of Jesus Christ today is not whether the church is to be “in” the world or “out” of the world as the champions of “cultural relevancy” (read "cultural captivity") allege, but rather that there is far too much “of the world” in the church! When the world does all the talking and the church does all the listening, it could hardly have been otherwise.

Let me be blunt. Yes, there is abuse by clergy, and clergy who have spent their lifetimes preparing for and practicing ministry are the most grieved by it and critical of it. This is not “we defend our own.” But abuse of clergy is growing and is at least as disruptive and destructive of the life and mission of the church as is abuse by clergy.

Why don’t you hear about that? Several reasons really. The secular media loves “dirty laundry,” and clergy abuse is the dirtiest. In our “guilt by association” mentality – and given the media’s pervasive anti-Christian bias – clergy abuse is a convenient way to discredit Christianity as a whole. And so they “pile on” every time someone betrays their vows. But the church itself is not without fault here, especially what I euphemistically call “Church Inc.” The church as denomination, institution, organization, business is, alas, like every other business, driven by the bottom line, and the denomination knows which side its bread is buttered on. Simply put, clergy don’t support the denominational structures, churches do. And so there’s little incentive (actually there’s considerable disincentive) to confront the church with unchristian, inappropriate, and pagan behavior. It’s far easier to demonize the pastor, vindicate the church, help them pick a new one as quickly as possible, and “move on” all the while protecting the uninterrupted flow of revenue from the church to the denomination. Sound harsh? When was the last time you heard a denominational type say to a church: “What you did here was wrong, unbiblical, unchristian, and unworthy of the church of Jesus Christ, and before you pick a new pastor and perpetuate a pathology that will destroy you, you need to repent, reform, and recommit yourselves to being the Body of Christ”?

Make no mistake about it. The Bible, and Christian faith, takes the vocational vows seriously – both for the pastor and for the church, and neither violates them with impunity. Just as for the pastor, there are consequences, both corporate and congregational, for the church that violates its vows and betrays its calling. There is a haunting image in the Book of Revelation that ought to bring every member of every church thinking about abusing clergy up short. John pictures the church universal as a collection of seven golden lampstands in heaven (a menora, actually), each with an angel watching over it, trimming its wick, filling the oil, tending the flame that says the church is alive and well. Walking among the lampstands, inspecting them, watching them, weighing them, is the Son of Man Whose they are and Whom they serve. The Letters to the Seven Churches are actually letters to the churches’ guardian angels, warning them that the congregation on earth for which their lampstand stands must make the needed corrections and remember who they are and Whose they are, else, the Son of Man says, I will come among you and move your lampstand out of its place!

It was not always so. My predecessor at First Baptist Church of Raleigh was the late Dr. John M. Lewis. A pastor-scholar, he led that great congregation with compassion and courage for over a quarter of a century through some of the most tumultuous times we Baptists have known. During the race riots of the 60’s John preached prophetically about the Gospel’s call to love without discrimination. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very popular message in that Southern capital city in those days. Eventually, Baptists being Baptists, the church determined to decide the issue “democratically;” translate that, they voted. John lost. The Gospel lost. But the church didn’t. To their credit that congregation, unlike many today, did not fire John for preaching prophetically; they did not marginalize him; they did not demonize him or vilify him (at least not everybody!). They just continued to listen to the Gospel John preached every week, and like seeds lying fallow for years until the right combination of sun and soil and water brings them to life, the Gospel grew and that congregation remembered who they were and Whose they were and became the Body of Christ John always believed them to be.

And somewhere, a lampstand burns brightly.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Stacy,
I could agree more with this blog. I have seen so many good pastors leave not necessarily being fired but being forced out.Breaks my heart to see the body treat its own this way. thank you for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

A church should be exemplary, far above the world standards, in the treatment and care of church leaders. The outside world should look at us a "pecular people", not the same activities and reactions and bickering as everyone else.
My prayer is for Pastors and church leaders that are truly called by God, to demonstrate perseverence and boldness of the Gospel message, with a Christ-like heart. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

stephy said...


Anonymous said...

Twice now in my short experience as a Baptist (since 2003), the "regular" members of the church don't find out what's REALLY going on [to oust the pastor] until it's too late to mount any kind of effort to stop it or, indeed, if we even could or should. It is inconceivable to me that such people could be acting either mistakenly or deliberately and still refer to themselves as good Christians. They have done it "for the good of the church," as they say. Is "for the good of the church" the true reason or just the scapegoat that is trotted out when the question is asked by a "regular" member? How do some people get it in their minds that the pastor is NOT acting in the best interest of God's people? How can such people expect to teach others about Jesus Christ when they are not themselves striving to be more Christ-like?