Looking South East from Hilltop Farm, Gladstone South Australia

Fearing the Minister

Recently the Washington Post’s On Faith pages had this question for their contributors.

What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn't this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith? Read on >>>>

The page has a link to a study by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola called Non Believing Clergy.

I want to suggest On Faith asks the wrong question. It’s obvious that if you can’t subscribe to the tenets of the organisation, that you leave, sooner of later. The number of responses to the question, and the many comments by readers, indicate another, deeper question is being addressed.

Responses to On Faith’s questions are often wildly varied. Some seem incredibly wise, others surprise me in their naivety if not narrowness of vision. The current question elicits a no less variable range of responses! A Southern Baptist speaks of ‘the scandal of apostate pastors.’ For him the call of the pastor is obvious: pass on the tradition. Change nothing. Be faithful to the understanding of the Faith as defined by whoever controlled the denomination when the law was laid down. (I don’t pretend that he would think I am fairly representing him!)

He says

"Preachers Who Are Not Believers" [Dennett and LaScola’s paper] is a stunning and revealing report that lays bare a level of heresy, apostasy, and hypocrisy that staggers the mind. 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. 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?

By contrast, Ramdas Lamb shows spiritual wisdom .

However, because clergy are expected to devote their lives to studying these beliefs, the scenario may well arise that some clergy will grow in their understanding of the Divine and of life, and their beliefs may change as a consequence of their study and experience. They may then find that their views and values no longer parallel the rhetoric of their denomination. This can be a natural result of a deep and open-minded study, and such growth should be encouraged. After all, what is the role of the clergy? Is it not to devote their lives to knowing God and truth more intimately each day than those to whom they preach and minister? If the clergy are only hired to memorize and spout doctrine without any allowance for growth and change in their understanding of the Divine, then they are expected to be little more than talking mannequins. Moreover, if they are not allowed to grow in the realization, they will either stagnate or die spiritually. For those who do grow and find a separation between their evolving beliefs and the doctrine of their denomination, what are they to do?

Janet Edwards highlights the tension at the root of parish ministry.  I would be surprised if something like this tension is not present in any religious faith where the ‘clergy’ are not simply tradents. Indeed, a similar process to that she describes, is at least part of the purpose of most education beyond mere ‘how to’ technical courses.

If seminary has done its job, the difference between the pastor and the sincere faith of his or her parishioners begins the first day. It is a dilemma every ordained minister faces.

At its best, theological education expands the students' faith and knowledge. Biblical studies, church history and systematic theology are meant to challenge the assumptions the seminarians enter with so that, by building on study and prayer, the believer called to ministry is able to lead the Church with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.

This inevitably includes challenging the sincere faith of our parishioners.

Indeed, one of the common definitions of preaching is "to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable." This includes our comfortable assumptions, which members often insist are firmly rooted in the defining beliefs of a denomination or branch of Christian tradition. And it often feels like affliction for both pastor and pew to distinguish between what is central and what is not, what is faithful to Christ and what is extraneous.

Yet this is exactly what the minister is called to do. It is nothing new; this dynamic was at work among the first Christians, as the letters in the New Testament make clear.

Evans has a very clear understanding of what the defining beliefs actually of a denomination should be.

Our defining beliefs are difficult but not mysterious: they are to love God through Christ and love our neighbor. This is what Jesus insisted upon. If a pastor no longer holds to these tenets, he or she needs to stop and take a deep breath. I would want my pastor to be able to honestly face his or her doubts and work them through.

She contrasts these with the beliefs common ‘in the pews,’ and sadly, I would add, among many clergy.

But if a pastor is struggling with a conflict between his or her faithful knowledge of Scripture and the traditional assumptions of the congregation -- even when congregants hold to them tightly as defining beliefs -- then welcome to ministry. There is no getting around the fact that afflicting the comfortable is an aspect of our calling.

One of the difficult issues of leading a congregation is that it works in the areas of people’s deepest and defining beliefs. An ill judged sermon can propel a person into crisis. On the other hand, many of the listeners are already in crisis, and struggling with deep doubts. Susan Brookes Thistlethwaite responded, in part

When you stand in the pulpit and look out at the congregation, you need to know that many of those sitting in the pews are struggling with doubt. This is true every Sunday of every week of every year. Even more of those struggling with doubt are no longer in the pews, feeling it is hypocritical to come to church when they are feeling grave doubts. Acknowledge that doubt is part of the life-long journey of faith. Do so often, and provide biblical and theological resources so people will not feel alone in these struggles.

Acknowledgement of doubt, we should note, is not the same as preaching our own deep doubts.

Don't use your congregation as your spiritual advisers. Your job is to do that for them.

She is rather more honest and realistic than our Southern Baptist friend:

The same principle applies to doubts about the teachings of the church, whatever they may be. Nobody believes 100% of what their church teaches; that would make church members into robots, not people of faith with robust and active consciences….


On the other hand, when you as a pastor and teacher of a Christian denomination no longer subscribe to most of the fundamental teachings of your faith tradition, you need to work through those struggles individually with a spiritual adviser. It may be that you need to find a different spiritual home where you can affirm the majority of the church teachings.

You can’t fake faith, she says. In all of this, there seems to me to be a key issue that is not often addressed. It is why I said at the beginning of this review that the Post has asked the wrong question. Far too often, people interpret insights of faith, and sound biblical challenges to our traditional practice, as unbelief or doubt. We use the charge of unbelief as an easy way to avoid the challenge of God upon our life and practice.

We seek to have our minister/priest reinforce our traditions. I have had the distinct feeling, at times, that I was to believe the impossible for parishioners who, heart of hearts, knew they could not believe it. What the wanted was a kind of subsidiary Christ, another mediator, who would keep them comfortable and safe from the world.

This shows up in those who want simple answers to the most complex of questions.
It is apparent in the attitude which says “I am a biblical believer, but do not challenge me, my family, or my patriotism.”
It is present in those who want a set of propositions to which they can subscribe, but largely ignore in practice. If I do not provide these, then I am the unbeliever, or the one in a faith crisis, or the one abusing the congregation… whatever response can help the hysteria of the people concerned.

Spong writes in his introduction to Gretta Vosper:

Suddenly, traditionalists actually listened to what she was saying, and their small theological worlds began to shake. They struck back, in the time-honoured way of frightened people: those who cannot deal with the message always attack the messenger. (ppxiv With or Without God Gretta Vosper Harper Perennial 2009)

Healthy religion, in contrast, cannot escape the reality that Brad Hirschfield brings to the discussion

Common assumptions to the contrary, doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is a part of faith. In fact the faith journeys of virtually all great spiritual teachers included moments of genuine doubt….

Responsible religious leaders must find a balance between helping their congregants to wrestle with tough questions and offering them secure answers. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best when he remarked that, "the purpose of religion is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted".

Applied to here, that teaching translates into the demand that spiritual questions and doubt should afflict the spiritually certain, while spiritual answers and faith should offer security to the afflicted.

For my own spiritual practice there seem to be a number of approaches.

When my ‘theological world begins to shake’ I must remind myself that this has always been a positive, in the end. The shaking of belief is the opening of new horizons and understandings. It is gift. If we can say with Sowin,  who we have already quoted this week, “I knew Christianity was true – it changed my life” then there is a sense in which we can relax. If it is true, there will be a way to deal with new understandings. I find this ‘relaxing’ means I experience far less shaking! It means I do not live life on the defensive.

Faith does not mean to be sure! Faith means that, uncertainties and all, I will proceed living what I know of Christ, and learn along the way. This is a hugely freeing insight. It is an experience of Grace. When I feel the need to defend, or convert, it is almost always  pointing to my lack of trust in God, and my fears and insecurities. Attacking the source of discomfort is no answer; it simply diverts me away from what I am afraid of! It solves nothing.

The second thing I have learned in my own journey is that changes in understanding can take time. Even when, as Sowin says, “[t]here are times in our lives when the scales fall from our eyes and we see something clearly for the first time”, it can take months and years to integrate and understand the experience. I am learning to be patient. Just as the working out of our salvation is not done by holding to a fixed set of beliefs, neither is it dependent on understanding fully what our heart has felt, or by maintaining a philosophy which has no contradictions or difficulties. Life’s fullness is in living what we do know and understand.

Finally, as a pastor, there are ways to work with my congregation. To begin, if all I do is preach, and have no other contact, I will be limited to the least opportunity to stretch people’s horizon and strengthen their faith. What set me free in theological college was not the cogency of theological argument. What opened my to a new way of seeing was the compassion and integrity of my lecturers. I could trust them enough as people to risk departing from the safe prison of the fundamentalism that held me. If I had not known them as people, I would have found some way to out-argue them.

I find that if we talk together, with me being open to listening, and taking seriously the concerns of the congregation, I can say much more before people become afraid of me. This is much easier in a small congregation than preaching to three or four hundred people. Yet I have experienced a colleague talking personally to 500 of us at once, simply because of humility, respect, and the sense that we could disagree, or ask a question and not be put down.

Read on at The Fear of the Minister

Andrew Prior

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