It’s been a long time since Mr. Show with Bob and David has been on HBO, but there are a few sketches that come to mind even now. Especially when I read about the PC(USA) in the news. In particular, "The Fairsley Difference."
I grew up in the midst of the Prosperity Gospel movement, and it’s left its mark, I’m afraid. I believed that God would bless (meaning financially bless) those who served the Almighty. It wasn’t only service, but God’s favor also came with financial reward.
In the blog-o-sphere, pastors like to complain. Mainly, because this is a good space for it. Where else can church leaders vent? Also, it's good to strategize here. But I also love to remember just how good I've got it. I know some of these sound trite. I know they sound silly. But they are the things that make me really happy and fulfiled.
Yesterday, I heard some dismal new student recruitment statistics for a Presbyterian (USA) seminary. They weren't the first ones that I've heard. Admissions are low. Really low. Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, considering we are in the midst of a recession. God’s call on my life to go to seminary became loud and clear when I was in a horrible job.
Those who know me well know that I have a teenaged daughter who speaks most fluently in the language of books. We've always enjoyed stories together, so these days I spend a great deal of time reading teen and YA literature. She reads much faster than I do, and there’s no way to keep up (especially since I need to nurture my own reading along the way).
I worry that our iconoclast history was more of an act of conquest than it was an undertaking with enduring theological gumption. We know the many rituals of conquest: force military might, imprison the charismatic leaders, scatter the intellectual base, rape the women, enslave the children, and defile the sacred images. Now as Protestant people, the trajectory of the treatment of our images has twisted into something terrible.
Churchidom is worried about the lack of men. Because, after 2000 of almost entirely patriarchal rule, women are a threat. And now that women have begun to pastor a tiny portion of Protestant churches, the clergy has become a “pink collar” profession (like librarians, nurses and other underpaid professionals with a lot of education and skills).
As church leaders, we have our ears, hearts, and words. We pray that God will use them. But we also have limitations--time, energy, and ability. And even though we feel helpless, like we can never do enough, sometimes being the person who takes the picture, who tells the story is our most important job.
You’re asking small churches to give money to seminaries, some of which have massive endowments. Do you know how many secretaries some of these seminaries have? Their secretaries have secretaries. And they keep adding vice presidents. The weirdest thing about the addition of all the management? The student body keeps dwindling. Many of these seminaries have residential student bodies that are the same size of our small church.
Referring to age or style just isn’t helpful, any more than referring to a woman as “the one with the great legs” would be in a professional setting. It diminishes people. We have different identifiers for Christian authors—reformed, social-gospel, neo-orthodox, liberal, evangelical, progressive, social justice, etc. But none of them reflect Rauschenbush’s clothing or Barth’s haircut.
Our intellectual architecture is being dismantled. But it is also being reassembled. I use the architecture metaphor because I believe that what we are creating will be in place for many decades to come.
When we work with others or with ourselves, we cannot let the diagnosis define us, as humans. We need to resist the temptation to identify one another by our sickness or defects--even though the act gives us a certain power over one another. Looking beyond the label to the context forces us to think theologically about people.
“You have to grow tougher skin, Carol,” my colleague told me when I invited him to lunch and asked for his advice on a church matter. I inhaled deeply. That was the same response I heard repeatedly for the first ten years of my pastorate. Whenever I got frustrated, well-meaning friends and colleagues would tell me that I needed to miraculously grow some sort of Teflon epidermis.
As the sun rose, I drove twenty-seven miles to my office at the little church in the Cajun swamps. Even though visitors to the office were rare, I showed up on time each day. Determined on my journey, I felt that familiar wave as I crossed the bayou. I eased my car to the gravelly side of the road. I stood, stretched. Breathed deeply.
I grew up along the beaches of Florida and couldn’t get enough of that pounding on the sand. I swam against the tide and rolled with the force of the water. I loved the feeling of getting caught up in the turmoil of the waves until I didn’t know which way was up.